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You’ll Be Shocked By What it Takes to Make a Post Go Viral

go viralLike most of us, I avidly read and shared the story by Buzzfeed that highlighted a live Twitter showdown between an angry woman on a plane and a producer from The Bachelor. It was hilarious, and rang true to those of us that fly frequently — I couldn’t help but laugh out loud reading through the tweets. Turns out, however, it was a complete hoax. Regardless, the false story contained the specific elements that create a viral response, and brought Buzzfeed 1.5 million page views.

As soon as our nation began saying, “I ain’t got time for that,” ad agencies, marketing professionals, and website owners all saw the incredible potential of creating viral content. Now everyone wants to make posts go viral, and “viral farms” are all over the web collecting the ad revenue.

Human beings love feel good stories and outrage and laughing. So it’s not a surprise that we love reading and seeing stories that touch those nerves for us. An excellent paper by University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School professors, Katherine Milkman and Jonah Berger, entitled “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?” offers smart insight into what works (download a PDF of the paper, here).

There are three primary “arousal” emotions that work for viral content. Here’s how the authors explain it in the excerpt of their paper:

“Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal. Content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral. Content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral. These results hold even when the authors control for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is (all of which are positively linked to virality), as well as external drivers of attention (e.g., how prominently content was featured). Experimenting results further demonstrate the causal impact of specific emotion on transmission, and illustrate that it is driven by the level of activation induced. Taken together, these findings shed light on why people share content and how to design more effective viral marketing campaigns.”

In other words, check your content (and the terms you use to share it) for the following elements that will increase the likelihood of it being shared.

1. Awe

This lovely commercial for booze went viral because it tells an incredibly sweet story that inspires joy and a happy tear making people share it even though it’s selling whiskey. Think about it this way — is the story you’re trying to tell one that inspires happiness or amusement? Highlight that element, particularly in the title and the text you use around the content when sharing it on social media.

2. Anger

You probably saw this adorable Instagram photo of the gay dads getting their girls ready for school. But it’s unlikely that you simply stumbled across the photo; it’s more likely that you discovered it by clicking on an article titled something like, “These Gay Dads Were Slammed With Hateful Comments After Posting A Photo Of Their Beautiful Family.” Because that title inspires anger (for both those that support gay dads, and for those that are opposed), the story went viral. It’s important to note here the difference between anger and sadness; if someone had titled a post, “What Happened To This Family Is A Tragedy” you probably wouldn’t have clicked; even though sadness and anger are both negative emotions, only anger inspires action. No one wants to be deliberately saddened.

3. Anxiety

This is the third (and the least likely) tool for virality. It’s well established that fear inspires people to respond to stories after all, your local news has likely been peddling stories such as “The Item In Your Home That Can Kill Your Children” for decades. The internet is no different. You need to identify a fear, and then offer a cure or fix for that anxiety.

If you want to get a better idea of what becomes viral, you can follow the leading various “Viral Farms,” such as Upworthy and Buzzfeed. How do they do it?  This article by Rohin Dhar at Pricenomics sums it up well:

“…one of the most notable development in the 2013 media landscape was the rise of viral farms — websites that garner huge amounts of traffic, mostly from Facebook, by republishing shareable content that was originally produced elsewhere. They follow a clear formula:

1) Find cool Youtube link or image

2) Slap on catchy title

3) Hope it gets shared on Facebook so you get lots of traffic to your site.

This formula has allowed publishers to generate staggering amounts of traffic (that equate to impressions to sell advertisers) simply by scraping content from other sites or Youtube. The result? Viral farms all host the same content with the hopes that their page is the one that gets shared on Facebook.”

Of course, some of us writers read this and begin to bemoan the death of the authentic internet, but a viral post here and there can keep a site that offers solid and reliable authentic content stay afloat. So embrace these tools, and make them work for you. Let’s not let Buzzfeed have ALL the fun. Does this mean you are guaranteed to make a post go viral? Of course not. But it can’t hurt to try.

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