Social Media Images: 5 Ways to Go Viral

Google+ Research Findings [Charts Included]

MIT SneezeTo determine social media content virality, particularly images, Marco Guerini, Jacopo Staiano and Davide Albanese in their paper, “Exploring Image Virality in Google Plus,” analyzed the contents and characteristics of Google+ posts. Their findings can be applied to social media images and other post content.

This research is consistent with earlier research about making social media and images go viral by Jonah Berger, author of Contagious, and by Phillip Isola, Devi Parikh, Antonio Torralba and Aude Oliva.

Google+ content and image research background

Public posts were gathered from the 979 top-followed Google+ users between June 28, 2011 and June 29, 2012, as reported by

The researchers used 3 subsets of Google+ data: posts containing a static image, posts containing an animated image (often a gif), and text-only posts. They eliminated posts with links to external sources.

They captured 3 metrics: Plusoners, the number of people who had +1 a post, Replies, the number of comments, and Resharers, the number of people who shared posts.Example of googleplus posts

Top level Google+ findings

Here are 3 Google+ findings the researchers discovered:

  1. Replies aren’t affected by the growth of the user’s Google+ network. By contrast, reshares and, to a lesser degree, +1s display an ever-growing trend.
  2. The average number of followers per user over time has a gradient increase at week 28-29.  This acceleration in growth occurs for replies and reshares at the same point in time.
  3. This growth varies in orders of magnitude. Specifically reactions to posts increase by a factor of 7 over the time period while the total number of followers increased by a factor of 25.

Google Plus Growth Over Time-Chart 1 and 2

5 Ways to make social media images go viral


1. Choose images versus text

Pictures play an important role in a user’s decision-making process as s/he takes advantage of visual cues to process a lot of information in a limited amount of time.

  • Posts containing an image are 3 times more likely to have a high number of resharers than text-only posts.
  • Posts containing images are less likely to gather comments.
  • Posts containing images have more shares (+1s) up to 75. After 75 shares are reached, text only posts gain more shares.

Image Virality - Images Vs Text-GoogleplusActionable Social Media Tip: Add images to break-through and attract people’s attention. But understand that this can put a damper on participant engagement. (Here are 3 other tips on getting more attention for your social media content.)

2. Use animated images to entertain

Around since the late 1980s, gifs and animated images have gained traction on social media.

  • Posts containing animated images have more reshares while posts with static images have more plusones and replies.
  • Over 80% of a random subsample of 200 animated images were “memetic” indicating that animated images are mainly for entertainment or amusement.

Virality Research-Posts With Animation vs All Text Posts-GooglePlusActionable Social Media Tip: Use gifs (aka animation) to entertain your audience and thereby expand your reach since these posts get more reshares. To this end, make sure that your brand is well integrated into your animated content and can stand on its own if it’s disconnected from your organization’s branded context.

3. Consider image orientation – It matters!

  • Portrait images have a higher probability of being viral than squared images which are more likely to be viral than landscapes.
  • 55% of square images were “Instagrammed” out of a random sample of 200 images. (Here are 8 Tips on How to Use Instagram based on Fortune 500 data.)
  • 65% of black and white square photos without any other filter were “Instagrammed” out of a random sample of 200 images. Squared images were in the middle of the orientation metrics. (Note: This is similar to research regarding how to make your photographs memorable by Phillip Isola, Devi Parikh, Antonio Torralba and Aude Oliva that showed that landscapes were totally unmemorable.)

 Virality Research - Image Orientation Impact on Virality - GooglePlus

Actionable Social Media Tip: Select vertical images if you’re seeking viral reach. Understand that this is how people show portraits (and people are programmed to seek other people.) Also, a black and white retro look helps, whether from Instagram or not.  

4. Show someone’s face

Researchers considered images containing one face versus images containing no faces. The effect of an image containing a face on its Google+ virality was statistically significant but small. Images containing faces got slightly more replies and plusoners but lower resharers as compared to images with no faces.

  • Photos containing faces covering at least 10% of the image surface yielded higher plusoners and comments but lower resharers, based on a subsample of about 6,400 images. (Again, this is consistent with the findings of Isola, et al.)

Actionable Social Media Tip: Show people to attract more attention on social media. It’s also important to put other objects in perspective!

5. Post informational images for higher reshares.

Image brightness tends to be an indicator that an image is not a natural photo, but rather a screenshot, infographic, cartoon or similar informational content. Therefore, brightness yields insights into image content.

  • Lower brightness images have almost twice the probability of plusones and replies since they’re more likely to be photos.
  • High brightness images have over 25% more resharers.
  • 88% of a small random subsample of 200 very bright images contained some text. In terms of content, 13% were cartoons or comics, 13% contained a real picture of an object even if “photo-shopped,” and 21% were funny or memetic.

 Virality Research - Image Brightness as Proxy for Image Content-GooglePlus

Actionable Social Media Tip: Add images


Virality indexes seem to “move together” in terms of plusoners and replies that can be considered an endorsement. By contrast, resharers act differently since these are considered a form of self-representation.

What have you found to make your social media images and other content go viral?

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen



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Photo Credit: via AnnahojY

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