Viral Psychology 101: Exploring the Social Underpinnings to Unlock Word-of-Mouth Secrets


Whenever people ask us to evaluate their existing viral programs, I’m always surprised to see how many smart marketers forget include the essential viral marketing call-to-action in their execution. They neglect to invite people to share their content, offer, or online experience. It sounds obvious, but there are good psychological underpinnings as to why prompting people to share actually works.

We make heavy use of social psychology at PopularMedia, so we thought we’d compile a greatly oversimplified list of techniques you might consider using to boost performance on your next viral campaign. We’ll focus more on web-based viral programs in this piece, but many of these techniques can enhance your offline word-of-mouth campaigns.


Cognitive Load Management
Don’t ask people to do multiple things at once. If you ask for a referral when someone’s in the middle of placing an order, you risk losing the referral and the order. Ask your customers or prospects to share something with their friends in a timely, relevant way. Do it when people are ready to think about telling their friends about you. We’ve found that the most opportune way to engage users in a referral initiative is by prompting for referrals after they have successfully completed a task, before they switch to a new one.

Auto-ma-what? Every day, you perform tasks without really thinking about them — this capacity is known as “automaticity” and it gives us the ability to multitask. It also means that the more familiar a new task feels, the easier it is for us to perform it, and the more likely we are to complete it.

In all process-driven user experiences, engineers and designers should strive to maximize automaticity. Don’t make people wonder what’s coming next: just give them enough context to clue them into where the process is going and where they are, and they’ll follow your lead. If people have to make choices, make them as simple as possible. When you invite your users to share your product, service or offer with friends, doing so should be the easiest and most automatic thing to do.

You catch more bees with honey, as the saying goes (why you would want to catch bees is an unrelated but fascinating topic). Delight your customers and they’ll be more willing to do you a favor. Like it or not, gifts create a social obligation to do something nice back, so consider working this technique into a viral program. Give your customers something special they can share with their friends — and their friends can share with their friends — and you’ll create plenty of good will. Give your customers the ability to create an unexpected “thinking of you” moment, a link to amusing content, or an invitation to a special insider’s network.

We’re not as rational as we like to think. In most cases we act first, then come up with a plausible reason for our behavior. If we run into conflict between what we believe and how we act, we’ll generally modify our beliefs to create an exception that maintains this rational self-image.

A great time to ask for referrals, then, is immediately post-transaction. If I like your product enough to spend money on it, I’ll reason that I must like it enough to tell my friends about it. If I’m unwilling to show it to my friends, then I’ll start feeling like I’ve just wasted my money — and I don’t want to feel that way. Telling my friends about my great purchase reassures me that it was a good decision.


  1. Thank you Jim for this excellent primer — a true 101 on WOM. Only at do I find the inner workings of the cutting edge strategies and tactics in new media. Kudos and best wishes for a Happy Holiday!

  2. “flys” –> you catch more “flys” with honey…

    Why do so many create viral campaigns that aren’t participant based? My opinion: many marketing firms are build on people who are good at producing content. They forget that it’s the fun part of their job that they need to start ‘crowdsourcing’.


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