It's marketers' million-dollar question: What makes something go viral?

You know that social media is best used to establish and maintain a long term relationship with your customers. Still, it would be nice to have something take off every once in awhile, spreading awareness of your brand to the furthest corners of the Internet.

What makes someone hit that "share" button? In the research I conducted and discuss in my upcoming book Laddering: Unlocking the Potential of Consumer Behavior, I interviewed thousands of consumers to understand why they do what they do.

I discovered that most viral posts share certain qualities. Here's what they are.

It's Simple

This is the most important aspect of a viral campaign: It must be simple. A simple message, a simple way to share, something that is easily repeatable and immediately understood. No inside jokes, multiple steps or complicated storyline.

Wendy's had an example of this type of campaign years before social media. You might recall the famous "Where's the Beef?" lady who had us all asking each other that very question the next time we were at our favorite burger joint. Social media is no different. Consumers want to share something that is easily understood and then easily shared, especially if it's funny.

It Taps Into the Consumer's Core

You need to find something that is guaranteed to resonate. In my research, I identified a large group of consumers that desperately seek connection to their past--in fact, it's the number one reason they use social media platforms.

When PBS Digital Studios released Mister Rogers Remixed: Garden of Your Mind, they hit a nerve with those that grew up watching Mister Rogers, and they appealed to younger groups because of the contemporary remix.

It Take a Risk

When I was growing up, Old Spice was my grandfather's brand. I distinctly remember the white bottle with the blue ship that sat on his bedroom dresser--not a brand I would have ever considered using.

Old Spice had to be willing to take a risk, both with their offering and how it was advertised through their The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign. It wasn't enough to just introduce new scents--they had to materially change the public's opinion of the brand. Their risk paid off to increased sales and a changed brand awareness.

The Momentum Continues

Old Spice didn't stop there. They waged a Twitter war of wits with Taco Bell. Check out this exchange from July of last year:

The voice is modern and authentic--much to the pleasure of the hundreds of people who followed and discussed the interaction across Twitter, Facebook and their personal blogs.

The Voice is Authentic

Charmin is one of my favorite examples of a brand that has used social media to embrace what they are to their customer. All of their social media platforms are around the tag TweetFromTheSeat. They encourage and discuss what is typically a taboo topic as a way to connect with their consumers.

 It's Relatable

One of my most shared Inc. columns was about working from home. Why? Everyone hates traffic, they know that we are all more productive in places other than our cubicles and our offices and they wish their companies would become more progressive. In other words, I tapped into something that everyone could relate to--it was the equivalent of asking "who likes a good night's sleep?"

It's Participatory

As much as  Gangnam Style and The Harlem Shake drive us crazy--secretly we love the fact that all it takes is a camera and a couple of our friends to join in on the fun. These viral phenomena are not just about sharing the original video, it's about all of the videos that are created by others as a result.

It Got Some Love From Justin Bieber

Another finding from my research: Celebrity still matters to certain people.  When Justin Bieber tweeted the following about the song Call Me Maybe:

Carly Rae Jepson became an almost instant overnight success. Those with Bieber Fever follow his every remark, and the straightforward, non-promotional sound to his endorsement helped the tweet hit the mark.

It's Not Pitching Anything

That leads me to a final important aspect about all of these viral successes--none of them are overtly "salesy", they don't ask anything of the consumer, and they aren't really about a brand or company. Consumers quickly see through that kind of approach and either ignore the effort or participate in a backlash that can be viral but damaging.