Why Do Stories Go Viral?

NotebookHave you ever noticed that almost all human communication revolves around stories?

Think about it for a minute. What’s the last interaction you had? Did it involve a story?

We use a great story to break the ice parties. We bond with friends and family by telling stories. We use stories to explain why we’re late for a meeting, why we’re good at something. We even use stories to understand ourselves.

Why Are Stories Important?

People don’t think in terms of facts, they think in narratives – the facts just happen to come along for the ride. Knowing that, it’s not surprising that stories have been around for so long. Stories are the original form of entertainment.

“Narratives are inherently more engrossing than facts.” – Jonah Berger, author of Contagious

In fact, people tell stories even when they don’t need too. When was the last time you read a review? Would you be more likely to buy a sleeping bag after reading a review that said, “Warm and comfortable,” or one that said, “My husband bought this sleeping bag for the hunting trip he took last week. The first night was very cold and he slept basically under tarps. When he woke up, there was frost on the top of the bag, but he was still toasty warm inside the bag.”

Stories are vessels. They’re the perfect way to learn new information. [Click to Tweet]

How Else Do We Get Information?

1. We learn by trial and error.

If we want to find the best sleeping bag, we could buy and test all the sleeping bags on the market and do our own study. The problem is, this is both costly and time consuming. We need someone else to reliable tell us which sleeping is the best. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to pay for a dozens of sleeping bags and spend two weeks testing them in the cold!

2. We learn from direct observation.

If we don’t want to run our own trial and error study, we can also learn by watching other people’s experiences. For example, we could monitor people using different sleeping bags and compare their overall comfort to the temperature outside. But let’s be honest: this would take way too long and it would be pretty annoying.

3. We can learn from advertisements.

Advertisements try hard to teach us about products. The problem is, when we know we’re getting information from an advertisement, we don’t trust it. Of course they claim the sleeping bag is warm – that’s what they want us to think! How can we know if they’re telling the truth?

Stories may not be the only way to get information, but they are the most effective. [Click to Tweet]

Why Are Stories the Best Way to Spread Information?

Three-Little-PigsUnderneath most stories there is an idea is being conveyed. The thing is, we don’t always notice. When the surface plot grabs us, we can’t focus on anything else. While we think we’re innocently wrapped up in the drama of the story, there is a message getting through. This is why stories are often used to share lessons and morals — much like the classic, Three Little Pigs!

Stories can turn boring information into something remarkable. We are less likely to argue against stories because they act as proof. We assume that people are telling the truth when they tell a story. In fact, we get so caught in drama of the story, we don’t have cognitive resources to disagree with the message.

Did you question the validity of the second sleeping bag review? I sure didn’t. I was too busy picturing FROST on the outside of the sleeping bag. The side effect is that I truly believe that sleeping bag is warm.

Why Do People Share Stories?

People tell stories for a few reasons, all of which are self-serving. We tell great stories because they give social currency. They make us look interesting, knowledgeable, or helpful. When stories are remarkable, entertaining, useful, or emotional charged, we share them because they make us look good. Remember this when you’re crafting your story.


Your story is your Trojan horse.

The Most Important Part of Storytelling

If you’re trying to get a message across, you need a great story. It’s your Trojan horse — a good story can get through the city wall before anyone knows what’s going on.

However, your story has to be related to your core message. It’s important to get people to talk, but it’s just as important to think about what they’ll say. If your story goes viral and it has nothing to do with your message, it’s not valuable. Your product benefit must be an integral part of the story.

Finally, some story details are critical, while others are not. As stories spread, details get dropped. The critical details are the only ones that will survive in retelling the story. Make sure that the critical details are your message.

How to Craft a Viral Story

1. Identify You Core Message

This is the main idea that you want to get across. Skipping this step is the biggest mistake most would-be viral marketers make. For your story to be successful, it MUST be built around your core message.

2. Create Something Worth Sharing

Not every story will go viral. Stories are more likley to be shared if they are:

  • remarkable or entertaining
  • practically useful
  • emotional charged
3. Make It Easy to Share

If you want your story to get widely distributed, make it easy to share. People should be able to share your story with a single click — whether that means forwarding your email to a friend, or posting the link to Twitter. Any time you add a barrier, the number of shares you’ll receive drops exponentially.

4. Ask for the Share

Once you’ve published and promoted your content, don’t forget to ask for the share! Use a call to action encourage people to help spread your message. Sometimes we need a little reminder.

Bonus: A Perfect Viral Story Example

Blendtec’s “Will it Blend” is a perfect example of how to create a viral story.

First of all, it’s pretty a pretty remarkable story so people are happy to share it. Not only was this guy willing to destroy an iPad – but his blender reduced it dust! More importantly, it’s impossible to tell this story without talking about how strong the Blendtec really is.

And the Blendtec’s strength is exactly why someone would choose it over a different brand.

Can you think of any other great viral story examples? Let me know in the comments below!