All digital marketers are chasing virality. Increasingly, as their efforts can be quantified and measured over time, there’s some actual data about how to go about it. Some numbers on what seems to work and what doesn’t come in handy; but so does an interview with the male half of Marcandangel.com, Marc Chernoff, whose posts regularly gain thousands of shares across social media. Marc and Angel’s ‘30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself’ post got over 500,000 likes, over 25,000 Tweets and multiple thousands of shares across other social media networks.

1: Stop Doing That

Let’s start with Marc and Angel’s ideas on how they generated that kind of success. Marc and Angel wrote two posts, one called ’30 Things to Start Doing for Yourself,’ and the other, ’30 Things to Stop Doing To Yourself.’ It wasn’t the first time they tried this experiment and the results were unanimous: ‘don’t,’ ‘avoid,’ ‘stop,’ and similar types of posts always outperformed positive posts. That’s news to marketers used to focussing on the positive; but there’s some solid ideas behind it. According to Robert Cialdini’s approach to persuasion, the idea of scarcity and missing out is more effective than the idea of additional benefit. A list of things to start doing is icing; you might get round to reading it, because there could be something on there you could use. A list of things to stop doing is the cake itself: you might already be doing some of those things, and if you are, you can just stop.

2: Make it Skimmable

Only between 20% and 28% on average of web content is actually read. Study after study shows that people read web content in a totally different way to how they read books or even newspapers and magazines. It’s a more immersive, discursive experience for the reader, and successful web content has to be able to engage the skim reader. List posts do this amazingly well compared to more traditional blocks of text; it might not be the best format for transmitting complex new ideas but for building virality online the figures are in: make it skimmable.

3: Share Buttons

Using share buttons is an effective tool for encouraging readers to share your content. Undervaluing them can hurt the virality of your content. Featuring them as standard before and after each post increases the likelihood that your content will be shared.

4: Solve a Problem

Practical utility is perhaps the key to virality. That’s for two reasons: first, the reader is interested in actionable ideas for himself and herself. But more importantly if you want your content to widely shared, practical solutions to problems make readers think of friends who share those problems. Passing on useful information to our friends trumps even comical videos (most of the time!), according to SEOMoz.com. A study reported on the site by Carson Ward in January this year showed that, well ahead of ‘surprising’ (16%) and ‘interesting’ (29%) posts, posts offering ‘practical utility’ came in at 34% likelihood of appearing on NYT’s most-emailed list. Actionable solutions to problems are the most likely to be shared.

5: Name That Face

An author everyone knows is more likely to be shared even than certain types of strong content. Content will often be evaluated based on its author’s reputation, and sometimes its shareability will depend on readers knowing their contacts will want to hear what the author has to say on the topic: the interesting point is the opinion of someone they trust, not what that opinion actually is. This effect is slightly stronger if the author is female, though no-one knows why.

6: Long Posts

Longer posts are strongly linked to higher virality. A New York Times study found that longer posts and virality were strongly correlated, possibly because they contained enough ideas to hook more readers, developed them enough to convince readers the solutions they offered were practical, and maintained quality throughout their length. That maintenance of quality throughout the post’s length is key: long, poor-quality posts don’t score well, they’re relegated to the heap of unread ‘junk content’ littering the internet.

7: Humour

Humour doesn’t guarantee that a post will go viral. But lack of humour almost guarantees that it won’t. In this instance, Marc and Angel’s post isn’t a good example, since it doesn’t really contain much humour. But humour is the easiest way to put a human face on your prose; and generating emotional involvement is absolutely key to engaging an audience, and that’s the key to virality.