The Secrets of Viral Content: What Makes An Idea Spread?

The Secrets of Viral Content: What Makes An Idea Spread?

The end of this month marks JK Rowling’s birthday, author of the beloved Harry Potter series. As of the end of 2020, the magical adventures of Potter, Weasley and Granger had sold at least 500 million copies (to put that into perspective, that’s a mammoth 150 million more copies than the next-highest selling series).

When you throw in eight box-office-busting films, two theme parks, a stage show, a spin-off, countless global fan clubs and approximately fifty Harry Potter themed shops around our home in North East England alone, it’s safe to conclude that Harry Potter was (and very much still is) everywhere.

This got us thinking: what makes an idea spread?

In today’s digital age, we dub content that achieves this level of mass consumption ‘viral’. But are the secrets of viral content the same today as they were when Rowling was penning her wizarding wonder? Does virality rely on creativity, strategy or good ol’ pot luck? And what does all of this mean for the way you approach your content creation? Let’s explore…

What is viral content?

Today, we understand ‘viral content’ to be digital content that receives a notably high level of consumption as a result of organic shares and exposure through social media, websites, search engines and the likes.

While video is the most popular medium for viral content in 2021, content in any and every digital format has the ability to spread like wildfire - take Buzzfeed’s ‘What City Should You Actually Live In’ quiz (22 million views and counting) or The New Yorker’s ‘Fact-Resistant Humans’ satire (1.4 million shares), for example.

What are the benefits of viral content?

The benefits of viral content to a marketer are a no-brainer: significant exposure generates a huge amount of brand awareness. This could lead to an increase in follower count and engagement on socials, an increase in traffic to your website and, if you’re lucky, an increase in sales - result!

What’s more, all those benefits come from a single piece of content, with your audience doing all the promotion for you - whether that means sharing on their socials or broadcasting it in the group chat.

This all amounts to viral content boasting a huge ROI when compared with other forms of advertising, and indeed other forms of content marketing.

“So, why isn’t everyone making viral content”, right? If only it was that easy...

Why does content go viral?

To understand how to create viral content, we must first understand why content goes viral. Let’s start by donning our finest tweed jacket and delving into a bit of psychology… 

Novelty seeking

The brain gets tired of seeing the same things day in, day out. It’s why anything original or unusual often catches your eye - especially in a context where you’re experiencing the same thing over and over.

Your social media news feeds are a great example of this - you keep scrolling and scrolling until something captures your attention and entices you to click. 

In fact, our brains are actually hardwired to search for novelties in this way. Seeing something new can prompt us to explore the environment for rewards. In the case of social media, that reward - be it a laugh, gasp or expression of outrage - is often just a click away.

Information gap theory

Human beings love information.

Psychologists and scientists haven’t quite worked out the intricacies of curiosity - all we really understand is that we have a constant urge to satisfy our unquenchable interest in, well, everything.

As part of his ‘information gap’ theory, George Loewenstein defines this curiosity as a state that occurs when we identify a gap between what we currently know and what we would like to know.

So, whether you’ve been hooked by some exclusive news or some classic curiosity gap clickbait (‘We tried this diet for a month...and lost 2 stone!’), content that piques curiosity has a natural viral advantage.

That covers why we engage with content. But for content to go viral, we have to share it with others, too.

What motivates us to do this?

Well, according to Entrepreneur, these are the top 10 reasons people share content: 

  • To connect with someone over a shared interest

  • To promote a product they believe is useful to others

  • To be involved in a current trend or event

  • To be the first to tell a friend about a trend or event

  • To share something about themselves

  • To socialise with friends offline

  • To promote a good cause

  • To demonstrate their own knowledge or ability

  • To start an online conversation

  • To boost their reputation among friends

Don’t underestimate the power of evoking a positive emotional response when it comes to earning more shares. In fact, positive emotions like the following are the most effective way of giving content virality (though nostalgia and disgust do a pretty good job, too):

  • Amusement

  • Delight

  • Interest

  • Affection

  • Surprise

  • Happiness

  • Joy

  • Hope

  • Excitement

  • Pleasure

How do you create viral content?

Now we know why users click and why they share. It’s time to go viral, babyyyyy…

Consider your content type

Some content types are more likely to go viral than others. A recent survey by Dan Zarrella on what types of content social media users are most likely to share found:

  • 72% of users share news content

  • 66% of users share humour content

  • 39.5% of users share opinion content

  • 34% of users share how-to content

  • 9% of users share fictional content

Of course, your content type should ultimately be dictated by what best suits your topic, brand and audience. Don’t think about how content could work for your audience - think about what content works best for your audience.

Know your audience

It’s important for you to consider the value of viral content. Based on what you want to achieve, is there more value in going viral within a certain niche topic and community? 

Ultimately, going viral isn’t just about getting your content in front of users - it’s about getting it in front of the right users.

If you’re going for mass exposure, it’s pretty hard to tailor your content. For this reason, one particularly effective approach is finding trending topics and leveraging them to elicit some of those positive emotions and share incentives we’ve featured above.

If you have a more specific audience in mind, think of how you can craft your content to address specific curiosity gaps and promote connecting with someone else with similar interests. To do this, consider how you can leverage niche interests and angles on more mainstream topics. Can you offer a unique perspective, fresh insight or valuable commentary? 

If you answered yes, you’ll be supplying your audience with distinctly original and high-value content that can’t resist engaging with and sharing further afield. 

Master your headlines 

When it comes to viral content, your headline is arguably the most important element. After all, if you can’t entice users to click, how will you ever entice them to share? 

We’ve covered how to craft the perfect headline in detail here, but the key takeaway when looking to create viral content is to play on information gap theory. Heighten curiosity by hinting users will find the answer they’re looking for within.

Of course, it’s important that your content does actually satisfy the curiosity you’ve stirred. If it doesn’t, you’re a clickbait writer, my friend - and I know just the place for you

Clickbait headlines can be an effective tool in driving that initial engagement - but as we hope you’ve learned by now, content won’t go viral without shares. While truly viral content will be shared in part by readers who’ve engaged with your headline and headline alone - though features such as Twitter’s ‘read before you tweet’ prompt are looking to address this - always look to offer an incentive, not a deterrent, for users to spread your content further.

Create enticing intros 

Viral content must engage users beyond the initial click.

To elicit those positive emotions and incentives to share, your content must offer some form of value. With visual content, this is easy to do - after all, visuals are far more effective than text when it comes to capturing our attention.

With written content, it pays to dive straight in with no hesitation or preamble. If the average user spends 37 seconds reading a blog post, then we’ve got news for you - your introduction matters.

Compel and entice by offering a lot in a little. To do this, keep your content short and succinct, offering just enough to capture your reader’s attention and heighten that curiosity or positive reaction you’re looking to evoke.

Hook, then reel...

Call users to action

Alright, we’ll say it one more time: content won’t go viral without shares.

Your concluding call-to-action is the perfect opportunity to incentivise users to share.

Let’s refamiliarise ourselves with the top reasons users share content:

  • To connect with someone over a shared interest

  • To promote a product they believe is useful to others

  • To be involved in a current trend or event

  • To be the first to tell a friend about a trend or event

  • To share something about themselves

  • To socialise with friends offline

  • To promote a good cause

  • To demonstrate their own knowledge or ability

  • To start an online conversation

  • To boost their reputation among friends 

Consider which of these incentives is most relevant to your content, and inspire users to take this action. Don’t fret about subtlety, either - being clear and direct works wonders in driving users towards the desired action.

Creating viral content is no easy feat - like Rowling with the Potter fandom, it requires you to captivate a large-scale audience all at once to stir up a whirlwind of engagement. Get it right and you can charm readers across the globe. Get it wrong and your content will remain firmly in the land of the Muggles.

To save your content from a stretch in Azkaban, seek the help of the copywriting experts. Get in touch with Paragraft to learn how we can create spellbinding branded content for your business.

By using this website you agree to our Terms and Conditions