How to Produce Viral Content

Today’s publishers have three primary channels to gain new site visitors. They can optimize articles for search engines by stuffing articles with trending keywords. They can simply buy audience through content ad networks like Outbrain and Taboola. Or they can write content for social networks and hope for a viral hit, which will be the focus of this post.

Many news organizations (and content marketing companies too!) judge articles by their virality. There can be huge pageview lifts when articles resonate on social networks. People keep sharing or ‘liking’ articles that speak to them and they spread like wildfire. The traffic spikes immediately after publishing although it often quickly burns out once the web moves on to the next cute cat video.

Articles optimized for search engines, on the other hand, may not see huge spikes in traffic right when they are published (unless they game Google News by covering celebrities; right now, according to Yahoo!, Melissa Joan Hart, Joan Jett and James Bond are trending so I will shamelessly mention them and gain random site visitors). These SEO-optimized content nuggets may pay long-term dividends because many search queries are consistent over time. But they probably won’t spread and bring in lots of new visitors.

As publishers become obsessed with social referral traffic to gain new audiences, it’s worth asking why certain articles go viral. Sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason why a well-researched piece of journalism gets no traction while a silly top ten list shows up in every Facebook feed.

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9, has put together a simple theory for predicting viral appeal. It’s worth reading her entire post but the general idea is that people like to share articles that demonstrate simple truths.

“If you can share a piece of information that’s an absolute truth – whether that’s how to uninstall apps on your phone, or what the NSA is really doing – you too become a truth teller,” Newitz writes. “And that feels good. Just as good as it does to be the person who has the cutest cat picture on the Internet.”

This ‘feel-good’ element is one of the crucial insights Buzzfeed picked up. Buzzfeed has been crushing social for lots of reasons, but at the most basic level, it provides a steady flow of positive content that people can share to look good among their friends.


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