Posted by KelseyLibert
When emotionally-charged content is placed in front of the right audience, it can spread at an incredible rate. We recently had this happen with a Fractl client campaign called Perceptions of Perfection, which we executed for Superdrug Online Doctor.
Here’s a look at the results during the first few days of the campaign launch:
It was also endorsed by Sofia Vergara on Facebook, putting it in front of her 7.7 million followers:
And we were contacted by traditional media outlets to talk about the campaign:
While it may appear we just got lucky, we credit much of this campaign’s success to our method. In this post, I’m going to pull back the curtain on the process we use at Fractl to create content that hits the right emotional hot buttons and position it in front of people who will share it like crazy.
But first, let’s look at why some content takes off and other content does not. It’s crucial to understand the “why” in order to create your own highly-shareable content.
Some content is designed to “go viral,” while other times a piece of content intended to stay among friends takes the Internet by storm. But whether planned or unplanned, rapidly-shared content has several commonalities. One of the key factors is that the content creates a strong emotional response in viewers.
Through our research on viral emotions, we’ve found that certain emotions are better than others at driving people to view and share content. In other words, creating the right emotional response is extremely important to getting your content widely shared. We found three emotional components were prevalent in the viral images shown to participants in our study.
1. Positive emotions are crucial for attracting views.
It’s not surprising that people want to share content that makes them feel good in hopes of passing along the emotional experience to other people. Our study showed a strong correlation between positive emotions and the number of initial views a viral image received. We found these 10 positive emotions were evoked most frequently.
Example: Common Core math check
A dad recently won the Internet when he posted this image of a check on Facebook. Since Common Core math is a frustration for many parents, it had extremely broad appeal. You need to look no further than the comments on his post to understand why this image took off: People found it very amusing (hence the many “crying from laughter” emojis). Consider how many of the 10 positive emotions this image tapped.
2. Complex emotional experiences result in higher levels of arousal.
Our study found that most viral images evoke a range of emotions, rather than eliciting a one-dimensional emotional response. Contrasting emotions, such as fear and admiration or hope and despair, can help drive sharing.
Furthermore, some emotions help heighten other emotions. We call these “emotional multipliers.” Interest, surprise, and amusement behave as emotional multipliers for positive emotions, while empathy can heighten negative emotions.
Example: Old man singing to his dying wife
This video of a man singing to his wife on her deathbed hits you right in the feels. This easily illustrates the power of contrasting emotions, pairing feelings like sadness and affection. The video also evokes feelings of empathy, which helps heighten other emotions.
3. An element of surprise is the X-factor ingredient.
Highly shareable content tends to present something unexpected, unusual, counterintuitive, or novel. Why is this? Surprising the audience is incredibly effective for grabbing and holding their attention.
Example: Pizza Rat
It’s certainly surprising to see a rat carry a slice of pizza down subway stairs. Within 24 hours of being posted on YouTube, this video was picked up by major media and became the subject of a parody Twitter account. Consider the range of emotions this makes you feel, too – amusement and interest for sure, but also disgust.
Now I’ll take you through the step-by-step process of how we create share-worthy content like the Perceptions of Perfection campaign. I won’t sugarcoat it: This approach is hard work. Take shortcuts, and you will decrease your odds of hitting it big. The good news is this approach is also scalable and, to a certain extent, predictable.
It all starts with the right idea. To stress how much time and attention this step needs: Ideation is someone’s full-time job at Fractl, in addition to being a part of just about everyone’s job in our 40+-person company.
Coming up with ideas that tie together the following four traits is key.
1. Relevant to your brand
If you’re just trying to create a viral campaign for the sake of it, then you’ll have a lot more freedom with your ideas. But if your campaign has goals, such as increasing awareness around your brand or driving conversions, then the idea should relate back to what your brand does in some way. This doesn’t mean your ideas need to be overly promotional or directly about your company. Instead, you can think in terms of ideas that will attract the attention of your target audience, which will open you up to broader topics.
The Perceptions of Perfection campaign was for Superdrug Online Doctor, who are based in the UK. For this campaign, we were promoting their online doctor service, which lets people get treatment from doctors without visiting a doctor face to face. Since women ages 18 to 34 are a target market for this service, the body image issues presented in the campaign resonated with this core demographic.
So how do you come up with topics that are related to your brand, product, or service, yet will also appeal to both publishers and your target audience? First, you need to pinpoint the topics and themes to base your ideas around. Be broad and create a long list of topics and themes that are closely and tangentially tied back to your brand, industry, and audience interests. Once you figure out this topic list for your brand or a client, you can reuse it in future ideations.
After you compile your list, look up the topics on BuzzSumo, Topsy, and/or Reddit to gauge popularity. Answering these questions will help you narrow down your list, plus uncover new topics and themes:
- Which of these topics is the most talked about?
- What were the top-performing content pieces about these topics?
- Are there any topics that have been covered but still have a lot of unanswered questions?
- Is there new information about these topics that hasn’t been covered yet?
- Are there any topics that haven’t received much coverage?
Notice which sites these stories were published on, too. Add these to your target publishers list, since you know they run stories related to your topics.
2. Original or newsworthy (ideally both)
We know from experience and direct feedback from publishers that in order to get the high-authority placements that lead to massive exposure, your idea must present something new or novel. We learned in our publisher insights survey that publishers lean most toward exclusive research and breaking news.
Offering new data and research that has never been published before is extremely attractive to publishers. This is how we run many of our content marketing campaigns at Fractl.
I’ll come back to this in the firsthand research section of this post, but here are three ways to provide exclusive research:
- Conduct your own surveys or polls.
- Use your company data.
- Combine several data sources to reveal interesting trends or findings.
You don’t need to create breaking news to appeal to publishers. Rather, focus on adding a newsworthy angle to your idea.
- Consider how your brand topics can be tied back to what’s happening in the news or socially trending.
- Use Google News to get an overview of recent stories publishers are covering around your brand industry.
- Use Google Scholar to find the latest research and studies related to your industry (you can set up alerts for new studies, too).
While our campaign was not breaking news, it was original in that we took a unique approach to uncover insights about beauty standards around the world. The global angle meant this idea could resonate with a huge audience, plus gain a lot of potential pickups from international publishers.
3. Proven success
Putting a new spin on an idea that has already proven to be popular can greatly increase your content’s odds.
Perceptions of Perfection was a spinoff of a concept that had achieved massive success. An artist named Esther Honig had a photo of her face Photoshopped by designers in more than 25 countries.
Since publishers knew how popular this piece had been, it made it easier for us to get their buy-in on our campaign. BuzzFeed gave Esther a shout-out when they ran our campaign, which provided the piece with further context and gave credit where it was due.
Take your potential themes and look for stories related to them that have done well in the past (again, BuzzSumo, Topsy, and Reddit are great for researching this). Consider the following:
- Can you improve upon the idea with newer or more comprehensive data?
- Can you create higher-quality visual assets or a different visual format that better communicates the idea?
- Does the content leave unanswered questions?
“This could have been really cool IF…”
Sometimes, poor execution or a lack of promotion kept a solid idea from getting traction. Also, keep an eye out for great ideas that fell flat.
When we came up with our Twitter Reading Levels campaign, we had seen a similar concept executed twice before but with minimal success. By taking the extra step to make a more detailed map and include an interactive feature, we had a big win with an idea that had been previously unsuccessful.
4. Emotionally appealing
Last but definitely not least, the idea needs to have a strong emotional hook. Aim to incorporate at least one of these emotional multipliers:
- Interest: Is the idea engaging and clever?
- Amusement: Is the idea entertaining and fun?
- Surprise: Is the idea unexpected or novel?
Perceptions of Perfection hit a range of emotions in viewers:
- Surprise: The photos defied expectations due to their extreme differences in some cases.
- Interest and curiosity: People wanted to see what the designer from their country created.
- Anticipation: People wanted to keep scrolling through the images to see the next one.
- Controversial: Some people found the images unrepresentative of their country’s beauty standards.
Test the strength of your idea
We run our ideas through a grading rubric to evaluate share-worthiness. Consider the following when evaluating your idea:
- Which emotions does this idea evoke?
- Does it evoke any of the top 10 positive viral emotions?
- Is it emotionally complex? Can you tweak the idea to include contrasting or multiplier emotions (interest, amusement, surprise, empathy, etc)?
- Does the idea offer something new? Is it surprising?
- Has the idea already been covered?
- If so, can you create an improved version with fresh or more comprehensive data and/or a stronger visualization?
- Does the idea have broad audience appeal?
- Is the idea relevant to the top three to five publishers you want to target?
- Check if they have covered similar stories before and how they performed.
- Will the idea appeal to multiple publisher verticals?
- If not, can you adjust it to be less vertical-specific? Having wider appeal can increase your placement rate.
- Does this idea lend itself to a visual format?
Perceptions of Perception passed our grading rubric due to these factors:
- Emotional complexity (stimulates a range of emotions, including surprise and interest)
- Strong but simple visual component
- Extremely wide audience and publisher appeal (international angle)
- Past success with similar concepts
Pro Tip: Pitch your idea before creating the content. Seventy percent of publishers told us they want to be pitched a set of ideas rather than receive finished content. If you’re particular about where you want your content published, pitch your idea to your top three to five publishers and then move forward with their chosen idea or use their feedback to tweak your idea.
Ideation is best treated as an ongoing activity; don’t wait until you need a list of ideas to start this process. You should constantly be soaking up information that will help you create better ideas. One of the best ways to keep coming up with strong ideas is to stay on top of what’s performing well online. You’ll find that in most cases the content contains one or more of the three factors above.
Keep an eye on popular content using these tools:
Once you’ve settled on an idea with strong potential, you need to gather supporting information to bring your idea to life.
You have a few options here. As I covered earlier, publishers love exclusive research. But since that’s not always feasible and doesn’t always make the most sense for an idea, compiling the right secondhand research can be just as impactful and appealing to publishers.
Keep in mind that research is often the most time-intensive part of our production process, so give this step the time it deserves.
Note: Sometimes at this stage, you’ll discover your idea isn’t viable because there simply isn’t enough available information or you can’t come up with a sound research methodology. Or sometimes you do an abundance of research only to discover your findings aren’t compelling enough to create meaningful content.
You don’t need to look far for your research if you can find interesting stories within your company or customer data. Would your company data be interesting to people outside your company? Will your target audience find it valuable or compelling?
Here are a few examples of companies doing this well:
Consider how appealing all of the above is to publishers and audiences – it’s interesting information you can’t find anywhere else.
A nice perk of using company data is it most likely can be updated on an ongoing basis, so you can potentially have success with the same topic over and over again.
You can also partner with a company that has access to data you want. We did this when we partnered with Relevance for the content marketing versus native advertising study.
Resource: 5 Companies Creating Dynamic Content With Their Own Data
First, decide if a survey makes sense – conducting a survey is best when there is little or no existing data for the questions you want answered.
Some things to consider:
- Sample size. Use this sample size calculator from the National Statistical Service. One thousand participants is generally considered an authoritative sample size.
- Whom to survey. Can you use the general population (e.g., a survey about TV-watching habits) or does your survey need a specific demographic (e.g., a survey about planning a wedding)?
- How to get participants. Use crowdsourcing sites like Crowdflower and Amazon Mechanical Turk. In addition to utilizing it as a survey platform, you can also get participants through SurveyMonkey. These sites are inexpensive, but best for surveying the general population. If you are targeting a specific market and have a larger budget, try using Ask Your Target Market and Google Consumer Surveys.
Pro Tip: Organize your raw survey data so it’s easy to digest. Some publishers will want to review this and extract their own insights from the survey.
Resource: How to Get Better Results From a Survey
There is a considerable amount of data available to the public from a wide variety of sources. The problem? It’s buried in research papers, databases, and jargon-filled governmental and industry publications. To produce content marketing gold, extract the interesting trends or most compelling information from this unwieldy data and then package those findings in an interesting, easy-to-digest format that appeals to the masses.
In addition to making your content credible and authoritative, using high-quality sources can make it easier to get through a publisher’s editorial process. Use these searchable databases to find authoritative sources:
What makes a good source?
- High-authority .com sites
- .gov sites
- .edu sites (exception: student projects or personal sites)
- Sites for notable publications (online version of a newspaper or magazine)
- Reputable business/organization sites
- Peer-reviewed journals
Pro Tip: Always record your research methodology. Whether this is published alongside the content or just provided to publishers, it gives context to how your data were collected.
Once you’ve compiled all your research, it’s time to find the most interesting takeaways. At this stage, you will combine your research findings to make connections and draw conclusions around your content idea.
A huge dataset in a spreadsheet can be intimidating, but you don’t need a background in statistics or data journalism to conduct a thorough data analysis. First, decide on the questions you’re trying to answer. You will inevitably find some unanticipated points in the data, but go into your analysis with a list of what information you’re seeking.
Popping your data into Tableau Public or Google Charts can help you quickly spot interesting insights. Play around with displaying the data in charts, line plots, pivot tables, and so on to uncover patterns and outliers.
We pulled tens of thousands of job descriptions for The Inbound Economy study. Using Tableau Public, we could analyze and sort a huge amount of data to uncover meaningful insights:
Adding supplemental information
Depending on your idea, sometimes this step will not require much work. For example, with our Perceptions of Perfection campaign, there wasn’t any research to synthesize once we collected the Photoshopped images from the freelance designers. We mainly just needed to organize the photos in the best way for telling the story.
Once you synthesize your research, you may discover you need to include additional information to tell a better story or add context to your insights. This could include another round of research at this step, or creating additional visual assets to enhance the data.
We chose to supplement the Perceptions of Perfection photos with maps of the countries we collected images from and charts estimating the weight and BMI of the woman in each submission. This added an additional level of detail and context to the campaign.
By now you should have a clear idea of the points you want to make and which information to include in your content. Depending on the content format you’ve chosen, you may need a little or a lot of accompanying written text. Since this step will vary so much, I’ll share a few across-the-board pointers for some of the most important words in your content: the headline.
Any content marketer knows the importance of a good headline. The best ones pull in the audience by creating anticipation. Whether it will be at the top of your visual asset or the title of a published article, spend ample time brainstorming your headline.
Follow these guidelines for writing share-worthy headlines:
- Create a “knowledge gap” that piques the audience’s curiosity and makes them want to know more (not too vague, but not too specific)
- Don’t overhype it – people won’t share content they feel was oversold by the title
- Use knowledge words such as know, think, prove, and understand
- Use positive adjectives such as greatest, hilarious, and smartest
- Use the second-person voice to capitalize on the audience’s self-interest
To see these tips in action, here are examples of headlines that received millions of social shares:
- The Real Number of Hours Teachers Work in One Eye-Opening Graphic (Upworthy)
- This Is Why Your Baby Doesn’t Sleep Through the Night (BuzzFeed)
- 11 Things You Never Thanked Your Best Friend For, But Meant To (Elite Daily)
- This Is What School Lunches Look Like Around the World (Distractify)
- The Only 12 Exercises You Need to Get in Shape (BuzzFeed)
There is a reason the most widely shared content is highly visual; images and videos in particular perform extremely well on the web because they can rapidly create an emotional response and convey an idea very quickly.
Choose a visual format
Sometimes the best visual format for your content will be obvious. Other times, you may have a range of options that could work. Consider the following when vetting visual formats:
- Can this format easily convey the idea?
- Is this format overused for this topic?
- Which formats do your target audience like?
Having target publishers in mind can also guide which visual format to use. Look at the top-performing visual content on your target publishers:
- What are the popular formats?
- Do they just link to the visual asset, publish part of it, or embed the whole thing?
- Are there any formats they don’t publish? (For example, some publishers won’t run infographics.)
Resource: How to Choose the Right Visualization for Your Data
Create multiple assets
Consider turning your content into several visual formats in order to meet publisher preferences. This can often be done without much extra effort, yet it greatly increases your placement rate by appealing to different publishers.
For example, an infographic can be chopped into several smaller visual assets for publishers who don’t like using full infographics. For interactive pieces, always include a static visualization as an option for publishers who don’t want to embed an interactive feature.
Pro Tip: If you are hosting the content assets on your own site, make sure they are optimized for social sharing with proper Open Graph tags and Twitter cards. Getting this right can greatly increase clickthroughs and drive more shares.
Your design may be beautiful, but does it communicate your idea well? Some criteria for evaluating your design’s effectiveness:
- Is the design set up in the “inverted pyramid” format, with the most compelling information at the beginning and less important information toward the bottom?
- Does the design highlight the most important information?
- Does the size of the visual asset meet the standard for the exclusive publisher you’re pitching?
- Are graphs and charts accurately displaying the information?
- Are the fonts legible?
- Does the emotional experience build as you scroll through the visual?
- Do the colors, shapes, and fonts convey the correct mood for the topic?
Imagine getting interest from a top-tier publisher only to have your content rejected at the last minute due to weak sourcing. Or picture your published content torn apart by a sea of trolls pointing out a silly typo.
Creating a QA checklist can ensure all your content passes muster. At the very least, your checklist should include multiple points related to proofreading and editing. You also want to evaluate content quality and credibility with certain questions:
- Are all facts that aren’t common knowledge clearly attributed to a source?
- Are authoritative sources used?
- Do any of the subjective points sound dubious? Should they include a supporting source?
Your content is finished, but now you need to find it a home. If you haven’t already been collaborating with publishers up to this point, the first step is deciding who to pitch.
Choosing target publishers
Keep in mind you should begin building your target publishers list while the content is still in production so you can hit the ground running once it’s time to pitch.
To get your content widely shared, you need a high number of views, but you also need to get it in front of audiences that are likely to share it. Because of this, your goal should be getting published on a site with high engagement and not just a lot of traffic.
Let’s consider two extremely popular sites: BuzzFeed and CNN. While both sites receive a lot of traffic, BuzzFeed’s most-shared post within the last year got 2.6 million shares compared with CNN’s most-shared article getting just over 460K shares.
So, you want to zero in on a publisher that 1) has high engagement and 2) has published content related to your content topic in the past. During ideation, you should be creating a list of publishers who regularly run stories around your content topic. Look at which of those sites has the highest engagement, and pitch those as your first choice.
Pro Tip: You don’t want to send a general pitch email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Zero in on which writers at your target publisher have the highest engagement on their articles plus a sizable social following – that’s who you want to pitch.
Your pitch needs to sell the value of your content while also being original and enticing enough to get noticed in a writer’s overflowing inbox.
Getting your pitch email opened is half the battle. You need to grab the publisher’s attention with a personalized or compelling subject line. If you’ve really done your homework, you have already been engaging them on social media, so your name will look familiar when they see it in their inbox.
Try one of these tried-and-true subject line formulas:
- Statistics: Pull an eye-catching stat from your content.
- 88% of marketers lack this skill [Exclusive Research]
- Headline: Use your content’s headline as the subject line (you did write an attention-grabbing headline, right?).
- New Study Reveals Marketers’ Biggest Weakness
- Knowledge Gap: Pique their curiosity with an enticing statement or question.
- Why No One Opens Your Emails
It’s also extremely important that your subject line makes it clear your pitch is related to what the writer covers. Our subject line study with BuzzStream found that the majority of publishers want subject lines tailored to their beat. Specific, descriptive, and brief subject lines are also desirable.
Pro Tip: Avoid using the word “infographic” in your subject line or email body, even if you’ve created the world’s best infographic. A lot of publishers have emails containing “infographic” filtered out of their inbox due to the deluge of junky infographic spam.
Your pitch intro needs to make it clear that it’s not a mass pitch. Show that you’ve done your homework on what they cover. Mention a recent story of theirs that you enjoyed (be specific, don’t say, “I loved your story on XYZ.”)
You can also mention any common ground you may have based on your social media sleuthing, but keep it surface-level or you risk coming off as creepy. Bringing up personal interests they share publicly is fine, such as a favorite sports team or band.
Why will your content matter to their audience? Why should they publish it? Point to any related news stories in the last month, or mention related topics they’ve covered in the past that have performed well.
However, make sure you don’t come across as a know-it-all. This person knows their audience better than you do. You are only assuming their audience will find your content interesting, so don’t say you “know” their audience will like it. Use phrases like “I think” or “I feel.” Better yet, ask them: “Think your audience would be interested in this story?”
Reviewing your pitch
Before you hit send, evaluate your pitch.
- Did you spell their name correctly? It seems obvious to get this right, but it’s an instant turnoff if you don’t.
- Did you format the name of their publication correctly? (Example: BuzzFeed, not Buzzfeed).
- If you want to give them first publishing rights, is it clear that they can have the exclusive?
- Is your pitch free from silly typos and grammar errors? When you’re pitching a writer or editor, you can bet they will notice these issues.
- Did you use AP Style? Again, you’re pitching writers and editors – speak their language!
- Is your pitch concise? Aim for less than 200 words.
Once your content is published on a high-authority site, it will naturally be picked up by other sites. You need to capitalize on this snowball effect by continuing to reach out to other publishers and influencers you want to cover your content.
While you should still follow the pitching best practices I shared above, your syndication pitch should also include these:
- A link to the exclusive post. Seeing that a high-authority publisher covered your story gives it credibility.
- Social proof. Share social metrics and which sites have featured the piece.
Highly shareable content is not a silver bullet that satisfies every marketing goal. This type of content works best for getting high levels of awareness, attracting customers who are in the top of the sales cycle, and, sometimes, for generating interest in a product or service. But for a relatively low cost, the method I’ve shared can greatly increase your chances of achieving massive exposure.
Want to see more examples of this process in action? Download our collection of viral content case studies.
Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!