The Untold Story of Social Engineering & Psychology

BURBANK — It’s pouring rain on a typical stormy weekend morning with people staying in to avoid the sluggish weather. Taking a sip of my warm coffee, I glue my eyes onto the laptop screen and check the latest viral trends on Google News. With what seems like just propaganda and click baiting by today’s press, I find an interesting article about the Syrian Electronic Army’s latest attacks on the U.S.

I reach for my phone and login to my Skype account to notify my good friend about the news. Surprisingly, he had already heard the news and read the exact same article earlier that same morning.

The news was grabbing massive media attention and even had millions of social media users on edge. As Social media marketers, one knows that when a huge trend is taking over — it’s crucial to observe and take notes before the buzz dies out. In that case, I observed every single tweet, I read how every article was written, and most importantly, I researched where the news originated. It was critical to see who the first to report it was and how the news was published.

We questioned the viral phenomena and asked ourselves, how did the story go so viral? What did it do to capture such a large audience and have strong social media interaction? The answer baffled us for a long time.

Instead of the typical ‘Hey! Let’s promote our service throughout forums and get no results…’ we decided to use our marketing skills to capture the attention we needed to fully understand the ‘viral’ side of marketing. While majoring in Psychology at the time, performing viral marketing and potentially reaching millions of people sounded like interesting psychological research data to cluster. And within a few weeks, we started our mystifying journey into the world of viral marketing and what we also liked to call ‘Digital Psychology’.

The Dawn of Something Huge

It was September 12, 2013 and we had just finished marketing a musician from Los Angeles, California. As I sat on my couch looking for a viral trend to hop on, my partner Simon pointed out a highly popular video game and how a large number of fans were waiting for a release on the PC.

Wasting no time, we developed a plan and created a blueprint of how we can make our future ideas go viral. Spending many nights studying countless viral phenomena, both seeing them in action and reading about it through search engine archives, I quickly learned a pattern in each of these trends. Since Simon never studied Psychology, there were a whole lot of confusion and mystery surrounding these viral trends, in which they never seemed to hit me. Even more bizarre, after spending weeks studying how topics become viral, it all started to make sense to me.

With a vanilla ice coffee in my hand and about an hour to spare, I came up with what I thought would be a highly-effective ‘SECRET’ marketing strategy. This plan (which at the time I jokingly called ‘blueprint’), consisted of a technical system and a psychological system. The formula for the system went a little like this:


  1. Create accounts on some of the most popular internet forums.
  2. Setup or have a Twitter Facebook account ready for use.
  3. Find a cheap or free website template and turn it into a countdown.
  4. Put Social Media share buttons with a counter on the site.
  5. Jog down a list of relevant journalists who are active on Twitter.

Now is where the real secrets and answers to a lot of mysteries and questions.


  1. The Third-person Perspective: When you are writing the forum threads or tweeting the site to people, always use the ‘third-person perspective’. Write the content as if you are looking at the situation as a spectator. Words such as “I”, “Me”, “We”, and “Mine” will become your worst enemy.
  2. Accuracy Absence of Motive: When the Twitter or Facebook account is being used to promote the website, always make sure that your account looks like it has nothing to do with the trend. This will steer people away from suspecting you started the trend. If it’s a website about a game, use something feminine; if the social media account has no followers, then go get some on it!
  3. Plain Simple: The more basic and less things the site has, the better. Doing various psychological research on the web, countdowns are one of the most effective content to go viral. It’s simple, mysterious, lacks information/detail and can get the fire started without even doing much.
  4. The ‘Viral Effect’: Something that we like to call ‘The Viral Effect’ is one of the most important marketing executions you will ever perform. For instance, find a seller and purchase some website likes and tweets. Make sure the social media button counters have a considerably large number (1K-50K shares). This will make the impression that the site is going viral and will make more people want to share it.
  5. The ‘Bait Technique’: No one knows about this technique because after weeks of researching and testing, I discovered this technique. I initially came to the conclusion that setting yourself up as ‘bait’ or the ‘victim’ can provoke MASSIVE media results. This is how it is done: You get a Twitter or Facebook account and act as a victim to the viral situation. You will be doing this by tweeting an active journalist expressing concern, anger or any strong emotion. This will only work if the topic is starting to go viral or already has a news media presence. 89% of journalists who we tested, fell for this.

With all these procedures ready in place, we launched our first viral campaign. Simon and I decided last minute to carry it out as a hoax.

The very next day, on September 13th, we launched our first viral marketing campaign called “RockstarAnnouncement”. It featured a countdown and had a few social button counters on the site. We went through the list of Technical and Psychological procedures from our ‘blueprint’ and started to spread the countdown in as many places as we could.

The viral site found instant success and received a variety of reactions. Within a few days, the site had been covered by numerous tech news outlets including Softpedia, Softonic and Examiner. People were so amused by the countdown that YouTube videos were being uploaded of the countdown as well as thousands of social media shares.

Although the news coverage and social media interaction was very low, we considered it a success. As Simon ranted to his friends about the recent viral countdown, I started studying the reactions and feedback of the people who were hoaxed. By the end of my research data gathering what struck me as odd — was that most users shared the site even though they knew it was likely a fake.

This type of behavior was significant to my research because this social behavior was repeated in EVERY single viral campaign we launched. It seems that although people know something is not real, they tend to keep the delusion alive and share it anyway. This means that people like the fear, mystery and anticipation and always give in to it. We did not just only observe this social behavior of typical internet users, but we observed it on reporters and bloggers alike.

We never expected success of any sort on our first time and while we were planning our second viral campaign, we kept on studying on what we had messed up on with our prior viral campaign.

Houston We Have a Problem!

I swear, this was the most coincidental viral campaign we ever performed. Without even hearing about the news that NASA was shutting down, I was browsing through website themes. On October 1st, by pure coincidence, I found a design that looked like a space rocket, planet earth, a small astronaut on the far right corner of the screen and a countdown. Within a few minutes, I had rearranged the theme and made it look like an official space countdown.

That very same morning, we registered the domain and immediately went to work. For this time, we decided to promote our viral marketing campaign outside the U.S. We reviewed our procedures from our ‘blueprint’ and launched the site just 2 days after we registered it.

The countdown was supposed to end on November 13th, 2013. But this time we expected big results, and we got what we were looking for.

Using the same forums and places, we decided to get the countdown rolling without much trouble. A lot of people bought into it and it started appearing in science and space forums within a few hours. The site quickly found success, until it hit Reddit.

The four most active places discussing the countdown was UOL, Reddit, AboveTopSecret and GodLikeProductions. The site went viral as soon as it hit Reddit and users started to take a closer look at the site. Once it landed on Reddit’s radar, it quickly gained news coverage and caught the attention of several big blogs.

Again, the same social behavioral pattern existed on this NASA hoax as did the previous one. As I scanned through the massive number of tweets, I saw that most people knew it was not a NASA site and still decided to spread it. Blogs quickly caught on to the suspicious site and reported it as a potentially silly viral marketing scheme.

Slate and various other blogs reported on the site before the countdown had hit zero. Looking through all the Facebook posts mentioning our countdown we saw a female Apollo astronaut who warned users that the site was not affiliated with NASA. Simon and I quickly grew concerned that the site would not hold on till November 13th, so we changed the countdown timer.

With just a few days to spare till the timer runs out, curious internet users continued to spread the content like something big as about to occur. This was all despite the contradicting news reports and the warnings that many big Twitter and Facebook account kept passing along. We witnessed the same social behavior occur from our first hoax to our second one.

We finally spotted a pattern.

With only a few minutes left until the timer finishes, we came to the quick conclusion to brand one of Simon’s old music videos as the aftermath of this NASA countdown stunt. As soon as the timer ran out, a button appeared which redirected users to YouTube and onto a music video titled ‘Purple Ninja’. The result was nothing short of success.

International news outlets started to report about the NASA countdown stunt and the music video had received newspaper, magazine and television coverage. IBTimes, Houston Chronicle, The Daily Dot, Ilbo Chosun Korea, Galileu Magazine, UOL and more. The success was widespread and till this day, was our favorite viral marketing campaign.

What we learned from this viral campaign was that most people loved the sort of fear and emptiness of information that the countdown contained. Popular theories people came up with was Life on Mars, Habitable planet and asteroid. Because we did not give any hints or details on what the announcement could be, people’s imaginations are what led the countdown to viral success.

Gathering this new data, we came to the conclusion that the less detail we put out, the more likely it will go viral. Let the users speculate what the countdown is going to be about.

Anticipation was the key to viral success.

That same month, we decided to launch another viral campaign, but for the first and only time, we utilized a video. I contacted a graphic designer who worked on numerous CGI projects and asked him to make a future style hologram video. The video was to feature a man in a business suit going through slides with his hands.

Putting dramatic Hollywood music in the background made the video even more mystic. Adding images of political conflicts and a cryptic message at the end, there are people that are still trying to decode the message till this very day. The viral video came to be known as ‘231134421’.



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