Blog: The Secret to Going Viral

on May 17, 2017

Personally, I have had several pieces of content go viral, but two in particular stand out. One went viral for a good reason and one for a bad reason.

The first was something I wrote for the Huffington Post called “Why I Hire English Majors.” It struck a chord with that group of course, and they continue to share it all over Facebook. The “bad” one was a column I wrote here, back in the beginning days of Twitter, when I ill-advisedly told small business owners not to tweet. The Twitteratti were enraged by my dumb take.

The lesson, it turns out, is the same: Creating good content is not good enough if you want it to spread like wildfire. No, what it takes is creating content that elicits strong emotions in people (like ‘I did Major in the right thing!’ or ‘This Strauss guy is a moron!’)

I didn’t realize that that was the lesson until I spoke with the king of viral content, Emerson Spartz. And when I say Emerson is the king, I mean he is the king. Consider that

  • gets about 100 million visitors a month
  • The New York Times gets about 70 million
  • ABC News gets around 36 million

Emerson’s sites – and OMGFacts get an average of 45 million visitors a month.

And get this: Emerson and his team do no SEO and no advertising. It’s all done by (mostly) reformulating already published content and using the strategies that he has refined to get people to click on his content.

Emerson and I sat down few weeks ago and he shared his secrets.

“Is great content the same as viral content?” I asked. “It depends upon what your definition of ‘great content’ is,” he said. “The New Yorker for example has a very different definition of what great content is compared to our definition. For us, people only share our content if they experience a tremendous amount of emotion, the right kind of emotions. If they experience that, they will endorse us by sharing our content with their audience. That’s ‘great content.’”

I asked, “So what kind of emotions are we trying to elicit, then? We all want people to share our content, so what sort of emotions should we work to evoke?”

“In general, what you want to evoke are the more positive emotions, but really, any extreme emotion. People only share content when they are overpowered with emotions or they want to look cool to their friends.

“People read a lot on the Internet – you click and you click and you read and you read. So to be the one article that people will share, it has to generate a lot of emotion so they will take action. Positive emotions tend to work better than negative emotions, except for anger and injustice. Anger with a way to solve the problem really works, that’s why Kony 2012 went viral.

“But more than that, positive emotions tend to work best – humor, nostalgia, kittens, that sort of things. Content that evokes anxiety or depression are not the kinds of things that people share.”

All of that said, Spartz noted that virality, even with everything he knows and has learned, “is really, really hard.” And because you can’t really know which one will go viral, he recommends that you be prolific so that you up the average of something hitting big.

Emerson’s final piece of advice is simple: Ask people to share your content. “It works, and it’s easy.”

Lesson learned. So please share this column if you liked it (or, I suppose, especially if you did not!)

© 2017, The Strauss Group, Inc.