So, you woke up this morning, grabbed a cup of coffee and then immediately logged in to check your blog’s Google Analytics. Because that’s how we bloggers roll. (I have mine set up so I can check analytics on my phone. For reals.)
And your mouth drops open when you notice that your Sessions and Page Views for the last 24 hours are OFF THE CHARTS.
Scanning your reports, you find that the major jump in traffic has come from one single post. Traffic is pouring in to your post from Facebook like ca-ra-zee.
You’ve also got 200 hundred new email subscribers and 11 sales of your e-course.
Congrats, you just had your first viral post!
Of course, then you wake up for real and realize, it was all just a dream and you’re still blogging away in obscurity after three years, still praying for that lucky day that one of your blog posts goes viral.
The Reality of Virality
Having a post go viral is the Holy Grail of blogging. Your post shared over and over and over again.
Virality means increased page views and blog traffic. It can even mean many more email subscribers and income from your blog.
Many bloggers blog away for years before they have a post go viral. Some bloggers are never so “lucky”.
Lots of bloggers believe it’s pure luck that leads to virality. But it isn’t just luck that creates posts that get viewed and shared thousands or even millions of times.
There is research and bona fide science behind the phenomenon of virality. Jonah Berger would know. He literally wrote the book on what makes ideas “go viral”.
A marketing professor at Wharton College at the University of Pennsylvania, Berger spent the last decade researching why certain content “takes off” and the rest flounders in obscurity.
He distilled the findings of his 10 years of marketing research into a reader-friendly, 213 page book entitled Contagious: Why Things Catch On. This New York Times Bestseller has become the modern “Bible of Virality”. Internet and offline marketers study it like it’s a holy book.
In six short chapters, Berger explains the six reasons why some ideas go viral, while others disappear.
Word of Mouth, Why It Matters
A brilliant point that Berger makes in his book is that word of mouth is 10 times more effective than advertising.
Yes. 10 Times more effective than paid, targeted ads.
Word of mouth, which includes social sharing of content on the internet, is more effective because it’s more persuasive and more targeted.
You’re more likely to believe a friend that a certain toothpaste does a great job whitening their teeth than the makers of the product. Your friend doesn’t have a vested (monetary) interest in you believing their claim. Your friend’s claims are more persuasive because it’s a (presumably) non-biased option based on personal experience.
While advertising companies try their best to direct their ads at a target audience, word of mouth, by its very nature, is naturally directed toward an interested audience. If you know a friend hates to ski, you’re not going to tell them about your amazing new ski boots.
So, word of mouth (and social sharing), is 10 times more effective than paid ads and (for the most part) it’s FREE. Sign. Me. Up.
The Take Away
In this article, I’m going to break down these six concepts of virality for you including some great examples.
By the end of this article, you’ll understand why having a blog post go viral isn’t just luck. And hopefully, you’ll also understand the factors that contribute to an idea going viral and be able to start applying them to your blogging.
1. Social Currency
Social currency is a very interesting concept based on research that indicates that people actually enjoy sharing.
Reward centers in our brains, those generally associated with food and money, light up when we share our own personal opinions and attitudes. Our own opinions is the key phrase here.
Additional, people are willing to forego monetary gain and choose the option of sharing their opinion instead. In one study, participants chose to take a 25% pay cut and share their opinion rather than taking a higher payout and doing nothing instead!
People like to share!
This should make sense based on the incredible growth of internet social sharing platforms over the last decade. I can name at least 2 dozen popular social networks off the top of my head. I bet you can name even more.
So, people like to share. But what kind of content do they like to share?
People share things that make them look good to others. This may seem shallow or pessimistic but think about the last piece of content you shared online. Why did you click that share button?
People prefer sharing content that makes them look smart rather than dumb, interesting rather than boring, and hip rather than out-of-touch.
Word of mouth is a tool used by people to make a good impression. Like we use money to buy clothes or a fancy car, people use social currency to “buy” a positive impressions from friends, family and coworkers.
So, people tend to share things that are remarkable, i.e. worthy of talking about.
Some topics are naturally remarkable. They are shocking, surprising or awe inspiring just because they are. Sharing shocking, surprising or awe inspiring content creates social currency for the sharer and makes them seem more remarkable, entertaining or interesting.
But some topics just aren’t naturally remarkable. They’re kind of boring, really.
One key to making those topics more remarkable is by upsetting expectation.
Airline fares are pretty dull.
Generally we think, Ugh, it’s going to cost me an arm and a freaking leg to visit my relatives on the East Coast this year. I’ll sit in a cramped seat with no leg room and nothing to do for 6 hours. All this for $1000.
But what if a company offers a flight for $400 with more leg room and free inflight Netflix? That’s interesting. And that’s how a company like JetBlue can make airline fares suddenly interesting.
Mysteries and controversies are also remarkable and interesting.
The key to remarkablility is that anything can be remarkable, you just have to find the right angle. Emphasize what’s remarkable about any topic or product and you’ll get people talking.
Another great way to make content remarkable is to make it exclusive or secret.
This is how membership sites that offer exclusive content to free or premium members make their content seem more enticing. This makes people feel like insiders. People love secrets and exclusivity.
Scarcity creates the same sort of social currency.
Limited launch e-courses are really popular right now. Get this course now before it’s closed and who knows when it will be available again! That fear of losing out has made many a customer click the buy button.
People love to cultivate social currency by sharing remarkable content. Content that is interesting, awe inspiring, entertaining, “secret” or otherwise remarkable is much more likely to be shared (and go viral). And it’s possible to make any topic remarkable. You just have to find a way to make it worth sharing.
- Make your content more sharable by upsetting expectation. Take a different view than the norm in your blog post. Jon Marrow calls these “Contrarian Posts” because you’re arguing contrary to the accepted or common views.
- Courting mystery and controversy. Find a topic that is controversial. Every niche has a topic or a few that everybody seems to disagree about. Stop trying to write about the boring stuff everyone already agrees on and blog about something that fires people up. Or find a mystery and write about it.
- Share a secret. People love feeling like insiders. Behind the scenes posts. Exclusive content and interviews with famous people or at least people famous in your niche are great ways to create shareable content. Provide exclusive content to your email members.
- Scarcity. Get it now before it’s gone! Giveaways and special, limited sign up bonuses are a great way to add urgency to your content and great more buzz.
How do we remind or prompt people to share?
Some topics that may seem completely unremarkable or less remarkable (think Cheerios vs. Disney World) are actually shared more often. Why?
Triggers are a common topic in psychology these days but the term can also be applied to marketing. A trigger is something (a stimulus) that reminds someone of a past memory. In psychology, it is often something that causes a memory tape or flashback that transports a victim back to the event of his/her original trauma.
But not all triggers are traumatic. In real estate, realtors often encourage home sellers to bake cookies before an open house or home showing. Why? The smell of home-baked cookies can be a trigger reminding us of home and comfort. This trigger can help sell houses.
There is a famous marketing myth (or truth?) that Disney Land pumps the smell of chocolate chip cookies into their theme parks to trigger the urge to purchase yummy baked goods on their Main Street shopping venue.
In 1997, the candy company Mars noticed a sudden jump in their sales. The trigger behind the jump was found to be the NASA Pathfinder mission that landed a rover on Mars. The increased use of the word “Mars” in media led to an increase in sales of the similarly named candy bar. The power of triggers.
The key to triggers is the occurrence of the trigger in a person’s environment.
Facing falling sales of their Kit Kat bar (seriously, talking about candy bars is making me hungry. Hello, trigger!), in 2007, Hershey launched a new marketing campaign that paired Kit Kats and coffee.
The company found that Kit Kats were most often eaten on work breaks. What’s a beverage commonly associated with work breaks? Coffee.
Their Kit Kat and Coffee campaign, using coffee as a trigger, increased sales by a third (to the tune of $200 million dollars) within a year. The power of triggers.
Another key to getting triggers right is the strength of the signal.
If a trigger is already strongly associated with another product or topic or many others, the strength of the trigger can be greatly diluted and ineffective.
Triggers are a great way to build long term word of mouth about your content or product.
Think of product jingles from your childhood. The best part of waking up if Folgers in your cup! Or another Kit Kat campaign, Give me a break… (Bet you were able to finish that jingle). These earworms provide triggers for years and years afterward.
Triggers seem like the most difficult element to integrate into blogging.
But the most mundane things can be triggers. The day of the week can be a trigger. In 2011, The viral (and bad) song “Friday” by Rachael Black received more searches on YouTube Fridays. Cheerios, the breakfast cereal, sees more traffic on social media between the hours of 8am and 11am daily.
When writing content, think of a daily, “mundane” thing you can associate your topic with that can help trigger your reader.
Another tactic is to “piggyback” onto an existing trigger.
Public health officials used a spoof of the famous Marlborough cigarette cowboy ads to “borrow” that ad campaign to discourage smoking. Their campaign used an image of cowboys superimposed with the text, “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.” Cigarettes weren’t specifically pictured in the ad or mentioned in the public health ad but you bet people got it. Triggers.
- Environmental triggers. Triggers are great for content like recipes. Make sure you associate your recipe for a specific meal. Include an anecdote or picture in your post that brings to mind your trigger.
- Sharing triggers. Social share buttons are so ubiquitous on the web nowadays, people are conditioned to look for them. Make sure your post share buttons are easy to find so it’s easier to share. And it’s lovely to have a beautiful, unique website, but make sure your buttons are easily identifiable as share buttons.
- Piggybacking. Try to find another famous or ubiquitous trigger and connect it to your own content.
Jonah Berger says, “When we care, we share”.
He (and his team) analyzed the most shared articles from the New York Times in order to find what motivated people to share. They found that articles considered interesting or useful were 25 – 30% more likely to be shared. Social currency in action.
But another group of articles that were often shared baffled the team. Science articles were shared more often than articles about politics, fashion or business news. These science articles were low on social currency and practical value. So why were they being shared so often?
The answer turned out to be awe.
Awe is a sense of amazement or wonder that happens when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty or might. Awe frequently invokes a sense of surprise or mystery.
Berger found that awe-inspiring articles were 30 percent more likely to make the most shared list. This is the power of emotion at work. People love to share content that provokes strong emotions.
Strong emotions is the key here.
Berger’s research further found that certain emotions actually decrease the likelihood that content will be shared.
Blogging sites and tips often tell us that positive emotions “sell” better when it comes to content, but this is not strictly true.
Berger and team found that arousing emotions sell content better and lead to more shares.
Arousing emotions are ones that provoke a physical response in a person.
Arousal is a physical state of readiness, a state of action. Arousal stimulates the fight-or-flight response. It includes emotions that make our heart race, our breathing rush in and out and our hands shake.
Arousing emotions can include ones that are traditionally positive and negative. Content that provokes positive emotions like awe, excitement and humor is most often shared. Yet content that excites anger and anxiety elicits similar levels of sharing.
So, what emotions result in less sharing?
Sadness and contentment. These emotions tend to be connected to inaction rather than action.
Sad because your girlfriend dumped you? Curl up on the couch in your sweats, binge watch your favorite show and eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Focus on feeling in your content to drive sharing. Stories and empathizing with your reader are powerful ways to bring emotion to your content.
- Bring it! Jon Marrow at Smartblogger.com argues that adding emotion to your posts is the best way to make content more sharable and more viral. Well-written stories are a great way to add more emotion to your content.
- Arousing emotions work best. Avoid triggering emotions like sadness and contentment. Action emotions like humor, awe, anger and anxiety lead to more sharing.
- Empathize with your reader. Blog content should help your readers address or solve a problem or issue that they have. Think about how this issue makes them feel. Empathize with them, let them know you get how they feel.
Public visibility is a better phrase to describe this concept. This pillar of virality is based on how readily observable to the public a behavior or topic.
If your content is built around a topic that is rarely talked about in regular conversation (word of mouth), its sharability is greatly reduced. If your content is in some way hidden, it’s much less likely to go viral.
Seeing someone else do something makes us much more likely to perform this action ourselves. The old idea of “Monkey see, monkey do”. But if we can’t see someone else performing an action, we are unlikely to imitate them. If people aren’t talking about a topic on a regular basis, it’s much less likely to be shared.
Show me the (Social) Proof
This is the element behind the idea of social proof. Most bloggers are already aware of this idea, even if they don’t know it.
Social proof works based on imitation. When we someone else doing something, we think they must be on to something and imitate them.
Social proof is a way of making an action public to show that others are doing something, like sharing your posts. Share counts and comment counts are an excellent example of social proof which can help increase sharing. We are much more likely to share a post that 100K people have already shared than a post where we can’t tell if anyone else has shared.
For the public element to be effective, something must be observable. If you can’t see it, you can’t share it. Jonah Berger says, “If it’s built to show, it’s built to grow.”
- Make sure your content covers topics that are regularly discussed. It is very difficult to get people topics that are culturally taboo or considered private issues.
- Social Proof. Share counts, comment counts, reviews, testimonials, popular posts lists. All these are social proof which helps make a generally private action (sharing content or making comments) public.
5. Practical Value
A few years ago, a YouTube video went viral with more than 5 million views. The topic of the video? How to shuck an ear of corn to totally remove those little silk strings that always seem to hang out and get stuck in your teeth.
This topic hardly packs a large emotional impact. And there’s not much social currency in sharing it. But the video included quick and easy, practical tips on how to clean an ear of corn. And people love to share content that has Practical Value.
It’s not sexy. It’s not trendy. But it is helpful.
Practical Value is almost the opposite of Social Currency. Social Currency is sharing to make ourselves look good.
Sharing because content has Practical Value is sharing because we care. We share content with Practical Value because we know it will help our friends or family.
Practical Value can make the most mundane topic imminently more sharable.
So what makes something seem valuable enough to share?
I love a good deal. I bet you do to0. Practical content that show how to save money or get a great deal is always popular. There are entire sites, couponing sites for example, that are built on this concept.
Useful information that helps people do things they want to do faster, better and easier provide great practical value.
A few things to consider
Short list posts that provide a collection of tips centered on a single topic are the most popular type of practical value content. Multiple bits of advice offered up in a compact, concise format.
Always consider your audience. Some topics will appeal to a wider audience. But topics with a broader audience aren’t necessarily shared more. Topics with a more narrow audience could actually be shared more.
For example, you may have lots of friends that like football. So, when you read a general post about football, a single friend may not come to mind. But if one of your friends is a fanatic follower of a certain team, you may be much more likely to share that content with that specific friend.
The key is to find an audience that is specific but not too small.
- Providing Practical Value. Provide tips that are immediately actionable and help your reader do something quicker, easier or better.
- Save a penny. Tips about deals and ways to save money are always popular.
- List it. Short list posts with a small collection of tips related to a single topic are super popular.
- Consider your audience. Narrow may be better when it comes to sharing. The key is to keep your topic and audience narrow without being too narrow.
For thousands upon thousands of years, people have been sharing via stories. Hidden within these stories are often information or a moral meant to teach or instruct.
A story or narrative is more interesting and engrossing than a list of basic facts. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. If a reader gets sucked into the story from the beginning, they’ll stick around for the conclusion.
Some Stories are shared because they provide Social Currency. A great story can make the teller seem remarkable, interesting or intelligent. Other Stories are driven by Emotion and share a tale of great emotional impact. While other stories are packed with great Practical Value, offering useful tips while entertaining.
The Power of Word of Mouth
When compared to ads, stories are more believable. Consumers approach ads with great skepticism these days. But a well-told story that is seems genuine is more convincing and harder to argue with because it is the essence of word of mouth. Which is 10X more effective than paid promotions, remember?
A popular piece of business advice right now is to build your brand around your story. Don’t just tell people what you do, tell them why you do it. Tell then who you are and a bit about yourself to build the story of your brand.
Make It Integral
Story telling is hard. Building the story at the right pace with the right amount of description. The right sequence of events to build tension to a climax. Making your characters real and relatable.
When utilizing stories to create viral content, you also need to make your message or your brand integral to the story. If a reader can retell your story to a friend and exclude your intended message without ruining the entertainment value of the story, your story has failed.
A great example of this is an advertising stunt pulled in 2004 at the Athens Olympics. A man snuck into the diving venue and jumped off the high dive platform during a competition in an attempt to advertise his casino website. The problem was that sneaking into the Olympics and performing a belly flop from the high dive is in no way related to online casinos. So, people retold the story, certainly, but the name of the website wasn’t integral to the story plot and so the attempt was an utter failure.
- Add stories to your content. Even short examples within a longer post can harness the power of storytelling to enhance your content.
- Build your Brand Story. Create an About page or profile that tells the story of why you do what you do.
- Keep it relevant and integral. Make sure the point you’re trying to make is integral to the story.
Sum It Up
Having a post go viral has nothing to do with luck.
You may get lucky and stumble upon the magic formula based on pure luck and coincidence and end up with a viral post. But never really understanding the formula behind your success, you’ll founder trying to repeat it.
Instead, you can use the six principles of virality exposed by Jonah Berger in his 2013 bestseller, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.
Powering your content with the elements of Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Values and Stories can help you conquer the equation behind virality and grow your blog.
To be clear, your content does not necessarily need to contain all 6 of these elements to go viral. But by combining all these pillars of virality, you’ll have a much greater chance that your posts will go viral.
Also keep in mind that everyone’s definition of “viral” is a bit different. To you, a post that gets shared 10,000 times may be viral. To some larger outlets, a post that reaches 5 million shares might be viral. Keep your expectations relative to the size of your audience.
I hope you’ve found this guide to virality helpful. I highly recommend implementing some of the Action Tips above into your blogging strategy.
I also highly recommend reading Jonah Berger’s 213 page book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On if you want to learn more about virality. His book is short, sweet and packed with great clarifying examples.
Now go and get viral!