The Anatomy of Viral Content

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The Anatomy of Viral Content

A viral hit is the holy grail of internet marketing – when your content is being shared eagerly across the internet, through social media and networks, email, chat, and even word of mouth. Shared content is far more powerful than any paid advertising method, because people tend to filter out ads. Bypassing these filters and having your message shared for free makes it the most cost-effective means of creating buzz for your business and driving traffic to your website. To succeed and benefit your business, viral content must pass four tests:

  • It must have sufficient value, either informational or entertainment, to motivate people to share
  • It must be timely and relevant, or present a new information on a timeless topic
  • It must be related to your business, elevating the image of your brand
  • It must be in an easily-sharable format, and give users a good variety of tools so that they can easily transmit the information to their friends

It is human nature to want to share information which reflects positively on the sharer. If you create content that enables people to elevate their own personal brand by being the one to discover it and show their friends, they will happily help you spread your message.

The Viral Video: Will It Blend

One of the biggest viral video success stories is that of Blendtec Blenders’ “Will It Blend”’ campaign. Blendtec had a good product, but the price point was much higher than the average blender one would find at a department store, even the high end models. In order to demonstrate the product’s amazing ability to blend virtually anything, Blendtec created a series of fun videos in which they blended everything from golf balls to a Taser to an iPad 2.

Founder Tom Dickson has an affable and quirky on-camera persona, and the videos utilize an upbeat, retro-game-show inspired theme song. The unusual things he put into a blender and successfully blended into dust spread like wildfire through social media channels, and inspired an internet meme in which “But, will it blend?” became a common comment reply in unrelated stories.

By featuring their videos on YouTube, Blendtec leveraged the powerful sharing and embedding features to make their engaging and entertaining content accessible to a wide audience. Will It Blend videos now have a huge following of loyal fans, and according to Blendtec, its sales increased fivefold in the first year of the campaign and continue to grow steadily. At this writing, their YouTube videos have a total of 159,566,830 views, and their channel has 379,048 subscribers.

This is, of course, a best-case scenario of using viral video to reach your audience and grow your business, but if you have a product or service that lends itself to video presentation, even a modest video campaign can have great ROI.

The List: Easily Digested Content for Impatient Internet Users

List-making is one of the easiest ways to create valuable content which has the potential for widespread popularity, since it represents a streamlined source of information with a high degree of usefulness. Internet users are an impatient lot, and a well-compiled list is an easily-scanned and information-rich format. On any given day, social media sites feature many popular and well-thought-out lists and generate significant and relevant traffic to the list-makers. Being a curator of quality information takes less time and effort (and therefore less expense) than creating original content from scratch.

A good list also reflects positively on your brand by demonstrating knowledge and expertise, and is easily adapted to fit your audience and business model. A travel site can compile a list of budget vacation destinations, along with high-quality eye candy photography and informative links, creating a valuable and share-worthy resource for its clients and potential clients. As a bonus, sites that are linked to are likely to link back, and help spread the word, providing additional high-quality inbound links and additional viral potential.

A list doesn’t have to be purely aimed at generating business; it can offer a pleasant or humorous diversion and in doing so give your business web presence a warm and human touch. A ‘Tips and Tricks’ list can demonstrate in-depth knowledge of a subject and allow the list-maker to share personal insights and opinions. If you are able to create a regular list feature, this will encourage users to subscribe and come back again and again for more easily-digested content.

The Infographic: Visualizing Difficult or Complex Information

Information graphics, or infographics, have been used for centuries to convey large amounts of information in an easily-understood format. They have the ability distill highly complex concepts into powerful and eloquent messages; Florence Nightingale used the diagram shown at the right to illustrate the need to change the protocols for treating wounded soldiers, and changed modern medicine as we know it.

Of course, your infographic doesn’t have to change the world, but a well-researched and visually exciting illustration has a very high degree of viral potential; it requires a significant amount of effort and expertise (if you are not a graphic designer, it is a good idea to hire one who has specific experience in the medium), but the payoff can be well worth the investment. A high-quality infographic may be featured on many of the highest-trafficked sites on the internet, especially if the topic is particularly timely and relevant. These are extremely valuable inbound links, and as long as the subject matter of the graphic is related to your business, the results can be dramatic.

Most infographics help visualize statistics and trends, which can be incredibly complex and hard to interpret when presented in text. A great infographic starts with solid research. Use the most reputable sources you can find, independent academic and government publications with well-documented methods and reliable statistical sampling, or other trustworthy sources of independent research.  Always include your sources as a footnote in your graphic.

The first step is to compile the specific information that you will need to tell your story, along with the narrative you wish to accompany the charts and graphs. The hierarchy of information and visual language (color-coding, size comparisons, timelines) are determined by the type of data and the narrative; again, when in doubt, find a skilled designer who can help you craft your message.

Viral Controversy: The Third Rail of Viral Marketing

Some of the fastest-spreading and most share-worthy content contains an element of controversy. This can be dangerous territory, but if you proceed with caution and are mindful of the potential adverse effects, it can be extremely effective in driving traffic and creating buzz.

It starts with finding an already-popular opinion item, and posting an opposing or contradictory viewpoint. You should already have an established presence or be able to reach a wide enough audience, enough so that the popular individual you disagree with takes notice. While it is not strictly necessary for them to respond personally, you need to at least reach their audience in order to engage them and get them linking to you and talking about you.

The most important caveat is to be scrupulously careful not to damage your brand. Do not be mean-spirited or engage in personal attacks; make sure that your position is supportable and reasonable, and that you have the time to monitor the ensuing conversations and craft thoughtful responses.

High-Tech Viral Content: Apps and Widgets

A highly-specialized but fast-growing type of viral content is the gadget-friendly app or widget. Perhaps the simplest type is a customized content feed, which will place your logo and branding on the screen of their computer or mobile device.

This approach works best for those who are already engaged in a variety of the viral marketing techniques outlined in this article, because this creates a rich source of content to be pushed out to your widget users, rewarding them for downloading your app.

Depending on your budget, you can go even further with this type of viral content, commissioning an app with custom interactive functionality. A great example is IDEO’s Method Card app, which is a simple device-friendly presentation of their existing Method Cards, a printed deck intended to inspire and inform the design process. This app is available in a free version, with a more elaborate version available for purchase — indeed, one of the benefits of investing in app development is that useful apps are not only shared virally between users, they can also become a revenue stream of their own.

An alternative to the upfront cost of app development is to utilize established services to enhance your audience experience – for example, if you are promoting an upcoming event, offer a link that will automatically add it to the user’s iCal, Outlook, or Google Calendar. Work with your web developer to discover new ways to add engaging features and widgets to your viral efforts.

Viral Contests: Competition Creates Buzz

Web start-up SnapSort needed people to write about their service, which offers the user detailed side-by-side comparisons of digital photography equipment. They had two goals: to grow their community and to get bloggers talking about them, so they created two contests: one for bloggers who wrote about the service, and another for users to join their forums and offer suggestions and feedback. This highly successful method asked the entrant to do more than just fill in a form or subscribe to a newsletter or feed, it required a level of engagement and got the participants really thinking about the service.

Over 1,000 entrants took the time to write a detailed blog post about the new site’s services, or join the community and interact with the site and each other. This may not sound like a high number, but each entrant represents a newly-recruited ambassador who is now thoroughly engaged in spreading the brand’s message.

To make a contest work for your business, define what goals you wish to accomplish (Twitter followers, Facebook fans, forum posts) and establish a method for keeping track of entries and for picking a winner – SnapSort used to insure that everything was done openly and above-board. Transparency and accountability are important whenever you are organizing a contest, to avoid any negative PR backlash from participants complaining of unfairness.

Be creative in defining the terms of your contest, and participants will want to share their experience.

Viral Instruction: The Expert Article or How-To Guide

If your product or service includes any sort of Do-It-Yourself aspect,it is a tremendous advantage to create

detailed online help resources and guides. Not only will they save you time by allowing the customer to answer their own questions, but they also have great viral potential, if they are well-written and illustrated.

To create a good how-to guide, start with an introduction that establishes the skill level and sets out any tools that will be required along the way. Break the process down into easy-to-complete steps and include diagrams and photography when necessary.

You don’t have to be serious to write a viral how-to – Matthew Inman of TheOatmeal has created a whole series of highly viral comics on subjects ranging from “How to use a semicolon” to “How to pet a kitty.” Occasionally, he brings his professional expertise into the mix, composing such guides as “How to not sell something to my generation” and “What I want from a restaurant website.” His satirical and sharply humorous creations have achieved the pinnacle of viral success, wherein the viral items themselves become a marketable commodity, in T-shirts, mugs, and other goodies.

Viral Success: The Formula

The bad news is there is no formula, no fixed set of rules that you can apply and be guaranteed a huge hit with a hundred million YouTube views and a line of customized mouse pads and coffee cups.  For that you need more than great content, you need to strike that mysterious nerve in the collective consciousness, and that’s one of the least predictable things there is.

The good news is that you can achieve solid, reasonable viral marketing results on a regular basis if you follow the basic guidelines for viral content:

  • First and foremost, be generous. The more you put into your viral content, the more you will get out of it. When you are creating your viral masterpiece, ask yourself, “who cares?” – put yourself in the place of your audience and consider why they should care about your message. This is the barrier you have to get over in order to get shared.
  • Make sharing effortless, and keep the content available – don’t skimp on the sharing options, and when possible, host high-bandwidth viral content on a reliable service like Flickr or YouTube so it will stay available under high traffic loads.
  • Be timely – if current events affect your business or industry, and your content ties in with them, you have a much better chance of being shared.
  • Be original – and don’t be afraid to have some fun with it. Almost every viral success has a sense of fun and an element of surprise.
  • Be prepared – if your content does go viral, be prepared to invest some time responding to comments and interacting with your audience. This is your real opportunity to shine, and to connect with new potential customers and clients.

The most important element in viral content is a connection with your audience. Know who you want to reach and what they find appealing – remember, marketing is as much about listening as it is about messaging.

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