How to create the Viral Visual Content every time?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could create visual content that is guaranteed to go viral every single time? This is every digital marketer’s dream, right? And who says dreams can’t come true?

The truth is that there are some things you can do to help make your visual content more viral-worthy.

Though the success of your visual content depends on many variables – such as your social standing, current events and trending topics, the quality of your content, and, well, sometimes good old-fashioned luck – scientists have begun studying what makes some content so popular and other content slip under the radar.

Ellen DeGeneres‘s Oscar selfie, the most retweeted entertainment tweet of 2014, fits perfectly well in this scenario.

And what they’ve found makes for incredibly interesting reading, since some of the patterns and trends they’ve picked up on are easily replicable.

But we’re not saying we can make your social media campaigns a brilliant success with just a couple of tips and golden nuggets; running a good campaign is an art, (supported by science), and a good campaign manager will always modify and tailor their campaign in response to unpredicted events and changes of circumstance.

With this in mind, and in order to help you give your visual content the best opportunity of making social media waves, we’ve listed some of the science behind the successful visual content.

1. Colors and Shareability

Saeideh Bakhshi is a research scientist at Yahoo! Labs’ Human-Computer Interaction group, and has spent her career studying why some images capture people’s attention on social media and others don’t.

Using an array of social media data and image-analysis tools, Bakhshi looked at the link between an image’s dominant colors and how many times it gets shared.

The study, published last year, whilst Bakhshi was still a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech, analysed one million images on Pinterest.

This analysis involved determining an image’s main color using pixel analysis and then corroborating these results with human-based evaluation experiments on Mechanical Turk.

What Bakhshi found was that images composed predominately of the colors red, purple, and pink were the most likely to be repinned or shared. While blue, black, and yellow were less likely to make an impact.


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The color palatte


However, before you rush off and make all of your images red, purple, and pink, there’s an important caveat: Bakhshi’s results are, in her words, “platform-dependent”.

In other words, though her findings are certainly very interesting, it’s hard to use them to make sweeping generalizations. The majority of Pinterest users are female, and most of the images shared concern cookery, crafts, and home décor, meaning that the platform’s demographics and most popular topics and boards may (and probably did) influence her results.

On Instagram, for example, photos which feature faces are often more popular than those which don’t. Whereas, on Flickr, nature shots are very popular.

The thing to take away, then, is that, if you’re running a campaign on Pinterest, or targeting females interested in arts-and-crafts, cookery, or interior design, it may be a good idea to opt for a red, purple, and pink palette. If not, it would be a good idea to read up about the psychology of color, since color seems to be very important when it comes to an image’s shareability.

2. Emotional Engagement

Buffer recently surveyed more than 800 people in order to find out how they felt about 23 viral images and a group of non-viral images from Imgur.

They found that all of the viral content had three elements in common, irrespective of the age and gender of the individual viewing them.

The first of these was a positive feeling. Images which expressed a number of positive feelings (including joy, interest, anticipation, and trust) were found to have a higher number of views. So don’t make your images too downbeat.

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This little guy would make most people chuckle

Secondly, emotional complexity seemed to play a vital role in an image’s popularity. Images that had gone viral were found to evoke a diverse array of both positive and negative emotions than non-viral images. The upshot is that, if you’re looking to make an image go viral, you want to try to make it emotionally ambiguous, albeit with a positive slant.

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Does this can make you feel happy, sad, or both?

And finally, a key differentiator between viral and non-viral images was an element of surprise. Images which catch those who view them off guard, or which have some sort of visual twist are also associated with high sharing levels.

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“The Dress” sparked outrage and debate when no one could agree on what colour it actually is: white and gold, or blue and black?

 Granted, creating images that tick all of these boxes is hard. But nobody said this was going to be easy.

3. Filter for Instagram Success

Research suggests that images uploaded to Instagram which have had filters applied are 21 percent more likely to be viewed than those which don’t. Moreover, filtered images are 45 percent more likely to receive comments than their unfiltered counterparts.

But, beware: not all filters are created equal. Filters which make the images they’re applied to appear “warmer” (such as Mayfair) get the best results, while “colder” filters have less of an impact.


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And saturation effects, too, can negatively impact views; while age effects were found to generate fewer comments.

But this doesn’t mean you should always apply warm filters and avoid saturation effects. Alas, things are never that simple.

Your filter must complement your photo, and bring out its best features. Play around with different filters and, if it looks good to you, go with it – it’ll probably look good to everyone else. There’s some great advice on how to choose which filters to apply here.

The best thing to do is monitor your own posts and see what’s working well for you. Test, measure, analyse, tweak, adapt, repeat.

4. Target Top-Sharing Demographics

The New York Times conducted an in-depth research study to probe what types of people are likely to share content online.

Their report, “The Psychology of Sharing”, combined qualitative and quantitative data extracted from 2,500 mediums to heavy social sharers in order to identify which types of people share content online.

They identified six distinct personalities likely to share content:

  • The Altruist shares content via Facebook and the email that she/he thinks others will find helpful, enlightening, or which she/he perceives as raising awareness for a worthy cause.
  • The Careerist shares content related to their vocation and often does so via LinkedIn.
  • The Hipster shares content via Twitter and Facebook though avoids email sharing; the content she/he shares is often of a creative nature and reflective of their identity.
  • The Boomerang enjoys provoking a reaction, and share using all channels in order to get validation from others.
  • The Connector is relaxed and thoughtful, and shares content through Facebook and email in order to stay in touch with contacts.
  • The Selective uses email to share informative content in a personalised fashion.

So, when it comes to choosing the images you’re going to share, it’s worth keeping these personalities in mind. Try to make your images appeal to one or more of these groups, and make them easily sharable via their preferred platform(s). And try to identify which type of sharers are likely to be common in your online following and tailor your visual content toward them.

MavSocial is the premier social media visual content management & publishing platform for brands and agencies. Try our FREE Small Business Edition for your business here.