Content Strategy

The 7 Factors That Make for Viral Content

The 7 Factors That Make for Viral Content
Image credit: Yan Arief | Flickr

Going viral is the name of the game, regardless of what industry you're in. You want your product and content to be seen by as many people as possible. But the game is unpredictable; the face of content marketing is fluid and social media algorithms are in flux. However, with all the variables there are still consistent rules for marketing your content. Elements of human behavior and psychology are predictable and can be leveraged. Covering enough of these bases gives your work the best chance to go viral. 

Before you hit the "publish'' button on your next piece of content, or invest a significant amount in your marketing campaign, here are seven boxes to check off to make your content viral: 

1. Evoke high-arousal emotions.

A study titled “What Makes Online Content Viral” by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed nearly 7,000 New York Times articles. They noted a key factor among viral articles was evoking "high-arousal emotions'' including awe, excitement or amusement. Content and copy that left readers awe-inspired, excited, or amused were more likely to be shared than low-arousal content that evoked contentment or sadness.

Interestingly, content evoking negative emotions such as anger and anxiety were also highly shared. Regardless of positive or negative, people don't want to be sitting on the fence after engaging with your content. Your audience will share content that evokes a passionate emotional response. Taking a clear position and making unabashed statements gives the reader an opportunity to take a side, and then share what resonates with them. Be sure to include stories, metaphors and adjectives.

Related: With an Empathy Button, Facebook Will Be Even More Valuable to Advertisers

2. Practical.

Do you have clear calls to action? Useful, educational, and practical content is more likely to be shared. Berger and Milkman’s study noted that people enjoy sharing practically useful content for altruistic reasons (to help others), self-development, and social exchange (to generate reciprocity). 

This is why "how-to" listicles continue to do well, and infographics have become much more popular. Make your content practical; give your readers clear strategies they can immediately apply.

3. Readability.

Viral content is readable. Your content may have the most groundbreaking information, but it’s useless if it is not readable. Run your work through a readability test. To appeal to the largest audience, your content should aim for a reading-comprehension level of a ninth-grader. Sheryl Sandberg's writing sits below an eight-grade level, Tim Ferriss is slightly higher than eighth-grade, and Malcolm Gladwell writes lower than a ninth-grade level. 

The acronym KISS is just as relevant in creating content. But remember, making your content simple does not mean simplifying your content. If your readability score is too high, you can bring it down by using common and familiar words rather than academic and complex, and watching the amount of words you use per sentence.

4. Use power words in your title and introduction.

It’s a battle to get people to click on your title, and another battle to keep them reading. Inserting power words into your title and introduction will send your hooks deeper into your audience, and get them to pass the article on. Power words contain an emotional trigger and pulls the attention of the reader into the front seat. Aaron Haynes from RiseDigital recommends writing 7-10 working titles for each piece of content; inserting power words, rearranging, simplifying, and then narrowing down to your best one. Here's a great list of 317 power words to start inserting into your content.

Related: Make Your ‘Thank You' Matter – Learn the ‘Power Thank You'

5. Trustworthy.  

People will share content with credibility. You can build trust within your content by quoting experts in your field, and citing statistics and sources. While personal stories are a great way to build a connection with people, backing stories up with additional sources gives credibility. 

Quoting a prominent expert can also increase the chances of going viral if they share your work with their audience. Blogger Mike Wallagher reaches out to influencers with questions for inclusion in a piece of content, or links to their published work. Experts enjoy the exposure and often share content when they're featured. 

6. Visual appeal.

Visuals are often overlooked when it comes to creating content, not only with images, but also with typography and layout. Adding a photo to your tweet can boost retweets by an 35 percent; Facebook posts with an image have an 87 percent interaction rate compared with 4 percent from a simple link. 

Regarding the layout of your content, people struggle reading long paragraphs versus smaller pieces with more surrounding white space that are mentally less "cluttered." Alexander Tochilovsky, a design instructor at the Cooper Union School of Art told The Week, “Size of type, letter-spacing, word-spacing, leading (interline spacing), column width, justification all play a key role in how readable a passage of text is.”

The more readable, the more likely to be shared. Break up your work with sub-headings or lists, and highlight important points in bold. You may have noticed some viral content using larger font for their introduction. It's visually appealing, give this a try. Don't overlook readability and imagery, stay away from the cheap stock photos and cluttered text. 

7. Publish your content during peak hours.

Just as important as what you post, is when you post. Buzzsumo’s research says that Monday and Tuesday are the best days for your content to be shared. The average blog gets the most traffic around 11 a.m. Eastern Time according to kissmetrics. For email marketing campaigns, consumer promotion emails are best sent between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. 

Weekends are also a popular time for posting. A good strategy is to publish on Monday or Tuesday, and then promote your piece again over the weekend.

Related: How to Make Your Personal Brand Newsworthy