English: A protester holding a placard in Tahrir Square referring to Facebook and Twitter, acknowledging the role played by social media during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Confession: I used to look down on anyone who thought they could create “viral” content for the web—like they knew the magic secret for making something so contagious that millions would share it. Oh, yes, you want to make your new music video thingy go viral…of course you do.
However, in the last few months my perspective has changed. I think it’s actually possible to create content with high viral potential. Not due to lectures or complex principles, but due to a tested editorial strategy that I’ve seen work, firsthand.
In early September, we launched a new social media sharing website, gleaning from the masters at Upworthy.com, BuzzFeed.com, Mashable.com and other like-minded sites, and it changed the way I think about viral content. Why? Well, in just one month we’ve achieved what took us years with other sites within our company. In short, we received 5.8 million unique visitors—more than the population of Colorado—in under two months, and grew our Facebook fan base to over 100K. We spent months on the backend strategy and development, but once we launched the site took off faster than anything else we’ve started. One key difference: we changed the way we look at social media, studied the psychology of sharing and refined our vision for content curation.I’d like to offer what we’ve learned—and are learning—with these 10 tips for creating viral content.
An important note: (he humbly demurs) most of these tips have been learned from the shared knowledge base of others. I tried to cite them within each point with supporting links. Although, what makes these tips unique and personal is how we’ve applied them along with the results we’re experiencing early in the launch process.
1. It’s all about content—kind of.
At Upworthy.com, their formula for viral content goes like this:
Virality = strength of the applicability of content and packaging x shareability of original content x size of distribution + luck.
In this formula there are three things you can work on and control and one you cannot. You can work hard to find or create great content; you can work hard on packaging that content with the best headline, image, abstract; you can work hard on expanding your distribution size (email list, Facebook fan page, etc.)—but you cannot create your own luck.
So. Work hard on the things you can control and make sure every piece of content is packaged for viral potential. Stay consistent over time and luck will inevitably strike. Unless you stink at it. In that case, it will not.
Sometimes the content we think will catch on like a virus ends up falling flat and other pieces that we’ve worked hard on—but didn’t expect much out of—will go crazy. One story we featured from the archives went viral as a total surprise. It was a big connect with an international audience that we didn’t see coming.
Image by None via CrunchBase
Finding great content is where it all begins, but the packaging and distribution really matter. And there’s luck. You need luck.
2. Social media is not CNN. Make it fun.
Sara Critchfield, Upworthy’s editorial director, says it well in this short video. (It looks like it was shot in the 80s, but it’s recent and it’s so good.) In it, Critchfield says:
Social media is about socially defining ourselves to other people … there has to be some kind of opinion or point of view, some way to define who you are or else people aren’t going to share your content.
Stop thinking about Facebook as a marketing tool and think about it more like a conversation at a party. What makes something easy to pass on? It’s shared by someone you respect and value—maybe even someone you look up to. We don’t share content on social media just because it’s good content, we share it because it says something unique about us—who we are and what we value.
Dan Vuksanovich says this about the psychology of sharing:
We share content because we believe the people in our social circles will appreciate that content… AND… don’t ever forget this part… appreciate us for sharing.
This is the new way of shareable content—curating something that’s meant to be passed on, not just consumed.
3. Find a way to test. Even if it’s messy. Because it will be.
Testing headlines on social media is tricky business. There’s not a clear-cut way to make A/B testing work so you have to be a little creative, go with the data that’s available and keep refining the strategy. In fact, if you have a great way to A/B test on Facebook, do share.
We run content on Facebook once, measure the engagement and, at a later time, change the image and headline and re-feature it (up to 3-4x). Sometimes the content catches on in the subsequent run, sometimes it doesn’t. However, this practice helps build our knowledge base and gives great content a better chance to get passed on. Once we’re done, we compare notes on effective headlines and share them with the team.
We’ve also run Facebook ads (not that helpful because of the short character limitations) and A/B test our newsletter headlines.
4. Lead with emotion.
Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Français : Logo de Facebook Tiếng Việt: Logo Facebook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The top three metrics for viral content for me personally are: 1) Does it make me cry? 2) Does it make me angry? 3) Does it make me laugh out loud? If it does one of those things, well, there’s a good chance it will have the same affect on someone else.
In this fantastic article on creating viral content from SocialTriggers.com, Derek Halpern offers advice on emotional content:
Positive content is more viral than negative content.
(Amazing, right? When you read the news, you’d think that negativity was a must, heh).
Content that evoked high arousal emotions—positive or negative—is more viral than content without emotion.
(What’s a high-arousal emotion? Think awe, anger, anxiety, or anything related to the fear of loss)
5. Cause-driven content is the new storyline.
People, especially on social media, want to make a difference, share what they stand for and let their networks know what they’re passionate about. If we can publish relevant and inspiring cause-driven content that connects with our users, it makes sharing easy. Instead of trying to market content, we let our users share what’s genuinely important or moving to them. This eliminates the need for expensive ad campaigns and lets the content stand alone on it’s value—or, more specifically, it’s value to our readers. We’re positioning ourselves as their in-the-know friend who’s continually sharing content with them in mind. In other words, cause-driven content helps our readers do something that they already want to do, but don’t know how or where to start.
6. Forget everything you know about what works and doesn’t.
Sloggi Viral marketing? (Photo credit: Denkbeeldhouwer)
We went into the site launch thinking that a specific kind of content would work best for our audience—mainly short, inspirational (and maybe funny) videos. What we discovered was that our readers wanted to engage in meaningful stories—stories that often lasted a lot longer than 3 minutes. Our first viral story was an ESPN feature about a father who found out his unborn daughter had down syndrome. It was 15 minutes long. We didn’t have a lot of hope for it, but we loved the story. It went on to receive 3.5 million views within just a couple of days. *Here’s the headline we used: “This Guy Writes a Confession Letter to His Daughter with Down Syndrome that Will Break Your Heart in 100 Ways.”
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