5 Psychological Triggers that Drive Viral Marketing

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5 Psychological Triggers that Drive Viral Marketing


Trying to market your product, service or event online? You’ve probably noticed how hard it is to reach your audience these days.

Thanks to the growing popularity of Ad blockers, marketers lost $22 billion in 2015. And if you’re trying to reach your audience on social media, just think:

  • Facebook users post 4.75 billion items of content
  • Twitter users send 400 million tweets
  • YouTube users watch 4 billion videos

Every day.

So if you want your products and services to stand out online, you need to take a unique approach.

Here are 5 psychological triggers that get your audience to open your emails, buy your products, share your content, and drive viral marketing.


People don’t like the idea of missing out on something, even if it’s something they aren’t sure they want.

Just ask a preschool teacher: There are hundreds of toys to choose from, but the little boy only wants what the other kids are playing with — the ones he can’t have.

The scarcity principle is how the seasonal McRib was born in North America.

When McDonald’s had it on the menu all year round, people lost interest. So they announced they were going to remove it, and sales went through the roof. For whatever reason, people only wanted it when they could only have it sometimes.

There are a lot of ways you can incorporate the scarcity principle into your marketing to drive action, such as:

  • Sales deadlines
  • Out-of-stock announcements
  • “Limited-time-only” products

One of my favourite ways marketers use this psychological trigger for viral marketing is during the pre-order stages of their Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns. For example, Memobottle offered a green-colored lid exclusively for project backers:

scarcity viral marketing

You can give your crowdfunding campaign the extra boost it needs by offering exclusive features, like special colors, special materials, pre-retail discounts, and extra giveaways.

The scarcity principle can help you target people who are on the fence about buying your product or service. If they don’t purchase now, they might miss out.

And it works just as well for event marketing. Put a deadline to sign up on your marketing material — people won’t ask why, they’ll just sign up!


What’s the main reason people surf the web?


The internet is the best tool out there to learn things, and I’m not just talking about Googling words you can’t spell.

People are naturally curious, so if they come across content or marketing material about something they don’t know about, they’re compelled to click on it.

Need some examples? Check out the headline of any article on Upworthy:

curiosity headlines Upworthy

How did they get more students to eat breakfast regularly? Before I saw the headline, I didn’t want to know this. But now I do.

This is called the “Information Gap Theory.” Once we realize there’s something we don’t know about, we have a desire to fill the gap.

Content headlines aren’t the only way to use this psychological trigger for viral marketing. Marketers can use curiosity in email subject lines, sales copy, and in content.

Create a quiz or assessment to encourage people to engage with your brand, like this one from Intronis:

curiosity psychological trigger example


I don’t think anyone realized the true value of anticipation in marketing until Steve Jobs came around. There’s a reason the latest iPhone is always sold out before it even launches — Apple is the king of anticipation.

Whenever the latest phone design is complete, Apple doesn’t release the specs. They actively cultivate an air of secrecy to get people talking about their brand. As a result, there are entire sites devoted to rumors and speculation about their products:Apple anticipation marketing

You can get people excited about your products the same way by generating buzz long before you launch. Create publicity and get people talking on social media. By the time you actually launch, people will be more than excited to buy.

UpStanding, maker of ergonomic desks, does a great job of creating anticipation for their products:

anticipation marketing example

Using this psychological trigger for viral marketing, Upstanding asks people to sign up for a pre order waiting list and share to social media. This helps create the kind of buzz they need.

Social Proof

When we make decisions in life, whether it be choosing the right college or the right tennis racket, we turn to others for advice.

With brands marketing their products, it’s a bit different. People know you’re out to sell them something, and will take whatever you say with a grain of salt.

Recommendations from friends, family, and even celebrities are what we call “social proof,” psychology you can use for viral marketing.

Include the endorsements and the opinions of others in your marketing material. Here’s an example from our own site:

social proof example

We keep these testimonials on the front page of our site because 92% of consumers trust third party recommendations, even from people they don’t know, over branded content. Instead of just praising ourselves, we highlight the voices of our users.

On Kickstarter, how many backers you have is another kind of endorsement. If someone sees a lot of people are interested enough in a product to throw money at it, they’ll feel more inclined to back the project as well.

Popular products are more likely to go viral:

psychological triggers viral marketing

Here are some other forms of social proof you can use to inspire people to act (or buy):

  • User reviews
  • Celebrity endorsements (preferably unpaid)
  • “Best selling” product categories
  • Social signals (E.g., “Your friends also like this page!”)
  • Number of customers served (Another one we use on our homepage):

Maître social proof example

Even just getting people to share your content is a kind of social proof. Instead of coming directly from the brand, a retweet comes from a third party recommending your content.


The principle of reciprocity is based on the idea that if someone gives you something, you’ll feel compelled to give something in return. It’s hard wired into our nature as cooperative people, and is a great psychological trigger for viral marketing.

Here’s how you can use it:

Create Carrot Content

Carrot content is the oldest trick in the book to start building email lists. Offer your audience something of value, such as a white paper, checklist, or resource for free in exchange for signing up for your list.

Hubspot does a great job of this with their annual State of Inbound Report:carrot content example

It’s a great psychological trigger for viral marketing. If people know you’ll give them something in return, they’ll be much more inclined to sign up for your list.

Give away free stuff

You can also use reciprocity by giving away samples of your products, discounts, or other free stuff. This will make your current customers happy, and encourage them to become diehard brand evangelists.

One of Maître’s users, Whistler Wash Co., had a lot of success using reciprocity in their post-launch campaign. With our app, Whistler Wash Co. messaged their 800 Kickstarter backers, offering them a sample product if they signed up for their mailing list and referred a friend.

By offering something in return, the company managed to get 22,765 referrals, and their list grew to 15,000. Without using reciprocity, that kind of growth would have taken a while.

These are just a few of the ways you can use psychological triggers for viral marketing. Scarcity, curiosity, anticipation, social proof, reciprocity and other triggers can help you:

  • Make your product a hit
  • Build your email lists
  • Get people to share your branded content
  • And more

Use a tool like Maître app and it will be even easier to deliver your message and jump start your viral marketing campaign.

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Head of Growth @ Maître | Skibum @ heart | Growth-obsessed by Nature.

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