You Finally Achieved Content Virality! Now What?

Posted by Isla_McKetta

If you’ve ever achieved the holy grail of content marketing success—true virality—you know the rush of endorphins as you watch the share count climb. You’ve smiled the enormous grin when one of your friends shares that piece on Facebook without any idea that you helped create it. Maybe you’ve even felt the skin-chilling prickle when Buzzfeed picks up your content.

Then you’ve undoubtedly experienced the heart-stopping numbness when the traffic finally stalls. Where did all the people go? Was it real? Can you do it again?

What happens next depends on which camp you fall into. Most people either

  1. Squander that success in a haze of denial, or
  2. Rush back to their desks to copy the thing that just went viral so they can replicate the success (only to find that the Internet is already over it).

But there is a third, better way—you can learn everything possible from this moment of greatness and turn it around to create something even more shareable next time. This third path is not easy, but it is the surest way to get you back on the road to virality. Here’s how.

Celebrate your success

Duh. You were going to do this anyway, but take a moment (or a day) to fully enjoy all the tweets, traffic, and accolades. This will give you energy for the next step and you’ll be all the more focused for the long road ahead.

Analyze what went right

Sometimes content marketing feels like throwing Velcro darts at the wall—you just don’t know what’s going to stick. But when something finally does stick, there are a lot of lessons to be learned about your audience and what might work in the future.

For example, take this post from Organic Gardening, “7 Secrets for a High-Yield Vegetable Garden.” According to BuzzSumo, it has six times as many shares as the next most successful article from the same site.

In fact, when looking at content that contained the word “garden,” the post had more than twice as many shares as the top post from Country Living, a magazine with about five times the circulation.

I think we can safely call this piece a runaway success. Now let’s look at what made this article so much more viral than its top three friends.

Title

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that “7 Secrets for a High-Yield Vegetable Garden” is a lot sexier title than “Gardener’s April To-Do List,” “Going with the Flow,” and “Cauliflower with Peas.”

Not only does the highly successful article contain one of those emotion words that get us all excited to click, the title actually fully describes what the article is about—passing what Ian Lurie calls the “blank sheet of paper” test.
You’ll note that the titles listed in BuzzSumo are actually more descriptive than those on the page—next time they might want to use the more descriptive titles on the page.

Format

The format of these four articles is pretty basic: text with at least one related image. In fact, the to-do list article could have gone a bit farther if someone had turned it into a downloadable checklist (or at least a checklist).

Sometimes, like when you’ve invested heavily in a flashy parallax scrolling piece, it’s easy to surmise that form contributed heavily to the success of the content. But in this case, it’s unlikely that the form of this article gave it a viral advantage.

Length

These four articles vary widely in length, but they conform to what you might expect from the types of articles that they are. “Go with the Flow” is more of an essay and should be longer, whereas to-do lists and recipes get less useful the longer they are.

7 Secrets April To-Do Going w/Flow Cauliflower
1100+ words 800+ words 1700+ words 200+ words

I’d argue that “7 Secrets” is an exception here, in that it’s more in-depth than it needs to be—in a good way. This could be one contributor to its success.

Topic

Not only is the “7 Secrets” title much more clickable, the viral article also hits on high-yield gardening—a high-interest topic. Having not seen the personas for this site, I’m not sure if Organic Gardening has identified gardeners with limited space or gardeners who are trying to sustain themselves entirely from their yards as targets, but this article would be interesting to both groups (which means more excited readers to share the content).

The to-do list article is practical and “Going with the Flow” (about water conservation) is newsworthy (although it would do a lot better if it mentioned the California drought in the intro). If you love cauliflower, perhaps you can tell me why that recipe is popular. But it’s easy to see why none of these other three articles broke through the viral barrier.

Timeliness

From what I can tell, the original article is actually a couple of years old. It’s just been hanging out waiting for the right moment. So goes content marketing. But the week that it went nuts on BuzzSumo was in late March—the very week I was mapping my own garden.

That said, it isn’t the most timely of these four articles. The April to-do list is very timely (and this kind of evergreen content has the chance to get picked up again year after year) and, as mentioned, the article about water (despite being written in 2011) is on-trend with current events in California.

Again, you’ll have to tell me if cauliflower is timeless, because I’m still not understanding the success of that recipe.

One caveat: There’s some weirdness around the dating on this site (especially since the site re-branded in the middle of me writing this draft). If you dig into the publication date, it’s April 1, 2015, a few days after March 29, 2015 (the date BuzzSumo called its publication date). And when I first started writing this article I think I found that the page was created about two years ago (though I can no longer verify that information).

Your lesson here is that if you do a site rebrand in the middle of assessing your content, your data will likely contain weirdness too.

Overall quality

This is where your spidey sense comes in, because overall quality is in many ways a combination of all the factors we just looked at along with the strength of the writing. But there’s also that je ne sais quoi factor where you have to trust your gut (don’t worry, spotting great content is easier than you think).

“7 Secrets” really is a better article for the Internet than the other three. It’s easy to share, seems high-impact, and is a fast read. “Going with the Flow” is also a good article, especially with the storytelling angle, but the anecdotal lead-in followed by the intercontinental comparison of water management styles smacks of classic print journalism (requiring thoughtful rumination), which means it might be more appropriate or successful offline.

Influencer name dropping

Ego bait is a tried and true content marketing tactic. It’s not used in this article, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good tool to keep on hand. If I wanted this article to go even more viral, I would have put names to the two experts they cite (and then reached out to tell those experts that I was quoting them).

The social angle

Looking at “7 Secrets” against the April to-do list, we can immediately spot a few reasons it was roughly three times more popular on the social network. It has an active and enticing image, the accompanying text is both inspirational and asks for engagement, and the article description is, well, descriptive.

Now, I don’t have access to the internal Facebook analytics of this site, but if I did, I’d be looking hard at trends in what times of day and days of week they find the most engagement as well as whether there was any paid promotion to see what else can be learned.

High-profile sharers

As you can see, except for the magazine itself, very few people who shared this article on Twitter even have more than 1,000 followers. That might not be bad for you and me, but it’s not going to cause a viral stampede.

If you find that more recognizable folks (or even those with a lot more followers) were part of your success, it might be time to build some relationships there. You can do that either by involving them in your content creation process in the future or by reaching out when you have something new to promote.

You don’t have to wait until something goes viral to analyze what content is succeeding and why. Get some practice now (and help yourself on the road to virality):

Download this checklist as a template

Now that you understand what contributes to content virality, you’re ready to try to capture that magic all over again.

Resist the urge to imitate

This sounds counter-intuitive, but the last thing you want to do after achieving content success is to run out and do exactly what you did last time. Why? Because the Internet craves novelty, and just like it’s completely adorable when your friend’s toddler sticks his tongue out at you for the first time, the second, third, and thirty-seventh times are increasingly less adorable (and notable).

Instead, use all that analysis you just did of what made the piece successful to remix those elements and try something new. In the case of the garden efficiency article we’ve been looking at, I’d follow up with a profile of three influential organic gardeners who have different ways of achieving efficiency in their gardens.

Enough about gardening already, what about some other topics like windows, water, and dessert.

  • If “DIY Craft Projects using Old Vintage Windows Doors” earned you 428k shares, avoid writing “DIY Craft Projects Using Old Vintage Bannisters” and instead think more broadly with something like “10 Best Stores in the US to Find Vintage Windows for Your Project” or “Last Minute Summer Patio Projects for Upscale Freecyclers.” The first plays with influencer marketing and the second explores a niche readership that has the potential to be very passionate about sharing your content.
  • If you’ve recently had success with “Gray Whale Dies Bringing Us a Message – With Stomach Full of Plastic Trash” (226k+ shares), skip starting a series on dead animals that are portending the end of the earth. Instead try something like an infographic that shows how much the average American contributes to the gyre of plastic in the ocean that includes tips on how we can reduce our impact. That type of content would capitalize a little on the scare tactics of the first post plus the spirit that we’re all responsible for the fate of the planet. It would also be a chance to test if posts that end with positive impacts are as shareable.
  • Or if everyone loved your recipe for a ginormous Reese’s Cup (21k+ shares), don’t be tempted to write about chocolate peanut butter pie. Rather, consider creating a series on revamped recipes for childhood favorites like an upscale Nanaimo Bar or incorporating Jello into a trifle.

The exception

There are times when a piece of content you’ve created goes viral even though you feel like you only took the idea halfway. Playbuzz got some really good traction (1.6 million shares) with this post:

About a month later they followed up with this one which garnered 3.3 million shares:

They could have taken the idea even farther with “What Sci-Fi Novel…” and “What Horror Novel…” but those get weird fast and it’s safe to say they found their peak audience the second time around by getting more general. So they stopped while they were ahead.

Build relationships

Viral success means that a whole lot of people just shared your content. It also means that you have a huge opportunity to connect with people who might remember who you are for the next five seconds.

Help them remember you for the foreseeable future by reaching out now and thanking them for sharing your stuff or engaging them in conversation. Ask what they’d like to see next time or respond to their questions. Be playful and friendly (if it suits your corporate voice) and get the writer to help you with the follow-up.

Use your success as brand leverage

There’s no better time for PR outreach than immediately following a big viral content win. Who doesn’t want to drop a line in an outreach email like “Our latest infographic has earned 452,000 shares on Pinterest (so far).” That number might feel like a fluke, but if you can get someone from a major media outlet interested in your next piece, your future looks bright.

Keep trying

Capturing the zeitgeist well enough to give a post viral success is not an easy thing. But have confidence that if you’ve done it before, you have what it takes to do it again. Keep making awesome stuff. And when you’re tempted to get bummed because something doesn’t quite find its audience, instead milk that learning experience for all it’s worth.

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