Thought Leadership
  • Content marketing

Make your content go viral - is there a successful formula?

Stephen Hobbs
18th February 2015

If everything is viral, then nothing is.

So, the last post I wrote ‘Herding cats – you can’t control what your fans want to read or watch’ explained that you can’t control your readers, and that the onus is on you to respond to your readers’ wishes and not the other way around.

Well today, I have a message that on the surface is almost as bad: not only can you not control your readers; you can’t entirely control the content either.

Hopefully you’re not in a business where your boss will tell you to ‘make something go viral’ – there are just no guarantees - and something going truly viral is an incredibly rare event. In fact, it’s sometimes the last thing you expect to get the attention that does. Let me illustrate that last point with a story:

Last November, I won the ‘Most Read Article’ award at Mediablaze’s inaugural internal awards ceremony. Proud and delighted as I was for the recognition, let me tell you a secret: the piece I won the award for took around 15-20 minutes to research and write.

Now, by contrast, pieces that took hours of painstaking research, transcribing and actual writing have sunk without a trace. As pieces I’ve written go, it was nowhere near the best. It wasn’t even in my personal Top 10 for 2014.

This is true wherever I’ve written before – from Mediablaze clients like Merrell, ESET and Tesco, to independent publications like Wired and The New Statesman.

Ask any publisher off the record, and they’ll tell you the same thing: you can’t guarantee a viral hit. Even the phenomenally successful Upworthy recently explained that just 0.42 percent of their posts break the 1 million views mark, and less than one percent breaks 500k, and Upworthy reaches over 27 million unique visitors per month.

So if anybody promises you viral success – best-case scenario is they’re not telling the truth, as it can’t be guaranteed.

But, as I mentioned above, there are steps you can take to make a viral hit more likely, right? That’s true...

Viral content - some hints and tips

Be set up for social

If people can’t share your content easily, they won’t. Experiment with different layouts and split test the hell out of them to ensure it’s easy for the laziest of readers to tell people about your article.

Know your audience

Something that would go viral for The Guardian won’t for The Sun. That’s an extreme example, but you should know your audience well enough to figure out the kind of content they’re likely to share.

Be original

It’s very tough to be totally original on the Internet, but maybe a new spin on an old topic will help? Repeating verbatim what was last week’s viral hit is a surefire way to make your audience cynical.

Be Shareable

Being sharable isn’t the same as being good. It has to either be something that people will know will benefit others (so funny their lungs hurt, so incredible advice they HAVE to pass it on). If people don’t share, its viral reach is limited.

Keep Trying

If only 0.42 percent of Upworthy’s articles have reach, then you’re going to find that even less works for you to begin with. Keep trying - something will surprise you.

Mix and match your content

Don’t just stick to words for your next hit: consider video, audio, cartoons, infographics – even a webgame – as the way forward. Embracing a mix of media and channels will broaden reach.

Remember that virality is relative

A big hit for Buzzfeed would be something in the millions of views. But Buzzfeed gets over 175 million unique visitors per month. If your site gets 10k visits a month, and you publish a one-off article that attracts 50k views – I'd call that viral...

Landing a megahit

We’ve had some big-hitting articles in my time here at Mediablaze, but if everything is viral, then nothing is. Not everything can or will go viral: accepting that is part of the process, and makes it all the more worthwhile when you land a megahit.

It’s impossible to predict, even with the steps above. Are you feeling lucky?

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