The 8 Elements of Contagious Ideas

In the research I’ve been doing over the past few years into why ideas spread, I’ve found a few common characteristics of contagious ideas across mediums and centuries. The list below contains those characteristics, and while its still an evolving set, the vast majority of successful memes I’ve studied have had some (or all) of them present. I’ve also tried to include takeaways, tactics you, as a marketer can use to apply these concepts to your viral campaigns.

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The first group of people exposed to your meme are your seeds. They’ll form the initial “generation” and the size and influence of this group will determine how many people will see your content in the second generation. Academic Duncan Watts’ research indicates (somewhat expectedly) that seeding to as many people as possible is the best way to ensure your content is seen by the most people. His experiment involved creating viral messages that were launched initially through large banner ad buys and compared the results to campaigns that were not seeded in this way. He found that the big seed banners performed much better.

Its easy and obvious to say that you should work to build your reach–your Twitter followers, your blog subscribers–but its harder to do than to prescribe. Sure, we can (and should) be working to get more followers, but another tactic is to target especially influential people to seed your campaigns to. Influential users are people who share content more frequently and with more people than the average user, and my research has shown that savvy social media users do exactly that. So even if your old-school niche doesn’t seem like a hotbed of social media activity, those individuals in your industry who are using social media are, by definition, influential.

Especially in less early adopter categories, find those users who are using the bleeding edge social media technologies in that space and seed your ideas to them.


There’s very little chance that I’m going to email a link to a friend if its a story that everyone’s heard, new information is what gets shared. Francis Heylighen’s work on applied memetics specifically lists distinctiveness as a criteria required for an idea to be contagious, and research into attention and advertising shows that unique ads tend to elicit the highest attention-grabbing rates. My research has shown that news is the type of content shared most often online, and what is news, but literally new, novel information? Humans are being bombarded with accelerating torrents of information every waking moment and we’re getting pretty good at filtering out the boring stuff.

“Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”


The flip side of the novelty coin is the simple fact that if someone doesn’t understand an idea, they’re not very likely to pass it on. Even the newest information has to be easy to grasp. The Homeric poems were authored and recited for centuries before they were ever recorded in written word. These contagious epics were constructed with cliched phrases and mnemonic devices that made it easy for the average listener to understand, remember and re-tell.

The best way to incorporate both novelty and intuitiveness into a single piece of content is to use the “New/Old” tactic. Take an old piece of content and fit it into a new structure–think the newest Romeo and Juliet movie with Leonardo DeCaprio–or put some new idea into an old form–think steampunk, fantasy laser guns made out steam age era technology.

“advertisements that were both original and familiar attracted the largest amount of attention to the advertised brand ” -Breaking Through the Clutter: Benefits of Advertisement Originality and Familiarity for Brand Attention and Memory Rik Pieters, Luk Warlop and Michel Wedel 2002


Ever been to a party so loud its hard to listen to the person standing two feet in front of you? But the instant someone across the room says your name your ears perk up. Its called selective attention. Our senses take in far more information that we could ever hope to process, so our minds have sophisticated filtering mechanisms that strain out only the most important bits. When I ask people why they share content online, the number one motivation cited is “relevance”. People say things like “this story seemed right up my friend’s alley” or “this article reminded me of such-and-such.”

Ideas that seem personalized to us get our attention and when we see something that appears to have been created with one of our friends in mind, we’re very likely to send it to them. Use a tactic like combined relevance to make large groups of people believe you made something just for them.


Humans evolved to share information, its our biggest natural advantage. If we found a good foraging spot for the best berries and we shared that information with our tribe, we’d eat better that night. If we learned to make fire and taught our family how, or if we taught our children how to be the best blacksmiths in town we’d have a better life and our genes would thrive.

“…the more valuable the sentiment or activity the members exchange with one another, the greater the average frequency of interaction of the members…” –Social Behavior as Exchange, George C. Homans

Social exchange theory is the idea that most human interactions are an exchange of value, proverbs are a great example of this in action. The more useful you find the information I share with you, the more you’ll value our relationship and the more useful information you’ll share back with me. Teach your readers how to make fire or money, make it easy for them teach their friends and they’ll gladly spread your content for you.

Social Cascades

“One means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct… We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it” -Robert Cialdini

Social proof is a well trodden path of persuasion. When I know that other people have liked a piece of content, or believe in an idea, I’m more likely to accept it as well. But on the web, what happens next is most interesting and useful to marketers.

Imagine a line of people walking down a street. They’re all hungry and have never eaten in this part of town. They see two restaurants: A and B, and need to pick one to eat at. The first person in line knows nothing about either place and makes a random choice to line up outside of restaurant A. The second person in line, sees the first person outside of A, and figures the first person probably knows something, so she lines up behind him. The third person sees the growing line and makes the same choice, because if two other people are already lined up this definitely must be the best place to eat. Each person inline sees an even longer line, and hence a stronger signal about which restaurant to eat at. This is known in economic and game theory as an information cascade.

Think of the last email chain letter you got. It probably had hundreds of forwarded names and addresses on it. Many of us are immune to chain letters now, but lots aren’t and the cascade of social proof those forward headers supply is a big reason why. Or imagine you’re seeing a new blog for the first time, and its got a widget showing that it has tens of thousands of RSS subscribers, how does that change your opinion of the site’s value? Or an individual blog post, with a TweetMeme badge showing that 5,000 other people have ReTweeted it. Or a post with a thousand comments.

Social media allows us to broadcast our choices and opinions in public and create social cascades, take advantage of this and showcase your burgeoning social cascades.

Information Voids

During WWII the organization that would eventually become the CIA (it was called the OSS at the time) teamed up with its British counterpart MI6 and a researcher named Robert Knapp. Knapp had been doing academic work on how rumors spread on college campuses and the two intelligence agencies wanted to study how to weaponize rumors as a psychological force to use against the axis powers. One of the most interesting things they found was that the rumors tended to spread most contagiously in the presence of information voids.

If everyone in a village hears a loud boom, and there are no authoritative reasons for it, bucket fulls of reasons will popup and spread around as to what, exactly had happened. The recent Tiger Woods incident spread like wildfire because he made no official statements at first. Rumors about Apple’s next products are contagious because the company is notoriously tight lipped about them.

As a marketer you should find information voids and fill them.


Perhaps the most complex and successful memes in human history have been religions, and one of the most important elements of the contagiousness of religions ideas is the fact that nearly everyone of them values the duty of believers to spread the word.

A 1983 article titled “On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures” the author, Douglas R. Hofstadter recounts a letter he was sent in response to a previous piece. This letter describes viral sentences beginning with the rudimentary: “It is your duty to convince others that this is true.” The letter then explores a more subtle variation based on a simple structure: “The villain is wronging the victim.” If the listener believes this statement, and believes that the victim deserves to be saved and if the villain is bigger or more powerful than them they will realize that the only way to effectively challenge the villain is to recruit more people to help. The evangelism hook is implicit, subtle and powerful.

My study of ReTweets has uncovered this effect in two forms. The first is the fact that Tweets containing the phrase “please ReTweet” do tend to get more ReTweets. The second is that Tweets that mention ReTweeting, either in the content they’re linking to or simply by having been ReTweeted with the signature “RT” also tend to be ReTweeted more.

Most marketers know about the power of calls-to-action. If you want a reader to buy something, or take some action, you have to ask them to. The same is true with contagious content. You must, implicitly or explicitly ask your readers to spread your content for you.

If you like this post, or any of my work, please, nominate me for a Shorty Award.