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4 Case Studies in What Makes Content Go Viral

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What makes some content so shareable? If you’re a content publisher, you can’t help but wonder why: Why is it that one post can effortlessly amass thousands of shares on social media while another, despite being informative, lacks even a nominal amount of engagement?

It’s easy to believe that the success of a content depends on pure chance. Or maybe that there’s a magic trick which only successful publishers know about.

Except that, there isn’t.

Well, it’s actually more science than magic. Shareable posts are neither coincidence nor a result of some magic trick. They share some common factors that make them different from those that fail to elicit action from users.

Understanding these factors and applying them to your own content is a great step towards increasing shareability. So in this blog post, we present 4 case studies and analyze the psychology behind their success.

Case Study #1

9 Things You Should Never Share on Facebook

by Post Planner; 6,328 shares as of this writing

9 things you should never share on Facebook

What Makes It Shareable?

This blog post piques the readers’ curiosity because it makes them ask themselves: “Could I be sharing something wrong on Facebook?”

George Loewenstein, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University proposed the information gap theory of curiosity which suggests that curiosity can be likened to a mental itch.

Humans have an innate behavior that’s triggered when they feel there’s a gap between what they know and what they want to know. When people become aware of this gap, they are compelled to fill it by taking the necessary action required — which could be reading your blog post, signing up for a report, buying an eBook etc.

Lesson

Create gaps by telling your readers about something that’s relevant to them but withhold information by avoiding the details at first interaction.

You want your readers to question: “What does this person know that I don’t?”

Some parts of content where you can apply the “curiosity gap” are:

  • Subject heading of your email
  • Title of your blog post
  • Subheadings of your blog post
  • Short pitches to editors
  • Social media updates (with a link to your content)

Take note though that this can easily backfire if you overpromise and underdeliver, i.e., indulge in clickbait.

Case Study #2

Pitch Me, Baby, One More Time: I Reply to More Spammy Requests

by Geraldine DeRuiter of Everywhereist; 1,782 shares as of this writing

Pitch me baby one more time I reply to more spammy requests

What Makes It Shareable?

In the post, Geraldine trolls people who send in guest post and ad inquiries, because they never bothered to read what’s clearly stated — that she neither accepts guest posts nor runs ads. It’s downright hilarious.  Anyone who reads this is compelled to share the hilarity on their networks. (I know I did.)

Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On explains that positive feelings compel people to take action.

Articles that evoke positive emotions have a higher chance of virality compared to other emotions like anger, sadness, etc. This is the reason why so much humorous (and related) content that goes viral.

Abigail Posner of Google describes this as being similar to gift-giving:

“When we see or create an image that enlivens us, we send it to others to give them a bit of energy and effervescence. Every gift holds the spirit of the gifter. Also, every image reminds us and others that we’re alive, happy and full of energy (even if we may not always feel that way). And when we ‘like’ or comment on a picture or video sent to us, we’re sending a gift of sorts back to the sender. We’re affirming them. But, most profoundly, this ‘gift’ of sharing contributes to an energy exchange that amplifies our own pleasure – and is something we’re hardwired to do.”

Lesson

Avoid corporate-speak. Be fun and witty on social media. You don’t have to be outright whacky like Geraldine but showing your audience that you have a sense of humor can go a long way towards achieving shareability.

Case Study #3

Open Letter to Writers Struggling to Find Their Courage

by Jon Morrow of Boost Blog Traffic; 1,967 shares as of this writing

An open letter to writers struggling to find their courage

What Makes It Shareable?

This post is a passionate call to writers who want to take up writing full-time but can’t for whatever reason.

Besides talking about his own struggles and triumphs towards becoming a full-time writer, Jon Morrow paints an accurate picture of what his audience are likely going through from his own experience. As a result, people feel understood.

There are many scientific studies about the power of empathy. One study revealed that people whose physicians practice empathy recover faster from their illness than those whose physicians are less nice. Another study shows that empathy plays a crucial role in customer-employee satisfaction.

What does this tell us? That people respond positively when they feel understood. It compels people to take action.

Lesson

When writing your content, make it about your readers. The key word is “you”. But in order to do this well, you need to have an understanding of and genuine care for your audience. This includes knowing their fears, their aspirations, what they do for the most part of their day, etc. Define their situation in detail and show them you understand.

Case Study #4

Which Decade Do You Belong In?

BuzzFeed; 5,446 shares at the time of writing

Which decade do you actually belong in

What Makes It Shareable?

Content that allows people to express their identity in some way has a high shareability factor. This is the reason why quiz-type content with unique results is so widely shared. They’re interactive, fun, and revealing of the person’s nature. People like to validate their identities and define themselves to others, thus the sharing.

Lesson

Make use of “image-defining” content such as quizzes that reveal your audience’ personality, abilities, aptitude and even the not-so-obvious traits about them. While most people already have a good grasp of their own identities, they love giving other people a better sense of who they are.

Key Takeaways

  1. Content going viral is not just a coincidence. Successful posts share some common traits that make them more likely to be shared than others.
  2. Pique curiosity! When people feel they have a knowledge gap, they’re eager to fill that gap and share the knowledge with others.
  3. People respond positively to empathy. Get to know them fully and show them you genuinely care.
  4. Use Humor. It’s probably the most powerful component for crafting content that’s impossible to ignore.
  5. Appeal to people’s desire for “social expression”. Offer content that allows them to display their identities to others.

Get the ball rolling. Are you tapping into these ideas to make your content shareable?