How are Viral Articles Created? The Unexpected Truths

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Marketers pore over stats and data in an attempt to figure out what causes people to share content. The answer, especially when it comes to viral articles, is not as simple as we’d like. 

For marketers, going viral with a bit of content is the equivalent of winning the lottery with the use of visiting getresponse vs mailchimp email automation. It doesn’t happen very often and very few people experience the exhilaration. But that doesn’t stop everyone from aiming high and trying their luck.

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And for the tiny bit that most people really get about what makes some things go viral while others fall flat? It may as well be up to chance, just like the lottery.

“Viral” Research is Sparse

YouTube took over the internet eight years ago, awakening the concept of viral content. Ever since then, figuring out why video and articles go viral has been a hot topic… for marketers. Journalists quickly picked up the trail, though. Even The Economist published a piece on going viral. Albeit historical in context and only lightly touching upon social media (it explored how Martin Luther went viral during Reformation).

But take heart: now, some academics are beginning to show interest in studying why people share things. One is Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of Business. His book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, came out in 2013 and to date is the most comprehensive study of the issue.

And guess what: turns out there’s a lot more to making something go viral than you’d think.

Influencers Aren’t as Influential as You Think

One idea that’s been floating around for some years now is the theory that influential people are responsible for making things go viral. The idea here is that if you can only get your product, service, or message in the hands of the right people, they’ll spread the word. And then it’s only a matter of time until it goes viral.

viral articles

These people are called “early adopters” or “influencers” – the messengers of culture. The ones that the rest of the world looks to for all things cool, useful, or otherwise valuable. It’s a concept made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his famous book, The Tipping Point.¹

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But Berger argues that influencers are overrated, at least in this context. Instead, he says, there are six factors that make ideas or products go viral.² For marketers, these six principles can be applied to marketing content – especially articles – to dramatically increase sharing.

Six Key Principles for Creating Viral Articles

  1. Social Currency. Does sharing your article make the sharer look important, cool, or smart? That’s social currency and if your article gives it, sharing is more likely to occur.
  2. If your article is somehow linked to an idea, image, or event that occurs often in people’s lives, then they’ll be reminded of your article more often.
  3. Much of Berger’s research was focused on the physiological responses people have when they react to content. If they’re “aroused” – that is, angry, excited, amused or anxious – they’re more likely to feel the desire to share your article with everyone they know.
  4. Sharing is also about conformity. When people think everyone else is talking about your article or using your product, they’re apt to start talking about it, too.
  5. Practical Value. If your article is helpful, people will want to share it. This stems from a desire to help their friends.
  6. If your message is framed in a nice story, it’s catchier. People can remember it more easily, too. Your article should tell a story, not just serve up information.

Conclusion

It may seem like Jonah Berger owns the market share of knowledge on why things go viral. To date, that’s pretty much true- he’s done the research, after all, and given years of expert analysis to the matter. Now that he has crystallized that work into the STEPPS framework outlined above, it’s easy to see that his ideas also make a ton of sense.

Marketers will instantly recognize the truths he tells, simply from their own experiences and casual observations of how things go viral. For now, Berger’s STEPPS framework is the closest thing we have to a formula for creating viral articles. I’d love to know what you think – have you had success in getting something to go viral?

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References

  • Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. Retrieved 2/2/2017 from https://gladwell.com/the-tipping-point/
  • Crafting Contagious: Generating Word of Mouth and Making Your Product or Idea Go Viral. Wharton Executive Education. Retrieved 2/2/2017 from https://executiveeducation.wharton.upenn.edu/thought-leadership/wharton-at-work/2013/04/crafting-contagious#additional-resources

 

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