Design Viral Content to Optimize Social Media

By Ric Shreves, Michelle Krasniak

Although it’s easy to think that viral content has a magical serendipitous element on social media, the fact is that you can create content that’s highly likely to go viral. Though there’s no guarantee that any particular item will go crazy online, garnering millions of views, you can take some steps to make it more likely that your content will see at least a degree of viral success.

When you have a handle on your goals, your audience, and the channel for the content, your content creators should kick into gear. Your best bet for coming up with a winning concept is generating multiple ideas and testing them. For testing purposes, find a test audience that matches the persona you’re targeting, and ask questions that will give you insight into whether a particular idea will meet your goals. Here are some examples:

  • Do members of the test audience want to click the link?

  • Would they share the link?

  • Would they sign up for the mailing list?

  • How does the content make them feel about the brand?

After testing your content options, pick the winner, and get ready to go with it.

When it comes time to launch, don’t be shy about spending some money on views. You need to hit the ground running, as it were, and your odds of gaining viral traction are improved by obtaining a large audience for your content in a short period of time. The immediate postlaunch window is key.

Getting your content out at the right time can get things off to a good start. If you’re in the United States, for example, think about noon Eastern Standard Time. At that time, people on the East Coast are breaking for lunch, and people on the West Coast are just coming into the office — two of the most popular times for people to surf for a bit for distraction.

Don’t hesitate to spend big. Some of the best ways to build audience with paid placements include

  • Boosting a post on Facebook

  • Promoting a tweet

  • Buying paid placements in online publications

  • Using Outbrain to display your content on premium media channels

  • Trying paid promotion via Taboola

If you structure your Facebook Ads properly, you can reach tens of thousands of people for a few hundred dollars.

Inspiring people to share

It’s possible to find viral success with more than just cat videos. Many publishers tap the vox populi by providing content that people feel passionate about. People engage with and share content for a variety of reasons, including entertainment. Here are five motivations for sharing content:

  • To bring valuable and entertaining content to others

  • To define oneself to others

  • To grow and nourish relationships

  • To achieve self‐fulfillment

  • To get the word out about causes or brands

If your content arouses emotion, you’re more likely to succeed. Emotion can be positive or negative.

In a 2010 study, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman took a psychological approach to the sharing of online content. They examined the link between emotions and sharing behavior, and found some very interesting connections. The research suggested a strong relationship between emotion and virality. The conclusions included the following:

  • The more likely a piece of content is to evoke emotion, the more likely it is to be shared.

  • Positive content is more viral than negative content.

  • Positive content that inspires awe and surprise is more likely to be shared.

  • Sadness is less likely to be shared.

  • Some negative content — specifically, content that induces anxiety or anger — does prompt sharing.

  • There’s no positive relationship between disgust and virality.

The report’s findings shed some light on how to tap the passion of the crowd and how that passion should shape your creation of content.

Hitting the right note

The tone and quality of your content are key execution factors. The content is more important than the production values, but you do want to make your best effort to create something that looks good.

Great content also needs great titles. Indeed, a great title draws in traffic even when the content isn’t spectacular. Conversely, a poorly created title may cause people to pass over an otherwise‐fabulous item that deserves more attention.

Evoke emotion strategically to encourage your audience to make your content viral. When your content inspires one of the following emotions, you’re positioning that content for possible virality:

  • Anger: Don’t intentionally try to make people mad; doing that is inappropriate. Creating righteous indignation about injustice or challenging cherished beliefs is a proper way to evoke anger in this context.

  • Anxiety: The way to productively tap anxiety is to create a fear of missing something. You see this technique used often in calls to action that urge “Act now! This is a limited time offer!”

  • Awe: Show people something amazing and awe‐inspiring.

  • Fear: As with anger, you have to use a sense of fear responsibly. The right way to use fear is to drop a hint that the audience is doing something the wrong way. This technique shows up frequently in articles that promise to tell you about “mistakes you don’t even know you are making.”

  • Joy: Make people happy.

  • Lust: In this case, lust doesn’t refer to blatant sexual content. Instead, this refers to lust for money, success, or recognition.

  • Surprise: Surprise is anything that goes against people’s expectations — a pretty broad definition, but it works. You don’t need a big bang at the end to create surprise; you simply need things to turn out differently than expected.

Tapping emotion as a technique to increase the viral component of a campaign needs to be handled with some delicacy; you can overdo it and come off as insensitive or corny. This technique can also backfire on you, creating a strong negative reaction against you as the publisher — the old kill‐the‐messenger syndrome.