The Anatomy of Viral Content

6 minutes

Sharing content is an integral part of modern life

Today, we share more content from more sources with more people more quickly and more often than ever before.

That’s quite a mouthful, but it’s true.

This sharing activity is not about engaging with content but with other people, with content as the primary vehicle for that engagement. Sharing plays a vital role in information discovery and management. So how do you tap into this behavior and get your content in front of as many people as possible?

Most people join social networks to they can interact with people they know, not with a brand. Social media fosters a group/herd mentality — you learn from and are recognized by your peers, and you rely on them for a sense of belonging.

Social media is inherently a selfish medium

The vast majority of social media sharing is motivated by selfishness — sharing something funny or informative improves your social capital, which is the esteem others have for you and your reputation.

Psychology of Social Sharing - New York Times

The New York Times Customer Insight Group’s study, The Psychology of Sharing, set out to determine what motivates people to share content online. They found that we share to:

  • Bring valuable and entertaining content to others: 49%
  • Define ourselves to others: 68%
  • Grow and nourish relationships: 78%
  • Achieve self-fulfillment: 68%
  • Market causes or brands: 84%

What makes content go viral?

To say that something has “gone viral” means that a piece of content has been well-received and widely shared. The content itself can be a blog post, an article, a picture, or a video, but it must be thought-provoking, controversial, or funny enough for people feel an urge to talk about it or share it via social media. For many content creators, going viral is a major goal.

Jonah Berger at the Wharton School of Business co-authored a paper a while back (which is still valid today) called What Makes Online Content Go Viral?, which found that:

  • Positive content is more viral than negative content.
  • Content that evokes high emotions — positive or negative — is more viral than content without emotion.
  • Practical and useful content is the most likely to be shared.

In truth, the vast majority of content — even great content — will never enjoy widespread attention. Understanding some of the components of what makes something go viral can help you make sure that your great content receives the attention it deserves. The infographic at the end of this article from Infographic Design Team nicely illustrates how combining the right design and tone with the appropriate social media marketing platform can lead to success.

Metcalfe’s Law

A way to calculate the value of a network, Metcalfe’s Law is the embodiment of why the Internet and social media sites provide opportunities for marketers to create value and ROI through the use of viral marketing.

  • The network effect says that the value of each potential sharer is proportional to the number of other people they connect with.
  • The more interconnections there are between users, the more quickly and widely the information can be shared.
  • Viral marketing is a way to create value beyond the initial costs of creating the content. While it doesn’t happen every time, content that passes the critical mass crossover will see the advantages of the network effect. Cost is still a constant, but value grows exponentially based on the number of people whom the virality touches.

Anatomy of viral social media content

Contagious viral content marketing

Obviously not everything can be viral content. Virality depends on two things:

  • The content itself is worthy of being shared
  • The content is shared widely enough to reap the benefits of the networks on which it is shared

Types of viral content

  • Articles and blog posts
  • Interactive content, including games, quizzes, and widgets
  • Video/audio
  • Infographics

Reasons we share content

  • It’s hilarious. Something that makes us laugh is a natural mood elevator.
  • It’s incredible or unbelievable. When something makes your jaw drop, you can’t resist sharing it with friends to elicit the same reaction.
  • It’s deeply emotional. Content that touches us emotionally, either positively or negatively, is a natural thing to share because we want to connect with others over the experience.
  • It agrees with our world view. When we find content that backs up our values and reinforces our world view, it’s logical to share it with other like-minded people.
  • It makes us stop and think. When content makes us stop in our tracks and ponder big questions, we want to share it with others so they can also look at the big picture.
  • It isn’t covered by mainstream media. Provocative or relevant news stories that slip through the cracks wind up elsewhere online and can draw huge audiences.
  • It will make someone smile. We all need regular reminders to look at the lighter side of life, so content that’s fun serves that purpose.
  • It’s dramatic. Drama and good gossip are interesting.
  • It’s embarrassing. When something is difficult to watch, most people can’t look away.
  • It’s provocative, but safe for work. Many of us can’t resist sharing content that’s a bit risque but not so much that it can’t be openly shared.

Viral content design

Written content can often rely on its own merits, but video, interactive content, images, and infographics should be:

  • Relevant, meaningful, and new
  • True, consistent, honest, and accurate
  • Accessible and usable
  • Structured and attractive

Making sure that content conveys a point clearly and completely by adding rich media where possible (videos, images, etc.) can take an interesting article viral — the extra polish can make a huge difference.

Top 10 emotions that make content go viral

About half of businesses find it difficult to create compelling content that drives website traffic. Blog posts, videos, and other forms of content that evoke these positive emotions are most common in highly viral content:

  1. Amusement
  2. Interest
  3. Surprise
  4. Happiness
  5. Delight
  6. Pleasure
  7. Joy
  8. Hope
  9. Affection
  10. Excitement

Bottom 10 emotions for driving website visitors

  1. Anger
  2. Politeness
  3. Frustration
  4. Doubt
  5. Embarrassment
  6. Despair
  7. Hurt
  8. Guilt
  9. Contempt
  10. Shame

The secret sauce

A great piece of content is prerequisite for viral sharing, but initial promotion is equally important. If you’ve spent time developing a social media presence or have connections to those who have, your viral efforts can be much more successful. Here are a few channels to target:

  1. Reddit, Facebook, WhatsApp, TikTok, and Instagram: If your viral marketing campaign is popular on one of these sites, it will be seen by thousands of people and amplified to many more.
  2. Twitter: Having a person of authority tweet your content can create a snowball effect as it propagates across the Web.
  3. Blogs: If you have a relationship with a high-authority blogger and they mention your story, your reach is increased by virtue of their community.

Enable and encourage sharing

Be sure to include:

  • Easy-to-use social sharing buttons for the major social sites
  • Embed codes for images (facilitates better syndication)
  • Calls to action that redirect traffic to your website and prompt people to share
  • Incentives for sharing
  • Tagging of sources so they will refer to you as well

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