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The Science Behind What Content Goes Viral

We all want our content to go viral. But virality is, by definition, not something that content creators can control. It is the action of a network of people. What a content creator can do, though, as the question: What kind of content tends to go viral? Look at the variables. Collect data. Create a hypothesis. Then test that hypothesis.

A hypothesis: Long, in-depth posts tend to go viral more than short ones.

The data:

Two University of Pennsylvania professors looked at the New York Times’ most emailed list and tried to determine why certain articles get emailed more than others. Check out the study here.

Finding: Longer articles tend to be shared far more often. “The correlation remains strong even after taking the amount of site exposure into account,” writes Carson Ward on Moz. “In fact, sheer word count was more closely correlated with sharing than any other variable examined. John Doherty found a similar correlation this past October, finding that long posts receive more than their fair share of links.”

Is this a causal link or just a correlation? Do people write longer articles about subjects that are just more interesting?

Ward thinks it is as causal relationship. “If I care about the topic at all, I don’t want to share an article with friends or readers if it just skims over the surface,” he writes. “If you want your word to spread, cover the topic fully.”

Another study suggests that while longer posts get more shares, they get fewer comments. Why might this be? Maybe people don’t read them to the end.

A hypothesis: Inspire anger, awe, or anxiety and your post will go viral.

The data:

A study about what kind of emotional content is most popular shows that content that inspires “low-energy emotions” like sadness is less likely to be shared. Content that inspires “high-energy emotions” like awe, anger, and anxiety is far more likely to be shared.

Anger is the most viral emotion studied. Want to hook into other people’s anger? Don’t belittle or insult your readers. Instead, write about something that makes you angry. “Anger is typically directed at the topic, not the author or publication,” writes Ward. “Inciting anger in readers typically requires some tolerance for dealing with controversial topics.”

Controversial blog posts receive twice as many comments on average than non-controversial ones.

Awe is a safer emotion to try to use, especially for brands, who may shy away from evoking anger. “Awe is more than surprise,” writes Ward. “It’s the reason we can’t stop watching movies with big explosions and larger-than-life heroes.” What’s the last thing you learned about and thought, “That’s amazing!” Was it something beautiful? Unlikely? Imaginative?

A hypothesis: Showing a little vulnerability or emotion helps content go viral.

The data:

“Emotion-filled posts tend to be shared more,” writes Ward, citing the same University of Pennsylvania study. And it makes sense that people want to feel things when they read.

Writer Walter Kirn says that good personal essays and memoir should start with whatever the writer feels most shameful about. Start with shame. That’s where the conflict is, where the feeling is, and if you can share it, you are truly being vulnerable.

One might not want to start with shame when writing branded content. But sharing some real human emotion can be very disarming.

A hypothesis: Viral content is practically useful, surprising, and interesting.

The data:

Content that is startling, fascinating, and useful receives more shares than the obvious, dull, and worthless content. “These might be the most intuitive of the findings,” writes Ward.

Useful content is the most shared. I think that reading on the Internet is largely motivated by a desire to answer the question: “How can I do such-and-such?” How should I invest my IRA? What’s the best way to clean wood floors? Good, solid answers to these practical questions is news-you-can-use. And it is going to be popular.

A hypothesis: Content written by known authors is more likely to go viral.

The data:

The University of Pennsylvania study shows that an author being known by the audience had a large impact on whether a news article was shared. Fame of the author is just slightly more important being surprising.

If you know who the author is, you know if they are credible. You know you can trust them. If you don’t know the author, then you have to decide from the content alone if you can trust it, which is more difficult to do.

Fame inspires more fame. Especially on the Internet.

A hypothesis: Content written by women is more likely to go viral.

The data:

The University of Pennsylvania study found that female journalists on the NYTimes website tend to have their articles shared than male journalists.

A hypothesis: Posts that spend a lot of time on the home page are more likely to go viral.

The data:

Yup, this is true for the New York Times at least.

A hypothesis: Funny content is more likely to go viral.

The data:

“Content that is truly and broadly viral is almost always funny,” writes Ward.

This is good news because we all have the opportunity to be funny. 60% of viral ads were being generated by the smaller companies.

“Humor isn't always the answer, but it's essentially a prerequisite for a viral ad,” writes Ward.

Take advantage of the results

If you want your content to go viral, here are some questions you should ask yourself before you publish it:

Did you sufficiently cover the topic? Is it long enough?

Does the content inspire a high-energy emotion like awe, anger, or anxiety?

Did your tone convey emotion?

Is it practically useful?

Is it interesting?

Is it surprising?

Does the author have fame/credibility

Is it actually funny? 

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