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Published June 21st 2016

Going Viral: Nathalie Nahai on the Psychology of Shareable Content

Web psychology expert Nathalie Nahai shares her knowledge on why content goes viral, in her own unmistakeable voice.

Last month we were extremely pleased to have Nathalie Nahai with us as a keynote speaker at the Now You Know Conference.

An incredibly beguiling presence, Nahai is a web psychologist, international speaker, best-selling author and the foremost expert in the world on web psychology.

She consults with major brands and lectures internationally, is on the board of ‘Social Media Week’ globally and also sits on the panel of Ogilvy Change – the specialist behavioral economics practice within the Ogilvy group. 


Her book, Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion, is a must-read for any leader in business. As soon as we knew we’d be hosting our inaugural conference, Nathalie was top of our list of must-have speakers. And she didn’t disappoint.

Nahai gave a great talk on the psychology behind social behavior; why we share certain things, what the motivations might be behind sharing, and what we can do to help get our messages heard more effectively.

For those of you who couldn’t make it, I thought I’d share some of the key insights, in her own unmistakable voice, on how to make shareable content, and the psychology behind social content.

So, what is it that makes that content so socially shareable?

Nahai: The first thing to think about is the concept in psychology of emotional contagion. This is literally the idea that our emotions are like viruses, they are contagious when we’re in the proximity of others.

There was a great experiment that explored this where they found that if you get three people in a room, sitting near each other, silently, the person who is normally the most emotionally expressive will transmit his or her mood onto the other people within two minutes.

Without speaking, without gestures. It’s all psychological.

What’s the perfect formula for successful social content?

Nahai: If social content is going to work really well to get us to engage initially, it needs to provoke curiosity.

I thought I’d give you some psychological techniques you can use to get people to read or watch or engage in any content that you’re creating for social platforms.

So let’s have a look.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.00.36

‘This Stick Of Butter Is Left Out At Room Temperature; You Won’t Believe What Happens Next’.

This is an actual three hour and five second video. Seriously! Three hours and five seconds. Nothing happens! You get to the end and it’s just a little bit mushy!

No aliens invade; there are no maggots that crawl out of it. There’s no streaking, there’s no grumpy cat.

One point one million people who don’t have anything better to do than to watch a stick of butter melting. Why? That’s not inherently exciting.

Sex is more exciting than that. There are one point one million people who are not having sex. They would rather watch this. the planet is doomed!

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.08.31

So what are they doing? How can you create this kind of shareable clickable content that defies any kind of intelligence whatsoever?

Well I thought I’d give you a little formula – but I’ve got to give you a little caveat first.

There are many ways that you can apply psychological principles. I don’t believe in a one size fits all approach, but formulas and models are so useful to help us to actually figure out how to start using this stuff, so bear that in mind. 

You take a number, a trigger word as well as an adjective, throw in a keyword and a promise and you end up with a killer headline.


Okay, so in practice, that’s all a bit abstract and nebulous.

You could do something like this, so you take a subject, which is frying eggs, everyone loves eggs, and you could either write an article that says ‘how to fry an egg’, or ‘why I love frying eggs’.

No-one is going to enjoy that, unless they’re absolutely mad about eggs.

So, the other thing that you could do is apply the formula that I’ve just given you and you end up with something like this;

‘Thirteen unbelievable ways you can fry a small egg with a sock’.

Now I don’t care if you eat eggs or not, you’re already starting to think, well how small is small? What kind of socks? Would they be pink socks or would they be spotty socks? What’s unbelievable about it? Is there a fairy or a nymph in there?

So that’s how it works, you end up with your number; you’ve got the trigger word unbelievable.

You’ve then got the adjective, small, the descriptive, egg and then the promise, how to fry a small egg with a sock. And you can try this with everything.

Stress, and social content as social commentary

Nahai: The other thing social content does is act as social commentary. This is especially important when you think about the more humane side of social media use.

There’s the ability for people to be able to grieve in a collective way, but there’s also the flip side, which is kind of morbid participation; if someone feels they need to contribute to something, they can just add – for example – a Belgian flag onto their Facebook profile picture instead of really helping.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.33.30

That’s more the morbid aspect. But social media can, and does, act as a way to comment on society and to convene around difficult issues and show support.

Here’s another example – we can also create cultural experiences together.

People have been bemoaning the fact that TV is dead for a while. TV is not dead, you just have to make really bloody good TV for people to want to watch it when it comes out.

There are a couple of networks that have managed to do this incredibly well, for instance HBO.

Do you remember three years ago, on Game of Thrones, when ‘Red Wedding’ happened?

I was sitting at home watching this with my husband and I was thinking, “Okay, the shit’s going to hit the fan. There’s not been enough killings in the last two episodes, it’s going to go horribly wrong. Someone’s pregnant, and she’s going to die – probably horrendously – or it will be the devil that comes out.”

I was already thinking along those lines. My husband, he’s really laid back, so he was sitting there traumatised by it all as it unfolded.

We took to Twitter, to see what everyone to see what everyone else thought about it.

And it really felt like that. It really felt like this whole group of people were together, traumatised.

There is a principle in psychology, that when you stress people out – and if you’re a psychologist, you can get away with quite a lot of this, you can give someone electric shocks, or you make them miserable – because we’re social creatures, given the chance, we all affiliate or talk to other people as much as we can to lower our stress and our cortisol levels.

This is affiliation to reduce stress. When something quite traumatic or stressful happens to us, what do we do? We take to social media to reduce our stress levels.

This is exactly what happened with the ‘Red Wedding’.

Another massive thank you to Nathalie for speaking at the conference and sharing her thoughts.

We’ll be following Nahai’s upcoming talks – you can keep up with what she’s up to by following her on Twitter at @NathalieNahai.

We’ll be sharing more insights from this year’s Now You Know Conference in the coming days and weeks. Keep us bookmarked, and follow us on Twitter: @Brandwatch.

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