Viral marketing or advertising is a business strategy that relies on existing social networks to promote products (or services). Its name references how consumers spread information about a product (or anything else) with other people in a way that is similar to how actual disease-causing viruses spread from one person to the next. The rise and increased usage of social media together with new communication tools and technologies have increased people’s ability to share and communicate.

We now live in a world where information and ideas can spread from a single source to hundreds, thousands or even greater numbers of people through what is essentially word-of-mouth, at almost no cost. However, for any kind of information, idea or message to possess this “virality”, it must have certain qualities which any marketer who wishes to ever harness this phenomenon must understand. In his book Contagious: Why things catch on, Jonathan Berger breaks down these qualities into six key principles of which one or more must be at work for anything to go viral. The names of the six principles or “STEPPS” as identified by Berger are Social currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories.

Social currency

This principle accounts for everything which is shared (and consequently spreads) simply because—to put it bluntly—the sharer thinks it will make them look good. People will share messages (commercial or otherwise) they believe will make them seem cool, rich, wise, smart etc. Expensive and premium brands benefit greatly from this as customers excitedly share pictures of themselves wearing their expensive clothes, drinking their expensive liquor or visiting their fancy establishments.

The pursuit of social currency plays a very significant role in the spread of information and nothing better demonstrates this than how wise sounding sayings, quotes and proverbs can spread throughout the world. As an example, one of the most popular quotes that have managed to stand the test of time despite being utterly confusing and possibly meaningless to most who repeat it is this gem attributed to Albert Einstein which goes something like, “Everything must be made as simple as possible but not any bit simpler”.  Most people who share it barely have any idea what the great scientist was trying to say but it sounds profound enough to make anyone who repeats it sound deep.

To make your marketing messages and knowledge of your products spread through this principle, you have to craft those (messages and products) in such a manner that sharing them helps your audience achieve these desired impressions. If being associated with your product or brand in any way makes your customers feel good about themselves they will market it for you free of charge.


People forget. Sometimes this very natural shortcoming is the only thing that prevents them from sharing and stands in the way of the spread of information and ideas. Therefore to increase the frequency and likelihood of sharing, we have to find ways of reminding people of the information we want them to share. This is where triggers come in. These triggers are all the little things that remind people of anything that they may have been aching to share (hence memory triggers) but had somehow forgotten. As an example, let us suppose that you come across two equally interesting bits of information. Suppose one concerns politics and the other one is about snakes. Now even if both pieces of information are equally interesting, the one about politics is more likely to spread. This is because the subject of politics has far more reminders (or triggers) than that of snakes in everyday life, so you are far more likely to remember anything interesting surrounding it and hence share. The factoid about snakes will only come up on the very few and rare occasions that conversation veers to the reptiles.

I think that Apple’s name served it very well during its early days. The fruit itself or even any other kind for that matter was probably enough to remind people about the company even during its early days when it was virtually unknown.


When people care they share. News articles which get shared a lot have something get shared because they make people feel something and that “something” can be anger, outrage, incredulousness, amazement, wonder, amusement, mirth or any other emotion that we are capable of experiencing. The feeling of amusement is the reason why jokes are one of the things most shared on social media together with funny videos and pictures. I also think that anger plays a dominant role in the sharing of political news content. Any news article surrounding politics that does not have practical value (more on that later) or does not anger someone may be worthless to the publisher. Other emotions like happiness and pride .e.g. when one’s favourite team wins also fuel sharing. You must, however, be warned: not every emotion triggers a sharing response.


Visibility also plays a big role in how likely it is for something to spread. Not everything that spreads does so through conscious sharing. Sometimes practices and ideas spread because people copy what they see.  Consequently, for anything to spread in this manner, it must be public enough for all who may copy to see. This is how fashion styles spread across the world.

I remember when sometime around 2010 the unfortunate practice of “colour blocking” spread throughout the country. Young and sometimes (unfortunately) older people would deliberately wear bright, loud and mismatched colours all in the name of high fashion. This practice demonstrated the power of putting something in the public eye. The many brave pioneers of colour blocking and all the publications who wrote about the atrocious fashion style played a huge role in promoting it and hence encouraged more people to try it out.

Practical value

Information also gets shared simply because it is considered useful. Government announcements that affect a lot of people usually make their way to us within the space of a few minutes or hours. Water rationing and power load-shedding schedules also get shared a lot. So powerful is this desire to share useful information that bogus health advice usually spreads like fire on social media (no, lemons do not cure cancer).


There was a time when folk tales were the only source of fiction entertainment for children. In Zimbabwe, tales featuring the very problematic hare were passed down both from generation to generation and amongst the young people themselves. Besides the entertainment value, most of these stories also contained lessons which were supposed to teach children moral values. Even to this day and age, people from all over the world still find lessons and information wrapped in stories to be far more enticing and shareable. Shrewd business people know this. The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe was probably responsible for a large portion of Kwese’s early growth. Stories of the court battles spread more and faster than any news about a new DSTV competitor would have.

Besides these, what are other factors do you think to play a role in what gets shared and spreads?