Viral content is a Holy Grail in the world of content marketing. While there is no strict or numerical definition of what constitutes a “viral” piece, in general, a viral piece of content is one that has been circulated throughout the Internet hundreds of thousands to millions of times. Because it’s seen by millions of people and talked about ad infinitum, getting your brand attached to a piece of viral content is a surefire way to skyrocket your brand’s popularity and earn thousands—if not millions—of new visitors to your site.
The term “viral content” has become viral in its own right. With the majority of business owners and marketers today engaging in some kind of content marketing (or at least recognizing it as a powerful marketing agent), the idea of spiking past the realm of “normal” results with viral content is tantalizing.
Despite frequent claims of having the “secret” to creating viral content, few marketing authorities have ventured into the science behind virally shared content, and none have come up with a verifiable, systematic process to create new viral content; the former is elusive, and the latter is impossible.
Instead of proposing a “guaranteed formula for success” or the “secret to making content viral,” I’m going to lay out some irrefutable truths about viral content, debunk some serious misconceptions, and hopefully give you a model that can lead you to the creation of better—if not viral—content for your campaign.
Of course, achieving this is far easier said than done. There’s no perfect formula for creating a piece of viral content, and some people spend months trying to create one only to fall short.
First, it’s helpful to define exactly what viral content is—or at least what I mean by it. The phrase has become a buzzword, often abused and manipulated to fit into different contexts. The term, of course, comes from the word “viral,” as in, spreading like a virus. Much like a single person carrying a disease can get an entire office sick, and that office can infect an entire neighborhood, a single piece of effective, “viral” content can be shared socially to exponentially increasing audience sizes.
There aren’t any strict definitions on what constitutes “viral”—a video with 15 million views, an article with 1 million shares, and an infographic with 100 links pointing to it could all be considered viral in their own contexts. For our purposes, the term “viral” will apply to any piece of content that is circulated, socially or otherwise, many times more than an average, similar piece.
For most brands, getting more visibility is a good thing. But let’s explore the myriad benefits even a single piece of viral content can offer:
(Image Source: Podio)
(Image Source: Moz)
Keep in mind that “viral” content achieves these goals to a degree much higher than ordinary “good” content. If you charted out all the links and shares that all the content in the world received, it wouldn’t follow a normalized pattern, or a typical bell curve. Instead, what you see is a massive spike of shares and links for a very small minority of pieces:
(Image Source: Moz)
Assuming it takes the same amount of effort to produce a “viral” piece of content and the next-best tier of content quality, you can expect the viral piece to perform more than 5 times better! One small step in quality leads to an enormous leap in results.
Just because there are ways to increase your likelihood of going viral doesn’t mean it’s a sure path. There is always a degree of unpredictability, and you need to be prepared for that. You may have a piece that, scientifically, meets all the criteria to go viral fall flat, and conversely, a seeming flop could skyrocket to success—just take Flappy Bird as an example.
(Image Source: Wikipedia)
Moral of the story: users are weird. Take my following advice with a grain of salt, and strive for overall improvements rather than celebrity-level popularity in your landmark pieces.
We know what viral content is, and what it can’t be. We know that “something” makes a piece popular or appealing enough for massive numbers of users to share it with other users, but what is that “something?” There’s no single or simple definition, so instead I’m going to explore a number of different qualities that, in combination with each other, can spark a piece of content to explode in popularity.
According to a study of 7,000 New York Times articles, valence is a significant factor in determining whether a piece will “go viral.” Specifically, positive content has a higher degree of virality than negative content. If you read headlines regularly, this may come as a surprise to you—after all, the media is frequently criticized for being too negative, and most of your friends will agree that reading the news is “depressing.” However, positively positioned pieces always outperform negative ones in terms of shareability. Keep this in mind when debating between angles like “why you’ll always be a failure” or “why you always have a shot at success.”
There are two dimensions of emotionality: initial stimulation, and contagiousness. In the former, the reader has an individual, independent “gut reaction” to your piece. In the latter, the reader sees a potential for other users to have this gut reaction.
Initial stimulation is important because it draws a reader in, and makes them connect to the piece. Contagiousness is important because readers have a natural tendency to try and strike up emotions in other readers, particularly friends and family members. Both require a strong emotional foundation in order to trigger a viral event.
(Image Source: Harvard Business Review)
Anticipation, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, fear, trust, and joy all have hotspots in the outermost and innermost edges of this emotional chart, with anticipation, trust, and surprise (more on surprise later) having especially strong tendencies to encourage shares. People naturally want others to feel these emotions when they feel them internally—so pieces charged with these emotions naturally get more shares.
Instigating an emotion with a positive twist isn’t enough, however. To become viral, there must be some level of practicality to a piece. It doesn’t have to be a tutorial, or some life-changing piece of information, but it does have to add value to a person’s life one way or another.
“Life hacks,” a viral idea in their own right, have become incredibly popular, even leading to the development of sites like Lifehacker and Lifehack.org. These sites revolve around dispensing practical, actionable information, and as a result, their pieces have achieved massive, lasting popularity and social syndication.
Take this, one of Lifehacker’s most popular all-time pieces, with 5 million views:
(Image Source: Lifehacker)
People see a title like this and can usually think of at least one time or occasion this information would have been extremely useful; they pass it on to others half to be a Good Samaritan and half to demonstrate their resourcefulness. Without digging too deep into the psychology here, know that practicality is always a good thing.
Going back to the “surprise” element I touched on in the emotional section, it’s important to know that defying user expectations is a major factor in determining the virality of a piece. If a piece conforms to expectations, no matter how useful or entertaining it is, it’s not worth sharing, in the same way that your morning commute isn’t worth remembering unless something unusual happens along the way.
Take the story of the red paper clip as an example. You may remember this story from back in 2005; an active Craigslist participant started with a red paper clip, trading various items for items of slightly higher value, until he eventually traded for an entire house. This house:
(Image Source: Wikipedia)
If the piece were about a similar failed attempt, or about how someone traded a paperclip for a binder clip, or anything “usual,” it never would have circulated. Instead, it took users by surprise—even to the brink of disbelief.
It’s a sad fact of the content world that it’s possible to get lots of shares without anyone actually reading your material. People form fast first impressions when they see your headline, so if you want to go viral, you need a headline, image, or other first impression that hooks readers immediately.
One good way to do this is to stir up controversy; state an opinion on a matter that is strongly debated. If you want to hedge your bets and avoid aggressively polarizing topics, you can stick to “soft” forms of controversy:
(Image Source: HelpScout)
The above example is highly debatable, yet doesn’t have high stakes or consequences. As you can see, it earned 12,372 shares.
This probably goes without saying, but the rule of weightiness applies to every other qualification on this list; you have to exhibit qualities to a strong degree if you want to reap their rewards. For example, don’t be scary, be terrifying. Don’t be just somewhat debatable. Don’t be kind of surprising. With viral content, it’s definitely a case of “go big or go home.”
The original term wasn’t invented to describe dumb trends on the Internet, but viral content truly is a good example of a meme. Memes are a cultural substitute for genes in an evolutionary environment, and like genes, they draw their power from selective pressures and variability. A small variation on an existing social more could be enough to make something go viral—like a parody video:
151 million views for this. Seriously.
That variability can also apply to your content’s ability to be changed by users. For example, take the rampant popularity of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” just a few years back:
Countless celebrities, companies, and individuals participated in this challenge, and many of them racked up millions of views and shares.
The key takeaway here is that variability is powerful; it gives users a bit of what they’re used to, and something surprising at the same time. If implemented properly, it also encourages a degree of audience participation, which is always a good thing for a brand.
I hesitate to use the word “quality” here because it’s so vague, but it’s important to recognize. Let’s say you’ve conducted some surprising, exciting, positive research and you’re presenting it in a piece of long-form content. Theoretically, your material has all the right ingredients, but your body copy is riddled with awkward phrasing and spelling errors. Do you think you’ll still attract the same amount of attention? Let’s say you have an awesome idea for a video, but the final production is grainy and the sound quality is horrible. Will it still succeed?
Your content needs to be detailed, concise, well-researched, polished, and proofread to the point of perfection. Otherwise, even great ideas will fall flat.
One more note before I move onto the next section; popularity is a self-perpetuating mechanism. That is to say, once it reaches a certain threshold, content will start earning shares simply because it already has a lot of shares. As an anecdotal example, have you ever watched a YouTube video simply because you heard it had millions of views? Of course you have. We all have. We trust the general consensus—more than we should sometimes—but this is important to recognize in the pursuit of viral content.
To go viral, then, you don’t need to produce content worthy of 10 million shares on its own. Even getting 1 million could instantly propel you to 10. Similarly, getting 100,000 could help you get to 1 million, and so on down the line. I’ll touch on this a bit more later, in my “Igniting the Fire” section, but know that sometimes, just a few more shares is all you need to start a chain reaction, and accordingly, just a few small improvements to your content can help it cross into that new territory.
I’ve covered the “ingredients” for a viral piece of content somewhat exhaustively, but how can you package those ingredients?
There are dozens of different mediums, formats, and niches of content, all of which could theoretically support a piece of content with high virality. Take a look at this chart of some of the top-performing content types, according to a recent study by Moz and BuzzSumo covering 1 million pieces of content:
(Image Source: Moz)
List posts, quizzes, why posts, how-to posts, infographics, and videos are all popular formats, but how do you know which one to choose? How do you know if you’re using it correctly?
First things first: you need to know your audience inside and out. Yes, hopefully your content will become so popular even general audience members will catch wind of it, but you need a committed initial circle of supporters, and that means you have to write to a specific demographic. Market research can help you here, but it’s better if you rely on data you’ve gathered yourself; take a look at how previous content topics have performed in the past, and how users react to different changes in your overall content campaign. This should help guide you in the right direction in terms of content angles, brand voice, and multimedia integrations that your audience prefers.
With that said, I want to explore four main brackets of content that you should consider for your “viral” target.
Long-form content is content longer than 1,000 words. Generally speaking, the longer a piece of content is, the more shares and links it’s going to receive:
(Image Source: Moz)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that longer content is always better; you still have to adhere to all the standards I outlined above, and keep your content concise enough that every word still matters. Still, this is a convincing argument that long-form content is the best “type” of content to pursue. It requires more of an upfront investment of time and money, but it’s well worth it to get an adjusted average of nearly 6,000 shares and 11 referring website links.
The key to long-form content is making it meaningful. Don’t write 10,000 words to cover 1,000 words of information, or your piece will fall flat. Accordingly, your choice of topic will play a major role in determining how your piece ultimately performs.
This isn’t to say that short-form content is inherently less valuable. If a viral piece of short-form content only earns a tenth of the potential shares that a long-form piece receives, it may still be worth it if it only took a tenth of the effort.
Short-form viral content, then, is a balancing act between effort and reward. This isn’t to say that you should downplay your efforts, or rush through short-form content, but there are certain formats (list posts, quizzes, etc.) that are naturally less intensive to create than others (original research, extended essays, etc.).
The key to short-form content is to keep it fast and concise. Give people the ability to scan through your content and get the gist of it in mere seconds without sacrificing your emotional appeal or the strength of your work.
When it comes to producing a “viral” image—simpler is often better. Take a look at one of the most popular infographics of the past year:
(Image Source: Creative Bloq)
How many graphic elements do you notice here? It’s a can of Coca-Cola on a solid background, yet it generated an impressive number of shares because it contained ample interesting information. In fact, it’s almost closer to a short-form content piece than it is an image.
Don’t think that you need to stuff your images full of information, either; artistic images, without any written information whatsoever, can also go viral. Remember this from the 2014 Oscars?
(Image Source: TIME)
Snapping an image like this is like capturing lightning in a bottle; it’s incredibly difficult to predict or execute, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be successful on your first try. Infographics, on the other hand, can be constructed the way a written post can. It’s in your best interest to experiment with both, though the latter is much more controllable.
Successful images need to form an immediate first impression, and since there are some viral elements they can’t carry as well as written work (such as practicality), you need to make up for it by strengthening its other elements.
Keep in mind that images don’t have to be an exclusive medium unto themselves—incorporating images into your written content is a solid strategy for increasing shares as well.
Video is a complex medium deserving of its own full-fledged guide, so I’ll strive to cover only the basics here.
Like written content, video comes in both short-form and long-form varieties. Long-form is more intensive and more useful, while short-form is faster and more reactive. Use both these types to your advantage when creating video, and always keep your quality as high as possible.
Though you can get traction by making a video on pretty much anything, the best viral videos show off the capabilities of the medium, using audio and visual elements to tell a story. If you’re simply reading off a page (like in an interview) or if you have animation with no music or audio cues, you may end up with a good video—but it’s unlikely to be a viral one.
All of the elements for virality I listed above apply to videos, but one of the most important is defying user expectations; YouTube has a billion users watching hundreds of millions of hours’ worth of content every day. They’ve pretty much seen everything, so if you want to motivate them to share your video, you have to do the impossible—show them what they haven’t seen.
Again, as with images, you don’t have to use video as a standalone piece; you can use it as an enhancement to a written piece instead.
As I mentioned before, there’s a critical threshold for viral content; you need to achieve a certain number of shares before you can start reaping the compounding benefits of logarithmic cascades of shares; think of it as a snowball needing to achieve a certain mass and shape before it’s capable of rolling down a hill and accumulating more mass on its own.
Accordingly, drafting a good piece of content isn’t the end of your journey. Producing viral content is like gathering wood for a fire; you may have the potential to burn bright, long into the night, but unless you provide the initial spark, you won’t achieve anything. Give your content momentum by pushing it out to your social media audience, syndicating it through social bookmarking sites, engaging users in dialogue, responding to commenters, encouraging your employees to share the piece on their own accounts, and promoting the piece through influencer relationships or even a paid advertising boost. These small steps can, cumulatively, give your piece the initial momentum it needs to start generating visibility on its own—as long as it’s good enough.
While there is no secret way to guarantee success, there are a handful of qualities that can improve the virality, or probability of going viral, of your piece.
Originality is a must-have for any piece of viral content. If you want your material to be shared, watched, or read by that many people, you have to ensure that those people haven’t seen something similar before. The only exception is if your piece offers a strong counterpoint to an existing argument, or serves as a parody of an existing piece. Otherwise, your piece must be 100 percent unique.
The phrase “choice of medium” applies here because there’s no one medium with a higher chance of going viral than another. Videos are easy to share and easy to watch (which you’ll read about later), so they’re often chosen as the ideal medium, but this isn’t necessary for every piece of content. Be sure to choose a form that complements your material.
If your content is hard to get to, or if it’s difficult to read through, you can bet that people won’t enjoy it and won’t want to share it. Instead, work to ensure that your content is a concise, tidy length and easy to access. As an example, for videos, that means using a familiar medium like YouTube and keeping your videos under five minutes (or as short as possible).
There needs to be something surprising about your material. Is it a shocking new statistic? A new revelation that nobody has considered before? Or is it just an interesting turning point in your piece that leads people to an “a-ha” moment? Whatever it is, it needs to generate a sense of surprise. People like sharing surprises.
Even if your content is mostly about entertainment value (which I’ll touch on shortly), there needs to be some grounding in real information or research. Using data to ground your assertions makes you seem more authoritative, and presenting new information makes people more interested in your material.
When something makes us laugh or thrills us, we naturally want to share it. That’s why so many funny videos have a high propensity to go viral. Even if your company’s brand is conservative or highly professional, your content should have some sort of entertainment value. Otherwise, there won’t be an emotional attachment to your piece, and people won’t want to share it.
There needs to be some kind of practical application for your piece, even if it isn’t direct. For example, a tutorial on how to change a tire is practical for obvious reasons, but a video about a man overcoming adversity is practical for an indirect reason—it’s practical because it’s inspiring and can help people get through the day. Find a way to make your content practical, in any form you can.
It helps if your content is time-appropriate. Evergreen content is great as a foundation of your content strategy, but content that comments on recent events or fits in with a specific era has a higher chance of going viral. It provides another emotional connection and gives people a sense of urgency that leads them to share your piece more often.
While most content strategies become successful because they’re focused on a highly specific niche, viral content succeeds when it is more universal and general. In order to become viral, you’ll need to appeal to millions of people, and that means choosing a topic that has a much wider appeal than just for your typical demographics.
If you want your content to be shared, you have to make it easy to share it. If you’re posting your content on your site, include easy-to-find share buttons and social media integrations. Include calls to action in your piece that suggest for your followers and readers to share your piece. Make it easy, and reward your users for doing so.
Finally, your piece needs to have a jumping-off platform to build initial momentum. That might mean using paid advertising for an initial jump, sharing the hell out of it on your social channels, or getting a handful of influencers to share your material.
By this point, I’ve taught you everything there is to know about producing and marketing viral content. I wish there was an actionable “secret” that could guarantee results, but if there was, everybody would be using it, and the very phenomenon of virality would ebb away. Instead, take viral content for what it is: a practical, yet somewhat unpredictable phenomenon that you can increase your probability of achieving but never firmly reach.
Thankfully, most of the best practices for viral content—positivity, practicality, emotional appeal, etc.—will make your content inherently better in the first place, so striving for viral content will nearly guarantee you better results on some level. As you spend more time and effort investing in your viral content strategy, you’ll learn new insights about your audience, new techniques to apply to your approach, and old tactics that just aren’t working for you anymore.
As long as you don’t get too caught up in the sensationalism of virality, learning from and pursuing viral content will make you a better marketer. And after all, that’s what most of us are after in the first place.