10 Secrets For Creating Viral Content


I’m frequently asked the question “how exactly do you create content that goes viral?”  I always try and explain that while it isn’t lightning in a bottle, it isn’t something exactly formulaic either.

I’ll usually start answering the question by explaining whether you’re creating blog posts, images, videos, online marketing campaigns, web apps – you name it, it’s really all about the content.  But all other things being equal, there is still a ton of great content out there you’re competing with.  How exactly do you get your idea to replicate in the petri dish of the web and accelerate out of control between real users?

I’ve been successful at creating viral content both with posts on my own blog as well as with client projects including web applications, community building projects, new products, etc.  I’ve also created plenty of stuff that didn’t go anywhere, which is all part of the process.  The web is the ultimate scratchpad for communications professionals.  If you’re not failing, you’re not succeeding either.

There is not necessarily a science to viral, although I’ve been able to reproduce it enough times to have picked up on a few secrets.  Today I’ll share just 10 things I’ve learned from personal experience creating viral content:

1)  Build viral into the process

Okay, you’ve got something cool you want to share with the world – great.  But did you build telling others in as a natural element of the process?  If you can design what you’re doing so that every participant will spread/share your idea naturally, you’ll have a much higher chance of reaching critical mass.

2)  Give away something amazing

I’m not necessarily talking about something tangible (although you can do that if it’s in your budget) – but perhaps more important than giving something physical away, give people a story they’ll want to share and tell the next chapter themselves.

3)  Make it about them, not you

Put your users in the spotlight, make them the stars, front and center.  Give them links, give them awareness, give them motivation and empower them to control the conversation.

4)  Creativity and fun count…big time

What your doing has to be fun and engaging to real people, not just your corporate team.  In other words, it can’t be fun or cool in a vacuum.  You can’t focus group viral.

5)  Make it as simple as possible

It should be so easy a caveman can do it.  Less steps are better, and try to combine the sharing with one of your steps.  Have less than three steps, two is even better.  If you’re going to add more, just be sure people will actually do them.  Also the idea itself should be scanable and easily understood.  Viral content always must pass the elevator test (if you can’t tell someone in the span of the ride in an elevator, it’s too complicated).

6)  If you feel like you’ll have to push it, don’t do it

Well, you can still do it, just realize it’s not going to go viral.  You can’t force things to spread naturally between real users.  Sure you can throw money behind something for traffic, but that isn’t viral.

7)  Patience is key, allow the tipping point to build naturally

If your idea is really good and starts to spread – patience is actually important.  Your content might not go viral right away.  I’ve had some ideas surprise me – they started off slowly but I still clearly saw they were being shared.  After it got to a certain level it just took off.  The fact that something keeps moving, even slowly, is a good sign you’re headed in the right direction.

8)  Influencers matter – but so do those in the long tail

All of my ideas that went viral were shared at some point by influencers.  With that said, they didn’t necessarily hit the influencer first.  In many cases, influencers picked up the ideas from users in the long tail.  Also, if influencers see enough users in the long tail sharing something, in aggregate all that noise might be too much for them to ignore.

9)  If you’re having brainstroming meetings to try and make something you built go viral, the game is already over

So many marketing companies build things and then later on have meetings trying to figure out what went wrong and why their idea is not spreading.  Here’s some reality:  just because you’ve hired an agency that brands themselves internet marketing experts means nothing.  I can’t count how many times I’ve encountered marketing/ad agencies that claim to be experts at producing strong linkbait or viral content and then can’t show a single example of work that was legitimately shared.  Find someone with a proven reputation for creating viral content.  Their social proof is a quick search of Google and the social web.

10)  Relationships and reputation should shape strategy

If your brand is new to the world and to the web, it is both harder in some ways easier in others to make viral content.  It’s hard, because you have no recognition and trust in the world – both strong factors when working for you.  At the same time, people do love what is brand new and novel to them.  These elements must be thought out and what you’re doing should reflect your brand’s current level of social capital.  There are separate strategies for each.

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post image credit:  lepiaf.geo modified under cc 2.0 license