In our ever-evolving digital world, brands are constantly producing online content and campaigns in hopes that their messages will spread to millions of people, in other words “go viral.” In social media “viral” simply means that a piece of content gets a lot of exposure and tons of traffic, which doesn’t cost the brand money and therefore maximizes their social media efforts.

Although a perfect recipe for producing viral content doesn’t exist, there are several strategies brands use in hopes of having their content go viral. Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study with Penn professor Katherine Milkman to further understand how a piece of content (an article, a picture, or a video) transitions from interesting to interesting and shareable. The study found that positive content is more viral than negative content, but the relationship between emotion and social transmission is more complex than that. Virality is particularly driven by physiological arousal. Content that evokes high-arousal emotions, like awe, anger or anxiety, is more likely to go viral.

First and foremost it is important that brands realize that it can’t approach a campaign by setting virality as an objective. Most of the time when content goes viral it’s simply because of luck. However, Berger and Milkman’s research provides marketers and PR professionals insight into how to design successful campaigns that have potential to go viral.

The content must be timely. Take Oreo’s campaign as an example. In 2012 Oreo celebrated its 100th birthday with its Daily Twist campaign had a series of daily ads reflecting current events using images of Oreo cookies and milk. To kick off the campaign and celebrate gay pride month Oreo posted a picture of an Oreo cookie stuffed with rainbow-colored layers with the caption “Proudly support love!” in the brand’s effort to share its values with consumers. It took only 17 hours for 157,000 people to “like” the image, 40,000 people to share it and 20,000 to comment on it. The image drew national attention when it appeared all over the news and nightly shows like The Colbert Report.

Your brand’s content also has to have the “Did that just happen?” effect. This means that the content must appeal to individuals’ emotions and strike some sort of arousal. When content shocks or inspires consumers, it is much more likely to be shared on social media and more likely to gain viral traction. Creativity is about rule-breaking and innovation. Viral content is often not something that has been done before. WestJet Airlines  used the power of high-arousal emotions to evoke shock and warm-fuzzy feelings within the viewers when they surprised 250 unsuspecting passengers with personalized Christmas gifts at their arrival gate.

Next time when you and your colleagues are brainstorming for a client’s campaign consider what components will make the public scream, “Did that really just happen?!” and then click “share.”