Eight Proven Factors to Help Make Your Web Content Go Viral

"M31. The Andromeda Galaxy", Image by Adam Evans

“M31. The Andromeda Galaxy”, Image by Adam Evans

On a daily basis, we see news, commentary, videos, photos, tweets, blog posts, podcasts, articles, rumors and memes go viral where they spread rapidly across the web like a propulsive digital wave. From YouTube postings of dogs and cats doing goofy things to in-the-moment hashtags and tweets about late-breaking current events, attention grabbing content now spreads at nearly the speed of light.

All content creators, strategists and distributors want to know how to infuse their offerings with this elusive clickable contagion. Providing eight very useful and scientifically proven elements to, at the very least, increase the probability of new content going viral, is a new article entitled The Science Behind What Content Goes Viral, by Sarah Snow, posted on SocialMediaToday.com on July 6, 2015. I will sum up, annotate, and pose some not entirely scientific questions of my own.

For further reading I also highly recommend clicking through and reading The Secret to Online Success: What Makes Content Go Viral, by Liz Rees-Jones, Katherine L. Milkman and Jonah Berger (the second and third of whom are professors at the University of Pennsylvania – – the “U of P”), posted on ScientificAmerican.com (“SciAm”) on April 14, 2015. Two fully detailed and fascinating reports by Milkman and Berger that underlie their SciAm article are available here and here. Ms. Snow’s article cites many of the findings in the SciAm piece. As well, I suggest checking out a May 22, 2015 blog post by Peter Gasca entitled The 4 Essentials of the Most Read Content posted on Entrepreneur.com for some additionally effective content strategies, not to mention a hilarious picture of a dog wearing glasses.

Ms. Snow organized her article into a series of eight individual hypotheses about online virality that she then proceeds to provide references to support them. I will put each of these in bold and quotes below as she stated them in her text. (My own highlights in orange are explained afterwards.)

  • Long, in-depth posts tend to go viral more than short ones.”: Drawing from the findings of Milkman’s and Berger’s studies that, among other things, examined the data from the feature on the home page of the NYTimes.com called Most Emailed, longer articles had a higher tendency to be shared. As also stated by Carson Ward of the search engine optimization (SEO) consulting firm called Moz, of all possible variables, word count most closely correlate with the breadth of online sharing. Further, he believes this is a directly causal relationship. (The distinctions between correlation and causation have been previously raised in other various contexts in these six Subway Fold posts.) See also, Mr. Ward’s practical and informative January 14, 2013 posting on Moz’s site entitled Why Content Goes Viral: the Theory and Proof.
  • Inspire anger, awe, or anxiety and your post will go viral.”: Evidence shows that “high energy emotions” such as awe and anger, as opposed to “law energy emotions”, are more likely to spur virality.  Among them, anger is the most effective, but it must be, well, tempered without insulting the audience. It is best for content authors to write about something that angers them, which, in return, require “some tolerance” by their readers. In terms of usage data, blog content which engages controversial topics generates twice as many comments in response. Alternatively, awe is a better emotion for those who wish to avoid controversy and instead focuses on the positive effects of brands and heroic acts.
  • Showing a little vulnerability or emotion helps content go viral.”: This is indeed true again according to the U of P studies. Readers respond to emotional content because they “want to feel things when they read”. The author Walter Kirn is quoted recommending that writers should begin with what they feel “most shameful about”. This is where conflict resides and writing about it makes you vulnerable to your readers. For other content creators, rather than shame, writers can start with some other genuine “human emotion”.
  • “Viral content is practically useful, surprising, and interesting.”: Clearly, engaging and practical content beats boring and dull any day of the week. Content that is useful generates the highest levels of online sharing. For example, posting pragmatic suggestions and solutions to “how-to” questions is going to draw many more clicks.
  • “Content written by known authors is more likely to go viral.”: Milkman’s and Berger’s reports further showed that being a known writer had a significant impact on the sharing of a news article. Name recognition translates into credibility and trust.
  • “Content written by women is more likely to go viral.”: The U of P professors also reported that on NYTimes.com, the gender of a writer had an effect insofar as the data showed that articles by female authors had a tendency to be shared more that stories by male authors. 
  • “Posts that spend a lot of time on the home page are more likely to go viral.”: Yes, insofar as the NYTimes.com goes. (The article does not mention whether other sites have been tested or are planning to be tested for this variable.)
  • “Content that is truly and broadly viral is almost always funny“: This quote about humor from Ward’s post (linked above in the first factor about blog post length), is helpful for content authors as it gives all of them an opportunity to be funny. This is particularly so in efforts to make online ads go viral.

I propose the following mnemonic to assist in remembering all of these variables tracking with the key words highlighted above in orange:

Writer + Emotion – – give- – Useful – – content – – Funny + Long + Inspiration + Gender + Homepage Time

That is, WE give U content FLIGHT!

My own questions are as follows:

  • Which of these factors will more likely endure, expand or disappear, especially now that a majority of users access the web on mobile devices? What new factors that have not yet emerged might soon affect the rate(s) of content virality?
  • Is going viral purely an objective and quantifiable matter of the numbers of clicks and visitors, or are there some more qualitative factors involved? For instance, might marketing specialists and content strategists be more interested in reaching a significant percentage of traffic among a particular demographic group or market segment and just attaining X clicks and Y visitors regardless of whether or not they involve identifiable cohorts?
  • Do the above eight factors lend themselves to be transposed into an algorithm? Assuming this is possible, how would it be applied to optimize viral content and, in turn, overall SEO strategic planning?
  • Beside the length of content discussed as the first factor above, how do the other seven factors lend themselves to being evaluated for degrees of correlation and causation of viral results?

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