Viral Content Marketing

Herpes Simplex is a beautiful thing

It’s flu season, folks! Viral activity is high. And even if you got your flu shot and have Tamiflu stockpiled in your hall closet,  I wouldn’t be surprised if you or someone on your marketing team is secretly dreaming of the infographic or Gangnam Style parody vid that’s going to take off faster than H1N1.

Seriously though. I’d like to think that the obsession with viral marketing campaigns is going the way of small pox. It’s not a practical goal for most marketers, and if it happens once, you can go crazy trying to make it happen again.

I may not be an advocate of viral content marketing, but I am an advocate of content marketing, the good old-fashioned non-viral kind. And I recently saw a great slide deck from Upworthy about how they package content to get millions of views. In this post, I’m going to share some of my key takeaways from this presentation. Even if you’re not looking to go viral, these tips can help your content get more clicks, opens, reads and shares – all stuff that’s good for business and the reason you’re doing content marketing in the first place. Because more eyes on your content = more potential leads for your business.

Write 25 Headlines

Upworthy defines “viral” as high shares per view and high clicks per share. And part of what drives people to click when they see a nugget of content in their Facebook feed or Twitter stream – especially if the source of the content isn’t familiar – is a great headline.

There are a couple of reasons that most marketing-related headlines aren’t great:

  1. The SEO keyword thang. Us web marketers tend to be pretty focused on SEO (ya think?) so a lot of what drives our headline writing is keyword optimization. This can lead to boring, formulaic headlines.
  2. Lack of time/effort. This one isn’t specific to the web or marketing. Everyone’s busy and the headline for an article is often an afterthought. You wrote the damn thing and now you want to be done with it.

One way around the first problem is to write one headline for the search engines and another one for people. Or, you can just forget about the search engine part entirely. SEO is so last year! Larry Kim’s new mantra is “Unoptimized is the new optimized.”

Unoptimized is the new optimized

To avoid the second pitfall, I think it can be valuable to write the headline before you write the article. But either way, the real solution is to spend more time thinking about your headline. In fact, the Upworthy crew recommends writing 25 headlines. Yes, 25! They spend considerable time on this point in their presentation. The idea is that most of your headlines are going to be crap, but by forcing creativity, one or two are bound to be brilliant (or at least better than the first crappy headline that popped into your head).

Here are some of their tips for extremely clickable headlines:

  • Leave a “Curiosity Gap” – Basically, don’t give the whole story away. Pique their curiosity with a question or a hint; this leads people to click.
  • Don’t form an opinion for the reader – You’ll probably end up forming opinions in your content, but hold off. Create curiosity, satisfy it in the content itself.
  • Be clever but not “too clever” – There’s a risk, says Upworthy, of being so cute your readers don’t get it. Where’s that line? Who knows? This will depend on your audience, so the only way to know for sure is testing.

Now, is anyone who doesn’t work at Upworthy really going to write a full 25 headlines? Realistically, probably not. But 10 is better than one. Heck, two is better than one. So whether or not you get to 25 versions, spend more time on your headline.

In fact, don’t stop at spending more time on your headline. You should also …

Double Or Triple The Time You Spend On Framing

Aside from the headline, the “framing” of your content includes the “share text” (the snippet for Facebook or LinkedIn, etc.), the tweet, the lead image – all the meta stuff that people will see before they see your content, and which determines whether or not they click.

Upworthy says: “Nobody cares about seeing your logo on a Facebook post.” So if you want your content to get more views and shares, include a compelling image. All of our top posts from last year included at least one prominent image. Is that why they did so well? Probably not. But did it help? Probably so.

Here are some tips for making the most of your framing:

  • Optimize your tweets. The tweets that get the most RT’s tend to be 71-100 characters in length, include a link (that’s good for content marketers!) and avoid self-reference.
  • Tweet multiple times. The day you launch a new piece of content, send out a few different tweets over the course of the day with different headlines/text. Your full audience won’t see each tweet, so this increases the chances that someone with influence catches and shares your content. It can also help you identify patterns in what style of tweet your audience clicks and retweets the most.
  • Take screenshots (or pictures). When writing a how-to post, help your readers visualize the process. Or rather, visualize it for them. If you’re explaining how to do something online, take screenshots. If you’re explaining how to do something in the real world, take photos and upload them. Better yet, shoot a video. Look to cooking blogs for inspiration – Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) posts a high-quality image for every step of her recipes.
  • Use Creative Commons photos. If you don’t have any photos of your own, you can find good stuff via Flickr’s Creative Commons search.
  • Use a meme generator. See my meme-ified Larry above. Wait, aren’t memes totally over? Almost, but not quite yet, I think we can eke out a few more!

Write For Everyone (Not Just 27-Year-Old Dudes)

Among the many cognitive biases that impair our judgment every day are false-consensus effect (“the tendency of a person to overestimate how much other people agree with him or her”) and projection bias (“the tendency to unconsciously assume that others (or one’s future selves) share one’s current emotional states, thoughts and values”).

Along similar lines, I propose a new one: Blogger’s Bias, the tendency for bloggers to assume that all their readers are just like them. For example, a lot of Internet marketers are 27-year-old dudes, so a lot of Internet marketing articles are written as though their only audience is 27-year-old dudes. This isn’t necessarily conscious, mind you, but I posit that it happens anyway.

Now it’s certainly possible that it’s actually in your interest to write for 27-year-old dudes. If you want to go viral on Reddit, that might be a great strategy. But most businesses aren’t trying to crack Reddit, nor should they be.

Upworthy points out that “middle-aged women are the biggest sharers.” In fact, three of their top five content pieces ever have a clear feminist angle.

Feminist Content Marketing

And this is a presentation created by three (27-ish-looking) dudes! I find this fascinating.

Women are out there. Are you writing for them? Here’s a tip: Envision your audience as more diverse, and it may just become more diverse. Your readers aren’t static – you are creating your audience through the content you produce. If your content targets both men and women, you’re doubling your potential reader base.

Make Your Content Easy To Share

Do you read the Unbounce blog? Unbounce is a landing page optimization company, but they’re inspiring marketers all around. Recently they’ve been including ready-made tweets (“tweetables”) in many of their blog posts, like this:


It’s more fun than simply tweeting an article using the headline, but it takes a lot less work than coming up with a witty summary or excerpt yourself. You can try this out on your blog using the “Click to Tweet” tool.

Some more insights from the Upworthy slides:

  • By displaying famous people’s tweets, they achieved a 10-30% increase in likes. (If Kanye likes it, so do I!)
  • Hovering share buttons (the kind that never go away no matter how hard you scroll) led to a 398% increase in shares.
  • Asking people to “like” with a pop-up increased likes by 419%.

I just saw an article in which Tim Ash says he hopes “pop-overs and interstitial messaging” will disappear in 2013, because they’re “irksome.” But Tim is thinking like a user here, not like a marketer. If you tell a marketer that something they do is annoying, but they’ve tested it themselves and know that it increases likes or clicks or conversions or whatever end result they want, they’ll laugh in your face. Trust me, I know, I’ve had to wipe the spit off my cheek.

Oh Yeah, One More Thing …

The dirty little secret of all viral content is luck. The small-town kid who makes it in Hollywood has luck on his side, and so does the little YouTube video that gets a million views. I have an ex who used to say “Luck is a skill” – but that kind of luck is a skill most of us don’t have. And who cares? Most businesses don’t need viral content to succeed. So don’t try to “go viral.” Just try to do better.

You can view the full presentation I refer to in this post here:

How To Make That One Thing Go Viral from Upworthy

This post originated on the WordStream Blog. WordStream provides keyword tools for pay-per click (PPC) and search engine optimization (SEO) aiding in everything from keyword discovery to keyword grouping and organization.