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What Kind of Content Goes Viral?

What Kind of Content Goes Viral?

viral-content-principlesVirality. Seems like you can’t throw a dead meme nowadays without hitting a story about the amazing stickiness of llamas or dresses or kittens dancing the Charleston (OK, that last one hasn’t happened yet — just give it time). But while “viral” has definitely become a bit of a buzz word, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be dismissed out of hand.

By understanding the elements of good viral content, and realistically adjusting your expectations of what it can do for your social media marketing, you can actually employ it with a degree of success. Here’s how.

What Successful Viral Content Is … And Is Not

What people tend to be referring to nowadays when they talk about viral is some piece of content that is seen by millions and millions of people, gets talked about on news channels, and essentially equates to the digital version of finding gold in the Klondike.

It’s basically winning the lottery.

But here’s the thing: How many times do you realistically plan on winning the lottery? (Gratuitous hint: The answer should be zero.)

Instead, what smart social media marketers talk about when they use the term “viral” is content that’s designed to be shared — content that an audience will want to distribute among its own audience. It’s perfectly natural that we should approach our social media marketing with an eye toward the sharing of content. Social platforms were built to encourage that type of behavior, after all. (It’s not called “social” just to sound friendly.)

Instead of hoping to win the digital content lottery, your main objective should simply be to create content that is regularly shared by other people. Period.

Let’s look at some key elements found in most successful shareable/viral content:

Viral Content is Self-Contained

For content to be maximally shareable, it needs to be self-contained so that people can absorb it all in one quick bite.

On Twitter, where callouts and links to websites are common, that’s particularly tricky. But it can be done. An embedded video or image, for example, can give that quick shot of content people will want to share. The same goes for material on Facebook — make sure it’s fully contained, whether it’s a status update, image, video, or anything else.

Viral Content is Visual

The key here is that it attracts people’s attention. People are able to take in vastly more information through images than text, so we seem to naturally gravitate toward images or video.

This may explain a recent trend on Twitter where viral-styled content is appearing as a screenshot of a tweet or some text. The funny thing is, those screenshots, even though they’re just showing text, count as images. And it’s not just because the various social media platforms treat them as such (I’m looking at you, Facebook, with your complex algorithm).

Rather, our brains seem to process those screenshots differently. Since they usually appear in other colors and typically don’t fit natively into the rest of the interface, our eyes don’t gloss over them the way they would with text. As a result, presenting them in image form actually makes them stand out more.

A Note about Image Content: And as long as we’re discussing images, let me take this opportunity to strongly counsel against generating any more of those meaningful-phrases-printed-over-beautiful-images posts. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but that trend has officially died. It has expired. It has shuffled off its mortal coil.

Viral Content is User-Focused

By that I mean it reflects the personalities of the people sharing it. Funny people will want to share funny content; smart people will want to share content that seems intelligent. Sharing is a very emotionally driven activity, since what people share with others will actually shape how the recipients think about them.

As such, avoid creating content that’s exclusively self-promotional — it will rarely resonate on an emotional level with your prospects to the point that they will want to share and be defined by it.

If, however, you absolutely must include a promotional element, focusing on what the product does, not on the product itself, can enhance its viral potential. And it’ll need to be extremely creative and clever — something people will be excited about associating themselves with (The recent “Un-Skippable” commercials from Geico are an excellent example).

Viral Content is Something You Created Yourself

This is probably the most important element of good viral material. To be successful, you really have to create your own content. Very few people have ever had viral success by simply sharing other people’s material. Curating just doesn’t cut it.

It’s useful, too, to realize that being original and creating your own potentially viral stuff is best achieved with a certain attitude or mindset. You have to think like a scientist. Researchers and scientists routinely grind through failed experiments in order to learn from them and finally achieve a result that is successful. According to Smithsonian.com, when asked about his mistakes, Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times — I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

So experiment. See what works and what doesn’t. Tweak things. And be prepared to fail. Some things will be successful, other things won’t be, but if you follow a sort of viral best-practice approach, you will ultimately be building toward a larger reach.

Focus on Creating Shareable Content, Not Viral “Lottery” Content

If your viral-content strategy is centered more on swinging for the lottery fences, you may be in for a level of failure that even Thomas Edison couldn’t endorse. By approaching your viral content with more reasonable expectations, and implementing the elements listed above, you’ll have much better chances of achieving meaningful, more consistent success in the long run.

In the long run, creating shareable content will increase your chances of having that “lottery-winning” viral piece. In the words of the Roman philosopher, Seneca, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Or, to rephrase, “Going Viral is what happens when shareability meets the right opportunity.”

If you have questions about creating a viral content strateg, give us a call. We’re happy to help.

  • http://www.jessienewburn.com JessieNewburn

    Well, this video may not be about kittens dancing the Charleston, but it’s still rather clever and cute. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVW2eiR1uu8 On all the other points you made: great post! I particularly like the reminder than no one should ever “plan” on winning the lottery … in social media or any other endeavor.