Some ideas in marketing spread like wildfire. Others are dead on arrival. What determines where something will fall?

To understand how a business or cultural phenomenon goes viral--brands, memes, recipes, music--one need look no further than the word we use to describe such events: a virus. It's no coincidence we borrow the term to refer to things that have spread. For effective transmission, a virus not only needs a host and a target, but to also be structurally transmissible and to possess a "newness" that the target has not yet built up an immunity against.

There is a metaphor here for content marketers and brand strategists. A new, catchy concept "infects us" when we become emotionally transfixed by it, and thereby becomes easily transmitted to others through our urge to share it with the tribe.

There are three ingredients to making your marketing idea go viral.

Infect the host with intense emotions.

When it comes to viral content, our emotions are the first point of contact. We love to feel. And we love to share the feeling with others so they can feel it too. So, the story of virality in your business must begin with the host's--that is, your customer's--emotions. And the stronger the feeling, the stronger the urge to share.

This is true of both positive and negative emotions, even those emotions that are considered mixed. Take, for instance, the single emotion that leads to the most amount of sharing: awe. Awe is a weird one. It's not quite good, not quite bad. Hence the mixed-up feelings in the commonly used words "awful" and "awesome."

And even the straight-up negative emotions can be useful. But be careful here. Some negative states, like sadness, are not good for virality. Steer clear of those. But others, like contempt, anger, and disgust--the so-called CAD hypothesis of moral emotions--are powerful forces for virality because they compel us to act and "do something about the observed injustice."

Lean on human's innate desire to connect and seek status.

We are a community-oriented species. It's in our nature to share. Through sharing knowledge, we distribute the effects of threats and strengthen our collective defenses against the unknown.

Sharing is also a form of self-promotion. This is because of the prestige-bias that we possess when we come to learn something new. In other words, we tend to trust the experts. This intuitive social organization along hierarchical lines motivates us to always try to come out on top, and social clout is bestowed on whoever is the first to share something new and noteworthy. And when it's exciting, relevant, and emotionally laden, it's an even stronger affirmation of the sharer as an important member of their community.

Of course, if something made you feel strongly enough to share, it'll probably make those you share it with feel the same way. What will they in turn do? Share it yet again with others in their community... do that a few more times, and thanks to the wonders of mathematics's exponential function, you've got yourself a bona fide virality effect.

Make it new, but not so new that it goes over people's heads.

When something goes viral, it means the target simply "gets it" at first glance. For this to happen, the viral idea needs to strike the fine balance between being new and different, but not so different that it causes confusion. In psychology this is called minimally counterintuitive ideas, or MCIs.

Ideas that are too intuitive are boring. They seem like common sense, and we know that they will not introduce anything new to the lives of those around us. So, we're less likely to share them. Conversely, ideas that are intellectually convoluted are just too cognitively demanding: they're time-consuming for our brains to unpack, and this slowness goes against what it means to go viral, by definition. 

Minimally counterintuitive ideas are a cognitive optimum. The way they work is that they violate just the right number of expectations we have about something, making it interesting without being too foreign.

Bernie Sanders, kitted in a plain brown coat, oversized fuzzy mittens, arms and legs crossed, sitting on a fold-out chair at the Presidential Inauguration hits that spot. It is an intuitive assumption that Sanders, himself a serious politician and a presidential candidate not too long before that photo was taken, would be present at this event. 

However, the juxtaposition of the gravity of the situation with Bernie's fuzzy mittens keeping him warm was too joyful not to share. The public hadn't built up an immunity against this concept yet. It was minimally counterintuitive, it evoked strong emotion, and there was a race to share it once it appeared on screen. The result? It spread like wildfire.