Ten Keys To Creating Viral Content For Your Next Campaign

In my webinar, How to Create an Awareness Campaign with Social Media, I outlined a step-by-step plan to create an awareness campaign from setting campaign objectives right through to measuring a campaign’s impact.  In previous posts, I shared a process for conducting a social media audit, advice on getting to know your audience better,  a 5-point plan to help you choose which social media channel is right for your campaign, and tips and tools for creating images to convey your key messages in a compelling way. In today’s post we’ll look at how you can draw on key elements of a viral campaign to increase your content’s reach.

What makes a viral campaign?

According to content marketing agency Frac.tl, successful viral campaigns regularly produce 1 million+ impressions, with standouts garnering 10x to 100x that number, often crossing over into the mainstream, and picking up free exposure on television, radio, and print media.

Achieving this kind of result is probably beyond most of our wildest dreams.  Having analyzed the most successful content shared in 2015, Buzzsumo concluded that “viral posts remain outliers, and unfortunately there is no magic formula to go viral. Going viral is like alchemy, and even the best sites cannot consistently replicate the success of their top posts.” That being said, we can still draw on the lessons learned from successful viral campaigns to improve the shareability and engagement of our own content.

1. Create an Emotional Response

Numerous studies found emotional arousal plays a key role in driving social sharing. In 2012, researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman published research based on an analysis of 7,000 articles from the New York Times to see which types of articles were most shared by email. The results indicate that 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.”

Senior research associate at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, Dr. Karen Nelson-Field, spent two years trying to identify how emotions influence video sharing. Nelson-Field found that videos which elicit strong emotions from viewers—whether positive or negative—are twice as likely to be shared as those that provide a weak emotional response

The Harvard Business Review released research in 2016 which showed that creating a powerful emotional experience increases the chances of going viral. The research, based on an analysis by Frac.tl of the top 100 images of the year from imgur.com, as voted on Reddit.com, found:

  • A significant correlation between content views and positive feelings (specifically joy, interest, anticipation, and trust).
  • Negative emotions were less commonly found in highly viral content than positive emotions, but viral success was still possible when negative emotion also evoked anticipation and surprise.
  • The emotion of admiration was very commonly found in highly shared content, an unexpected result.

Once you understand how to strike the right emotional chords with your message, you can greatly increase your chance of getting your content widely shared.

2. Add an Element of Surprise

Marketo’s 2013 survey with Brian Carter on why people share on Facebook found that people love to share amazing and surprising content.  Highly shareable content tends to present something unexpected, unusual, counterintuitive, or novel—what Seth Godin calls “a purple cow.”  In a sea of me-too shares, sharing remarkable content will make you stand out “like a purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins.”

The most shared article on Huffington Post last year illustrates this element of surprise. The article, written by author Johann Hari about addiction, highlighted new research challenging the prevailing wisdom about addiction. It combined research with a provocative title: “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.”

Rehabs “Dying To Be Barbie” campaign shared startling stories by mothers who discovered "diyet" plans penned by their seven-year-old daughters and passed around on the playground, instructing them to perform "seventeen poosh-ups" and "run up and down the driv way," while allowing them to eat "two keewee froots."

3. Tell a Real Story

Humans love stories and we love to share heart-warming stories. Effective stories inspire people by creating human connection and emotional resonance.  In 2015, an article about a husband and wife celebrating 82 years of marriage, topped USA Today’s most shared content. Not only was the story uplifting and inspirational, it shared insights on reaching over 100 years of age (the couple describes a healthy diet and frequent naps as the secret to growing old).

4. Use Images

Study after study confirms that how you create and share content matters—with visual content leading the way. Visual content is 40X more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content according to research by Buffer. To determine social media content virality, particularly images, Marco Guerini, Jacopo Staiano, and Davide Albanese in their paper, “Exploring Image Virality in Google Plus,” analyzed the contents and characteristics of Google+ posts. They found that posts containing an image are three times more likely to have a high number of resharers than text-only posts.

5. Leverage a Cultural Trend

No article on Internet virality would be complete without reference to the global Ice Bucket sensation. In 2014, the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association launched one of the most successful viral campaigns of all time. By the time the campaign ended, it had raised more than $220 million for ALS organizations worldwide.  What’s interesting about the Ice Bucket challenge is how the campaign itself became a cultural trend. From celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates to the Redemptorists Nuns, people around the world took on the challenge and dumped buckets of ice over their heads to raise funds and awareness for ALS research.

Ellen DeGeneres's 2014 Oscar selfie, retweeted by more than 2.9 million Twitter users also fits the scenario of leveraging a cultural trend—the word selfie was crowned Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year in 2013. Similarly, the #nomakeupselfie campaign, in which women posted pictures of themselves without make-up in order to raise money for cancer research, tapped into the selfie trend.  The campaign raised 8m pounds sterling for Cancer Research UK in its first week alone. This campaign wasn’t even the charity’s idea. The organization leveraged a cultural trend that was already sweeping the Internet.

6. Capitalize on an Existing Campaign

The #ILookLikeASurgeon campaign, a positive and affirming Twitter hashtag, underscores the fact that surgeons represent a diverse array of both women and men from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. The campaign was able to capitalize on the momentum of an existing hashtag campaign #iLookLikeAnEngineer. To date, #ILookLikeASurgeon has generated more than 128 million impressions, nearly 40,000 individual tweets, and more than 7,900 participants.  It even made it to the cover of the New Yorker, in turn, spawning a trend of female surgeons replicating the cover image.

7. Tap the Power of Influencers

Influencers are message catalysts—powerful allies in helping you amplify your key messages and increasing your social proof. As we have seen from previous examples, celebrity involvement gives a boost to the viral nature of a campaign. While you may not be able to convince Ellen or Oprah to join your campaign, there are nevertheless influencers in your space who can help you spread the word.  Use tools like Followerwonk, PeerIndex, and Klout to help you identify your industry influencers.

8. Optimize Your Posting Times

To optimize your social media reach, it’s useful to know the best times to post your updates so they reach your audience when they are online. If you search for optimum posting times, you will find many guides online. You can follow these recommendations as a starting point, but it’s best to do your own testing to see which days and times work best for your audience. Track the data, experiment with other posting frequencies, and compare the results to get a truer sense of what works for you.  When you’ve determined the best posting times, use a scheduling tool like Hootsuite or Buffer to post your content at the right times for your audience.

9. Make It Easy to Share

Don’t forget the basics by adding sharing buttons to your content. BrightEdge’s analysis of 4+ million tweets found that including a Twitter button increased Twitter mentions almost sevenfold. This seems so obvious that it’s almost not worth mentioning. Yet, time and again, I see websites with no sharing buttons or buttons so tiny they are almost hidden from view. Visitors are not going to hunt around your website looking for sharing buttons. Even if you include sharing buttons, don’t assume your audience will share your content. Adding a Call-to-Action to all your content is a practical way to encourage your audience to like, share, and engage with your content.  Go one step further and create a social media toolkit for your supporters to share pre-written posts, graphics, and videos. Place the toolkit on your campaign’s website in a prominent position.

10. Encourage Participation

As we have seen from campaigns like the Ice Bucket challenge and #nomakeupselfie campaign, the participatory nature of viral campaigns encourages sharing. Think about ways to involve your supporters. Consider using a tool like Thunderclap to organize participation.  Thunderclap allows a single message to be mass-shared, flash mob-style, so it rises above the noise of your social networks. By boosting the signal at the same time, Thunderclap helps a single person create action and change like never before.

To Wrap Up

Viral content is seen as marketing’s Holy Grail, but the truth is there is no formula for going viral. It’s not always clear what will ignite a post and prompt sharing. While you cannot predict or control marketing variables such as cultural trends, you can control the quality of your content. Applying the key lessons in this post will help you make your content more share-worthy and less likely to slip under the radar. Then all you need is a little luck and some persistence, remembering that good luck happens when opportunity meets hard work. Or in words credited to the American Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, “I’m a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more luck I have.”

Marie Ennis-O’Connor is a social media consultant who specializes in providing consultancy and training services to clients in the healthcare industry.  Marie also works with clients to create digital patient engagement strategies, including co-designing research and increasing clinical trial recruitment.

A keynote speaker at Mayo Clinic Social Media Network’s first international Social Media Summit held in Brisbane, Australia in September 2015, Marie is a member of MCSMN’s External Advisory Board. She is also a board member of the Patient Empowerment Foundation, a Geneva-based network of people, foundations, organizations and medical institutions dedicated to empowering patients worldwide.  Her work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare.


Choose a message to share 
Exploring Image Virality in Google Plus
like a purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins.
Ten Keys To Creating Viral Content For Your Next Campaign

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