The author’s posts are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
Let’s start with some questions.
- Do you want coverage for your brand in major publications?
- Do you want significant increases in your backlink profile?
- Do you want a larger, more engaged community?
- Do you want thousands of new visitors to your site?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you should be thinking about creating viral content.
What can viral content do for you?
This is a piece of content we launched 4 months ago.
Since launch it has been featured on CNN, ZDNet, and Fast Company, has hit over 500 linking root domains, has earned over 95k social shares, and most importantly, has driven 270k+ unique visitors to the client’s site.
So, how can you start creating viral content?
First things first: What do we mean by viral content?
Any sort of content where the viewership grows rapidly as the result of sharing. Here’s a good primer.
Secondly, how do we get good at viral content?
Looking back at past viral success is a great way of understanding what’s going to be successful in the future, so we need to get our hands on some data!
To get that data, I worked with the team at BuzzSumo, a content marketing research tool I highly recommend.
We dug into their database to find the 2,000 most-shared pieces of content on the web that were published within the last six months.
For each of those domains, we then pulled the second-most shared pages, which gave us a great opportunity to do some maths and identify the “content outliers”—the pages on a site that have massively outperformed other content on the same site.
For this analysis we looked for content outliers within the top 2,000 list, and also took a deep dive into the top 50 most-shared pages.
So, what did we learn from the analysis?
1. Make visual content, because it’s easy to engage
Of the top 50 most-shared pieces of content, 48% were video, and 24% were image-based.
That means 72% of the viral content analysed was primarily visual.
So why is visual content so successful? Visual content is incredibly easy for people to understand and engage with. By reducing the engagement demands on the viewer, we’re increasing the amount of people that take the time to engage with our content and therefore increasing the size of our audience that engage and share.
2. The quality of your idea is EVERYTHING
This sounds obvious, but it’s worth drilling into. In his excellent book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” Jonah Berger flips contemporary thinking on his head by saying that mavens (influencers) are less important than we think. The real key to viral success is the quality of the idea.
This piece of content from Mirabeau Wines, “How to Open A Bottle of Wine Without A Corkscrew,” is an incredible example of a winning idea.
To date, this piece has been shared nearly 1 million times, featured in The Telegraph, The Mirror and Time Magazine, and has been viewed over 5 million times on YouTube.
Content marketing tip: Forget everything else, just get your idea right. How? To start, read this.
3. Create your content around scalable themes
What stood out in the data from BuzzSumo was the broad appeal (scalability) of the topics that were being shared. Marriage, friendship, family, cancer, and personal improvement featured in more than 30% of the top 50 posts.
But why did they feature so heavily?
These concepts are relevant to a large audience and provide the opportunity for wide-scale sharing.
As a content marketer, when ideating content, you need to make the distinction between targeting a niche audience and targeting a broad audience.
|Niche audience||More viral due to shared values ideals and interests of the niche|
|Broad audience||Less viral due to the disparate nature of the group, but with opportunity to operate at a much larger scale|
The audience that you choose to target has a major effect on the level of success that your content is likely to achieve.
Content marketing tip: A third way is to target a broad niche. This involves creating content that is interesting to a specific niche audience, which then stimulates interest in the larger market.
By doing this you get the benefits of the concentrated sharing of a highly passionate user base, which then stimulates interest in the larger market.
Using ‘The History of Dance Music’ as an example, you can see the way the content could spread through the web, from:
Highly active and passionate dance music fans > Interested dance music fans > General music lovers
4. Make content interactive
Interestingly, the two most shared pieces of content pulled from BuzzSumo were both quizzes:
There are many reasons why this content killed it, but one of the key reasons is the interactive nature of each piece. By forcing users to interact with a piece of content to fully experience it, you increase their level of engagement. The more people that engage with a piece, the more people will share it.
Content marketing example: This interactive piece detailing the tech sector’s acquisitions since 1999 has been a great success.
Why it worked: The content encourages engagement via scrolling or zooming to drill into the data.
5. Stimulate an emotional reaction
A key way to create viral content is to stimulate an emotional reaction.
Why is emotional content so often viral?
At a simplistic level, our emotional experiences are amplified through sharing. So when we experience a strong emotional reaction, we want to share it. Think of social buttons as a vent for expressing our emotional experiences.
What’s really interesting though is that the emotion you stimulate (positive versus negative) is less important than the strength of the emotional reaction.
Recent research has found that the strength of the emotional reaction is absolutely key in viral content.
I defy anyone to read this article about a mountain pathway in China without experiencing some sort of emotional reaction (mine: seriously sweaty palms!). This piece has been shared over 1 million times and it’s the strength of the emotional reaction that has stimulated people to share.
Content marketing example: As a content marketer, it can be pretty difficult to create an emotional reaction if you’re in a boring industry. But you need to look beyond your products to your audience and the things they love and care about. Think of the Dove Real Beauty campaign. Soap is boring. They took an existing emotional issue that their consumers cared about and developed it into an incredible marketing campaign.
6. Leverage social triggers
Hat tip to Jonah Berger again for this one. If we can link our content to existing environmental cues, then it’s more likely that we will get our content noticed by our target audience. This works because we are leveraging existing audience awareness to get cut through.
By playing off issues that are already front of mind for our audience, we increase a piece’s chances of success.
There were various examples of this throughout the BuzzSumo data, but a key one (not in the list) was from Time, titled “The Selfiest Cities in the World.” Selfies are a major social trigger at the moment, so Time have hooked their content into that.
7. Personalised content
What can you teach people about themselves? Content that allows people to better understand themselves and their relative standing with the rest of the world performed really well in the data sample.
The following is a great example of this type of content. By making content specifically about a user you automatically stimulate interest.
8. Target an audience likely to share
We all know that you need to create content for a specific audience (and ideally for your customers). But you can increase your chances of virality by targeting audiences that are highly likely to share…
If your content is targeted towards a group of people that don’t share a lot, then it is going to be harder to create viral content in that space.
Pro tip: An audience that Buzzfeed target their content towards is the “Bored in Work, Bored in Line” audience. Basically this audience is a group of people who are bored, surfing the web, looking to be entertained or surprised.
The “What Career Should I Actually Have” is a classic example of Buzzfeed targeting this audience.
Content marketing example: Another great example of audience targeting comes from the site “Wait But Why,” called Why are Generation Y Yuppies So Unhappy. By specifically creating content for and about Generation Y (a highly active sharing group) they were able to increase their chances of success. This article was syndicated to the Huffington Post and became that site’s most shared piece of content (1.2 million shares).
Pro tip: According to viral kings Upworthy, “middle-aged women are the biggest sharers on the web. If you can target them, do!”
9.Take a contrarian viewpoint
A great way of stimulating an emotional response is by taking a contrarian viewpoint. An example from the buzzsumo list of contrarian content was this:
By taking an entrenched viewpoint and flipping it on it’s head, you’re making a piece of content a must read because you are challenging people’s existing views.
10. Reinforce viewpoints people already have
Another viral content approach is to make people feel right. Creating content that reinforces what people already think and feel is a great way to stimulate sharing.
This video is about people using their phones too much and not living in the moment.
It expresses a sentiment that a lot of people related to, which in turn increases their propensity to share.
Content marketing example: Upworthy focus the majority of their content towards existing viewpoints that people already have. Whether it’s LGBT, education, parenting, guns and crime, by playing off existing emotionality, they increase the virality of their content.
Here is the full data list of BuzzSumo’s 50 most-shared pieces of content on the web along with the sharing statistics:
Hope you enjoyed the post. Fire any questions to me in the comments. Up and to the right!!!
About jamesporter — James is a marketing consultant at Distilled. When not busy praying at the altar of Seth Godin, he can mostly be found writing about himself in the third person.