What A Gay Dog Can Teach Us About Viral Content

She wasn’t a marketer. She didn’t optimize that infamous post on Facebook, or time it based on social media studies. Heck, she didn’t even spell all its words right.

She just knew Elton would die if she didn’t get the word out, and that was enough.

Late last month, a Jackson, TN, woman who runs a Facebook account devoted to finding homes for animals at the local shelter posted a new update.


The story of the “gay dog” quickly spread, from Facebook to local media to Gawker to CNN to as far away as international news sites.


“No one expected this one story to spread so far and wide, from our small town shelter,” the same Facebook page posted later.

Needless to say, adoption offers flooded in and overwhelmed the small shelter, and today Elton has a new family and a (presumably) better life.

In addition to being a great story, the tale of the “gay dog” can also offer us marketers some lessons into why and how content goes viral. Let’s look at some of the story’s most viral-making components in depth.


Even a cursory glance at some of the comments attached to all these stories makes it clear that this story spread because of one emotion in particular: outrage. People wanted to vent about the ignorance of the dog’s former owner (one especially popular theme: euthanize the owner, not the dog) and that emotion moved the story on.

Researchers have long known that emotionally evocative content is known to be highly viral – and that’s especially true even if the emotion it makes you feel is anger.

For another example of outrage helping to power viral content, check out the work liberal-leaning news aggregator Upworthy is doing.


Headlines like the one above one beg to be clicked because we know a satisfying emotional catharsis is coming. (If you want, go see the video).


Coming in just behind outrage is the emotion of curiosity. How did the former owner know the dog was gay? Was the dog really gay? Can a dog be gay? Just seeing the phrase “gay dog” was enough of a curiosity trigger for many people to click and thus propel this story along.

Headlines that leave room for a reader’s “curiosity gap” can take advantage of this powerful emotion.


Content marketing is real, friends. Consider the thousands of dogs who face Elton’s same fate every day without us hearing a word about them. What did he have that they don’t? A compelling back story.

Even without the unforgettable distinction of being the “gay dog,” Elton’s story would still have more to draw someone in than poor fellow Tennessee adoptable dog “Puppy 2,” who has no identifying details or even a name (seriously, someone adopt Puppy 2).



There’s nothing like a deadline to motivate people, particularly a morbid one like Elton’s. The urgency of that deadline likely played a large factor in this story’s spread.


No, Elton’s blurb didn’t go through an editor or get optimized for keywords, and maybe that’s part of the appeal, too. Now that we’re so used to being marketed to on social networks, a bit of genuine, organic passion stands out and leaves a real mark. Elton may be the most famous, but every animal shared on the Facebook page receives a similar heartfelt plea.

A Great Visual

Think this story would have gone nearly as far without that visual of a sad puppy face behind a chain link fence? Doubtful. And those who cared enough to follow up on the story got to see the before and after transformation, too. Here’s Elton living the good life post-adoption:


The awesome trend of giving adoptable pets glamour-shot style photo shoots to better show off their personalities is further proof of visual content’s storytelling power – and it gets results, say shelter workers.

The Cute Factor

Dogs, cats, a bucket of sloths – no matter what the animal, cuteness spreads.

What’s more, cute has hardcore marketing heft. When the New York Times took on the cuteness phenomenon, the article noted a study of high school students who were more likely to believe antismoking messages when they came from cute cartoon characters like a penguin in a red jacket or a smirking polar bear. The cute factor actually made the message more trustworthy.

A Chance To Help

Yes, reading Facebook can sometimes make you question where humanity is headed, but, at their core, people are pretty decent. And that makes a chance to do something good much more compelling to share than, say, a sales pitch.

In another example of social media marketing for good, lingerie company Soma saw record-high numbers of shares, posts, impressions, and tweets when they worked on a campaign that encouraged users to donate gently used bras for women in need.

Facilitating a chance for people to do something good makes your message more share-worthy.


Finally, we can’t underestimate the close-knit network of organizations, non-profits and shelters that regularly talk to one another to help dogs like Elton find new homes.

With a strong framework in place to facilitate efficient sharing, good content moves even faster.

The Inevitable Happy Ending

Or could it be much simpler than all the points above? Maybe people just turn to social media for a feel-good moment with a happy ending. The only emotion nearly as viral as outrage turns out to be happiness, so this story got to cover all the bases. No wonder it spread.

Does Elton’s story give you any viral content ideas? Let me know in the comments.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social Media Marketing | Social Media Marketing | Social Media Marketing Column


About The Author: is a content crafter at Buffer. She has been an editor and writer at publications including Allure, Time Out New York, Playboy and The Tennessean. She speaks frequently on social media marketing and community management topics.

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  • http://www.jdizm.com/ JDIZM

    Poor dog.. but why does viral content always end up involving animals (not always but you get my drift)

  • RavenCourtney

    That’s a good question. The cute factor is part of it, but it might also be the defenselessness of animals. We feel more compelled to take action because we know they can’t? Just a guess.

  • RavenCourtney

    What an awesome story. Seeing social media being used for good always makes me happy. Thanks for sharing that.


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