Everyone knows that the ultimate goal for publishers is to make content that goes viral. But what does "viral" even mean? Sara Critchfield, founding editor at Upworthy, said that one of the most important things she's learned in her new role as a consultant is that most people don't know the answer to that question.
The answer is both simple and complex: The term "viral" is borrowed from the medical community, referring to diseases or illnesses that spread at a rapid pace. In other words, viral content is about making lots of people sick through contagious content.
Upworthy has produced the fastest growing media content of all time, and it has done this by following a very specific formula. The goal was to figure out how to dig into its content in a more granular way, which they did by studying what happens when content goes viral, and broke the process down into parts, creating this equation:
Clickability x shareability x distribution = virality
Any one of these three components is a goal to work for, but until you get all three together, you can't truly call your content "viral." Here's what you need to consider for each element.
The formula for clickability is number of clicks divided by the number of impressions. In order to achieve clickability, you need to focus on the packaging of your content. Critchfield referenced a company packaging its milk as an example: All milk is, for the most part, the same. When shopping, people don't consider the difference in the product between two brands of milk -- instead, they choose which packaging appeals to them on a very basic level.
So how do you draw them in? One method is something Critchfield called the curiosity gap. She cited an example from Upworthy, where it published the same story twice, with the same headline but a different image. The one that got the most clicks overwhelmingly featured a very vague image, while the other took away some of the mystery of the headline. People clicked on the second story due to the desire to satiate their curiosity. Of course, this is a strategy you shouldn't over use, as it can come off as very "click-baity."
Another reason that people click is relevance. Critchfield quoted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who said, "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa." In other words, we care about what's immediately going on in our surroundings. If you can manipulate that, your content becomes more relevant to your audience.
This part of the formula can be calculated by dividing the number of shares by the number of views. If 10 people view your content, and one of them shares it, you have 10 percent shareability. Coming back to the milk example: You purchased the milk with the fancy packaging, but are you going to tell others to buy it?
This is the hardest and arguably most expensive piece of the puzzle, as it's more of an art than a science. Overwhelmingly, we've learned that something that elicits emotion gets shares. Of course, there are many different kinds of emotion we can tap into. One study found that the No. 1 emotion that prompted shares was awe. Other emotions, such as laughter and amusement, are what Critchfield referred to as "lean-in" emotions, while anger is a "lean-out" emotion. All of these can get shares, but in different contexts and on different platforms.
Another reason people share is in order to define themselves. Social media is a space for people to connect to one another first and foremost, and to show others who we are. Critchfield gave another example from her time at Upworthy: A video in favor of marriage equality was shared with four different headlines -- all expressing something very different. The one that was shared the most was, "If this makes you uncomfortable, you make me uncomfortable." Even though the headline has nothing to do with the content, and makes a statement about the person who is sharing it, and tells others how they feel about the issue.
The final piece of the puzzle can be determined by taking the number of impressions divided by the number of shares. Your content can have great clickability and shareability, but if it's not being seen, it can't go viral. If your brand or platform isn't visible, this is the area to work on. Consider partnerships with like-minded and more visible brands in order to get your content out there.
In order to increase distribution, you have to have a method for sharing that is simple and appeals to your audience. Upworthy increased its shares by 398 percent when it made a simple change that made social sharing easier. You also need to make sure that once people are on your page, you can earn more from that than a page view. You want to convert people into leads, or prompt them to purchase -- whatever your bottom line is. Something as simple as email signup window can help remedy this.
Every one of these optimizations help contribute to more traffic, but only when you have all three is your content truly viral. And remember that each piece of content is its own animal -- you need to evaluate all of these elements on a case by case basis.
Becca Bleznak is associate editor at iMedia Connection.
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