Social Media Optimization: Techniques with Viral Appeal

By Ric Shreves, Michelle Krasniak

If you consider the body of research on sharing behavior and the various examples of social media content that have gone viral, you start to get an idea of the type of subjects that have the most viral potential. A clear pattern has emerged:

  • Target your content to particular personas.

  • Draft your content to meet known needs.

  • Craft the message to evoke a strong emotional response.

  • Push a bit. Don’t play it too safe; if you do, you won’t evoke sufficiently high emotional reactions.

If you look at examples of content that has achieved large numbers of views, certain subjects clearly trip the emotional triggers of the masses:

  • Things that are cute.

  • Things that are shocking: Outrageous content that makes people think “oh, my!” works well, particularly on video. Blendtec has done used this technique spectacularly with its Will It Blend? Series.

    Blendtec’s Will It Blend? video series.

    Blendtec’s Will It Blend? video series.
  • Things that are humorous.

  • Things that are puzzling: Content that’s weird, unexpected, and unexplainable often goes viral.

  • Things that invoke a sense of relief: Things that make people feel better about their lot in life work well, even though this technique may be distasteful to many people.

  • Failures: Disasters of a personal nature — from accidents to idiots doing disastrously stupid things — get lots of shares. This category also includes failings of organizations.

  • Helpful information.

  • Victories: Good guys defeating bad guys and honest human moments are viral gold.

If you’re struggling to come up with something, just remember: Originality is overrated. Often, it’s much easier to curate existing content of your own or from other sources. Assemble a top‐ten list from the Internet archives. Sure, some of your audience may have seen at least part of the content before, but you may also turn up some underappreciated gems.

Employing causes, controversy, and relatability

If creating emotionally provocative content is one of your goals, you should consider the role of causes and controversies. People like talking about causes and injecting their opinions into controversies; it’s a type of social currency.

Topics that relate to common causes tend to do disproportionately well in social media, including

  • Animal rights and animal welfare

  • Religious‐themed content

  • Political content

  • Climate change

  • Hot topics in the news headlines

These topics tend to push people’s buttons and evoke emotional reactions, so this sort of content needs to be handled delicately and sensitively. You don’t want to be perceived as using a popular cause for selfish or commercial purposes. If your goal is to position your brand as socially conscious or engaged and aware, however, common causes can work very well.

Though common causes can generate excitement and buzz, they can also generate a lot of controversy. If you decide to use common cause content, be prepared for the possibility that there may be people who have strong opinions.

Another way to tap people’s emotions is get them to relate to the content. This technique is used in the form of posts like these:

  • 21 Problems All Sarcastic People Understand

  • You Know You’ve Lived in Boston Too Long When . . .

  • 10 Problems Tall People Understand

These types of posts immediately connect with at least a portion of the audience. Your job is to make sure that the group the content appeals to is large enough to achieve your content goals.

Looking at what works

What do people actually share more than anything else? Here are the top topics on Facebook and Twitter in 2014.

Facebook Twitter
1 Music Music
2 Television Television
3 Holidays Software
4 Software Celebrities
5 Religion Holidays
6 Celebrities Film
7 Film Internet
8 Books Business
9 Business Basketball
10 Food Sports

The first thing that should jump out at you is how similar those lists are. There’s a tremendous amount of overlap in terms of what people are talking about on these two key channels.

The Facebook and Twitter stats give you some idea of the topics that tend to get traction, but what types of posts were most popular in 2014? Check out the top ten shared posts on Facebook in 2014.

Title Topic Media Tone – Purpose
1.
Minions Holiday Greeting
Film Video Positive – Entertainment
2.
Chucky Bus Stop Prank
Prank Video Positive – Entertainment
3.
People Being Awesome
Animals / Human Interest Video Positive – Inspiration
4.
Minion
Halloween Costume
Human Interest Video Positive – Entertainment
5.
Why We Need Best Friends
Relationships Image (Text) Positive – Inspiration
6.
Crazy: Man Helps Dead Shark Give Birth to 3 Babies!
Animals / Human Interest Video Positive – Inspiration
7.
If You Ever Fall In Love. . .
Relationships Image (Text) Positive – Inspiration
8.
Weird Things Couples Fight About
Relationships Video Positive – Entertainment
9.
Different Ways to Wear a Scarf
Fashion Video Neutral – Information
10.
Remembering the Family Members and Friends We Have Lost
Relationships Image (Text) Positive – Nostalgia

What’s interesting here, aside for the public’s love for Minions, is the lack of overlap between the most‐shared topics and the most‐shared pieces of content. Several of the topics that show up in the Facebook and Twitter top ten aren’t represented in the most‐shared content. Indeed, the ten most‐shared items come from a very small set of topics:

  • Film

  • Pranks

  • Animals

  • Human interest

  • Relationships

The difference seems to be emotion. The most‐shared content was highly emotionally charged, almost exclusively positive, and almost exclusively entertaining in nature.

These examples don’t mean that positive, entertaining content about animals or relationships will go viral automatically. Content with these characteristics scored some big wins in the past, but other types of content also had viral success.

It’s not enough to create content that people share. If you want to get the most out of any social media campaign, you need to follow up, engage, and be present on the channels.