So you want to go viral?
While many brands dream of creating the next big splash in social media, most are resigned to the fact that virality is reserved for celebs and big-name brands.
But that isn’t the case, and this article I’ll walk you through what makes a post go viral, and how you can increase your odds of creating viral content.
What We’ll Cover:
- What it takes to go viral
- How to establish a baseline
- How to increase the odds of going viral:
If you can make something go viral, you really win as a brand. It can help you amass a loyal following and increase your profile as a go-to expert in your industry.
Common wisdom suggests that it’s not a great idea to make “going viral” the focal point of your marketing strategy. What that really means is, you shouldn’t count on your content to take off on its own.
You can, however, follow a prescribed set of best practices to increase your chances of virality.
It’s equal parts art, science, and dogged commitment to content promotion.
What Does it Take to Go Viral?
Want to be an influencer? Whether you want to be a lifestyle guru or a subject matter expert, you’ll need to master the mechanics of “going viral.”
This infographic does a nice job explaining why it’s so difficult to “go viral.” You’re competing against an unimaginable amount of content, making it hard to just reach your audience in the first place.
Top content tends to come from actual famous people like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, who use the same channels as brands and burgeoning subject matter experts to connect with audiences.
And, finally, you’ll need to have a pulse on the latest trends, a deep understanding of your audience’s emotional trigger points, and the ability to create original, high-quality content.
It helps to think about virality as a formula:
(Virality Level) x (Number of People Who See the Content) = Number of Shares
For instance, if you promote the content to 100 people and 10 of those people share it, then you’d have a virality level of 10%.
Those figures will change over time as more people share the content with their own online communities. Keep in mind, each viral post has a lifecycle dependent on virality level and promotion.
Meaning, while the initial novelty might wear off within a few days or weeks, continuously refreshing and promoting evergreen content can help you get more mileage out of a single piece.
Establish a Baseline Before Diving in
Virality is relative.
It varies considerably by niche, platform, and business size, so you’ll want to get a sense of how an average piece of content performs before changing up your strategy.
Look at the content performance metrics for any business and you’ll find that most have an average number of shares for every blog post.
For example, our Ignite Visibility blog posts might get between 50 and 200 shares on average. Viral posts typically earn 10x or 20x more engagement than the average post. Using this example, we might consider a post viral if it gets 1,500 shares.
That said, if I guest post on another platform like Search Engine Land or Entrepreneur, the threshold for virality is much higher. The average post on these platforms gets between 1,000 and 3,000 shares a piece, as they have a larger audience.
How to Increase Your Chances of Going Viral
So, as I’ve mentioned up top, the virality formula is as follows:
(Virality Level) x (Number of People Who See the Content) = Number of Shares
Of course, that formula alone won’t magically make readers flock to your content. As is the case with any content strategy, relevance and quality come first. My recommendation is that you start by creating content that aligns with Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines.
While following E-A-T best practices won’t generate shares in and of itself, it’s important to make sure that you start with a high-quality foundation, then start pulling the triggers that make your audience fall in love with your content.
1. Understand Your Audience
Content must trigger an emotional response from your audience to the extent that they feel compelled to share that content with their online community.
Once you can see things from your audience’s perspective, it’s a whole lot easier to create the content they want.
On your end, this means that you need to develop a content strategy rooted in data.
Dig into your audience’s sharing habits on all relevant channels. What kinds of articles generate the most buzz within your existing online channels? Who shares your articles? What kinds of content do those same users share from other accounts?
It might help to start with a simple checklist, like this one Canva’s team developed to assess competitor content:
2. Lean into Long-form
Given that today’s consumers have short attention spans and access a ton of information, long-form content seems a bit counterintuitive.
However, the reality is long-form content often receives more engagement than its bite-sized counterparts. BuzzSumo found that the longer the content (between 3,000 and 10,000 words) the more shares it receives on average.
3. Add Some Visual Appeal
If you have some misgivings about posting 3,000 or 10,000-word articles, visuals are here to save the day. Posts containing infographics, images, or videos are more likely to go viral than those containing only text.
Images both break up the big walls of text that put readers to sleep and help explain important information.
I should also mention that visual media is only half of the equation. You’ll also need to think about formatting.
Here are a few basic rules to follow when developing your content:
- Use headers and subheaders to promote easy scanning.
- Present information with bullet points and numbered lists where possible.
- Keep sentences short and to the point.
- Limit paragraphs to 2-3 sentences.
- Use italics and bolded text to emphasize key points.
4. Tap into Your Audience’s Emotions
Emotions play a major role in making content go viral–particularly high-arousal emotions like surprise, fear, or joy.
But research suggests that arousal isn’t the only thing at play here. In a recent study examining the relationship between emotions and virality, the recipe for driving shares may come down to three factors: valence, arousal, and dominance.
This is known as the VAD model, which breaks down as follows:
- Valence. Represents the positivity or negativity associated with an emotion. So, anger or fear has a negative valence, while happiness has a positive valence.
- Arousal. Arousal is measured on a scale that ranges from excitement to relaxation. For example, fear is a high-arousal emotion, while sadness is low-arousal.
- Dominance. Rated on a scale from submission to control, high-dominance emotions include things like inspiration or admiration, while fear and sadness are low-dominance emotions.
When looking at viral content, researchers found a link between viral content and varying amounts of valence, arousal, and dominance.
Those articles that received the most comments were associated with high-arousal emotions like happiness or anger and low-dominance emotions that left people feeling that they lacked control.
Social sharing, on the other hand, was largely driven by a different VAD combination.
People are more likely to share content when it evokes high-dominance emotions, which is why you’ll see a lot of “filler” feel-good content when you scroll through your Facebook feed.
For more specific ways to tap into these VAD combos, here’s a quick breakdown of the kind of content that tends to really take off:
- Cute Stuff. Cats, babies, unlikely animal friendships. People love sharing adorable content that makes them feel good.
- Funny. Same idea as the cute stuff. People love sharing funny memes and jokes that make them laugh.
- Practical Advice. How-tos or detailed content with detailed information tends to generate a lot of shares. Marketers that understand audience pain points and common questions have an opportunity to go viral by way of being useful.
- Inspiring Content. Inspiring content runs the gamut from technological innovation to stories of heroism or survival.
- Rage-Inducing Stories. While anger is technically a “negative” emotion, political or social justice-oriented content drive action by tapping into that high-arousal/low-dominance state mentioned above.
5. Embrace the Shock Value
Viral content works because there’s an element of surprise, even shock. Essentially, you want your content to trigger a feeling that prompts them to share that piece with others.
While shock value is perhaps associated with blood, guts, and jump scares, shock comes from a far more diverse range of emotions. Whether it’s fear, humor, romance, or something else, the goal is to create something unique and interesting.
As such, write your content with the intent of adding to existing conversations, or better yet, creating new conversations altogether. If you’re just rehashing the same point someone else already made, then what’s the point?
If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend starting with a longtail keyword and heading down a competitive research rabbit hole.
Look for the top articles and sites ranking for your target keyword and take note of the following:
- The depth and breadth of topics covered
- The writing style, tone, and words used in top-performing content
- Information gaps, thin content, or opportunities to create a “better” version of what’s already out there
6. Work with Influencers
According to a Columbia University study, influencer shares were a key ingredient in making content go viral.
At a certain point, you’ll hit the limit of how many people you can reach using your own channels. As such, you’ll need to team up with the right partners to increase your chances of going viral and to grow your user base.
Once you’ve defined the habits and behaviors of your target audience, you’ll want to identify the brands and influencers that resonate with that group. If you’re not sure where to start, BuzzSumo and FollowerWonk are great tools for streamlining your research process.
Study the people who influence you as well as the other influencers in your industry. Watch what they do on social media, what they share and how they interact with the online community. I’m not suggesting that you rip off someone else’s strategy; rather, that you track these interactions as a means of learning more about your audience.
What language resonates with this group? How do they talk about pain points? What types of content gets shared the most?
Make a point of engaging with their social media accounts by sharing their best content, commenting, liking, and linking to their content when appropriate.
The key thing here is to approach slowly—interact with your targets, get to know their work, and make a genuine effort to start conversations and help others in your industry.
I recommend reaching out to influencers about once a week. Be persistent, without coming off as desperate. Here, it’s more about setting the stage for real relationships, which will become increasingly important as your influencer profile rises.
7. Guest Posting
Guest blogging is one of the best ways to boost your organic search rankings and get content in front of a larger audience.
While guest posting can be hard to get right, it pays off in the form of increased exposure, relationships with industry insiders, and more followers on social media.
You can find guest posting opportunities manually by entering the following queries into Google’s search box(I’ve also put together a list of the best guest posting opportunities for marketers):
- Niche + contributor guidelines
- Niche + write for us
- Submit a guest post
- Niche + submit blog post
- Niche + submit an article
You can also use a similar approach using Twitter search by entering something like, “niche + guest post.”
Other strategies include reverse engineering your competitors’ strategy by reviewing their backlinks with tools like Ahrefs, SEMRush, or Alexa. Or, you might use a social listening tool like SproutSocial, Mention, or BuzzSumo to identify a list of relevant sites.
Once you’ve developed a list of guest posting opportunities, you’ll then want to get rid of those that aren’t worth the effort.
You’ll want to guest post on sites that meet the following criteria:
- Have a higher domain authority than your website
- Falls into your niche market
- Stands to drive targeted traffic to your site
- Places your content in front of a large social media audience
- Consistently posts high-quality content
8. Focus on Community-Building
The concept of community in a social media context has taken off over the past year or so, in part due to Facebook’s move to make Facebook and Instagram more “authentic” and “community-oriented.”
While this certainly looks like a play to increase ad sales, community-building can help marketers build stronger connections with their audience.
Large companies, of course, will find it easier to “go viral,” as anything they post goes out to their millions of followers, while smaller businesses may struggle to cut through the noise on social media.
Viral content is rarely promotional. People don’t necessarily want to share an “ad” with their followers.
Rather than worry too much about shoe-horning your logo and branding into your content strategy, focus your efforts on nurturing relationships within your niche communities and from there, share content that speaks to their unique pain points/goals.
9. Promote Content Everywhere
Just about every piece of viral content has been promoted by someone, be it the writer themselves or someone who stumbled across a gem worth sharing.
With that in mind, you’ll need to develop a promotion strategy that spans all relevant channels to increase the chances that someone will find and share your content.
Based on where your audience “hangs out” online, you might tailor content to fit with some combination of the following formats:
- Email marketing
You’ll also want to boost your top-performing posts to increase their reach even further.
The Real Secret to Going Viral? You Need to Have a Plan
Look, while I’ve been talking about the concept of going viral throughout this entire article, let me be clear about one thing: virality is all about planning.
While certain memes of cats playing keyboards or children saying hilarious things seemingly go viral overnight, those instant “hits” aren’t necessarily indicative of a great content strategy.
There’s no for-sure way to guarantee something will go viral, but the best practices outlined above should make it more likely.