Six Attributes of Viral Content (With a Case Study Example)
When it comes to content, there are two primary categories: informational pieces with great longevity and staying power, and explosive pieces which take off quickly (but also become old news quickly). This is obviously an oversimplification of sorts, as the two categories aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and there are gradients in between the two extremes, but it provides a starting point for classifying content. There’s definitely something to be said for the glamour of glitzy pieces which blow up the internet, with the hope that the extra traffic and attention will generate greater brand awareness.
It’s nearly impossible to say for sure whether a piece of content will go viral, or to manufacture virality. But as a next-best-thing, we’ve identified six attributes of viral content: timing, humour, accessibility, storytelling, consumability, and shareability. These attributes are then illustrated with the aid of a case study of one of our recent blog posts, “Top 6 Ways to Bend-Proof Your iPhone 6.” Anecdotes are italicized. Let’s get started!
Creating great content is only half the battle. The phrase “right place, right time?” In this case it’s more like “right topic, right time,” but still. Another extremely important element is the timing: is the topic something that has been/is/will be generating a lot of buzz? Does it appeal to a wide audience? Is it relevant to the present?
If we look at public interest in a topic surrounding the time that it’s really popular, we get something that looks like an inverted U. (Each individual scenario will have different nuances, of course, such as plateaus, steeper or shallower rises, tapered downslopes, etc.) Grabbing hold of a topic as interest is rising best positions the content for widespread attention. Towards the peak of the curve, there’s a lot of noise to contend with. (Jumping on the bandwagon with regurgitated content as interest wanes just looks like you’ve missed the boat.)
Around the days of the iPhone 6 launch, audience attention on anything related to the device was already at an all-time high. Then #BendGate, or the fiasco of discovering that the iPhone 6 bends, happened. Our article “Top 6 Ways to Bend-Proof Your iPhone 6” came out right at the start of the frenzy, thereby catching the first attribute of perfect timing and ensuring a greater proportion of potential eyes on the content.
Creating content that people connect with involves providing some sort of value. With viral content, the value provided is usually a bit less tangible, a bit more fleeting: amusement, laughter, delight. Humour works particularly well because – in addition to laughter being the best medicine – it builds positive brand associations, puts a smile on the viewer’s face, and (if it passes the threshold of being enough to elicit a reaction) induces sharing.
Think about the last time you saw something that made you laugh, or the last time you had a funny experience. Did you feel inclined to share the story with someone else?
The primary mission of our post was to amuse people. From the overly exaggerated bend in the iPhone in the header image to the goofy accompanying text, we played the role of the class clown and weren’t afraid to make fun of ourselves and have some fun in the process.
Another important aspect to consider is whether the audience can relate to the piece of content. Is it something that solves a problem they encounter in their daily lives? Does it describe a common experience they’re familiar with? In our increasingly isolated and digitized world, there’s more and more of a desire to seek commonalities. (This is also why articles like “You Know You Grew Up In [blank] When…” or “Ways That Traveling Has Ruined You For Life” etc. tend to do so well, provided they also possess the high-quality component – they describe shared experiences that the reader can relate to.
Our post with ideas on how to bend-proof an iPhone 6 made use of things that anyone can have access to: low-key snapshots. Couch cushions. Kleenex boxes. Rulers and scotch tape. It’s funny because it’s so silly, but it’s also relatable, because who doesn’t have these things?
What’s the best way to make content more ingestible? By formatting it as a story. People are naturally curious and want to know: what happens next? How did this take place? Why is this the case? Storytelling is one of the first things we’re exposed to as children, so it’s something that’s subconsciously ingrained.
We started out our story by providing a roadmap. Right in the title we provide the small spoiler (or teaser, if you prefer) that there will be six parts to the story. This sets up anticipation for what’s to come. It also happened to perfectly set up the contrast between the high-quality photo of the Nuvango-cased iPhone in the last image and the phone-quality photos of the ridiculous ways to protect iPhones leading up to that point.
Although the research on it isn’t extensive (yet), there have been studies indicating that we tend to skim things on the internet (and increasingly elsewhere too) rather than read them deeply. [The New Yorker.] With all the extra noise, the competition for audience attention is becoming increasingly fierce.
Making content both concise and precise helps readers consume it more efficiently and effectively. (Imagine for a second that all the information presented in this post were just formatted as paragraph after paragraph of only text instead of a numbered list interspersed with images. Not nearly as easy to digest, right?)
The format of our post lended itself to being easily munchable: a numbered subtitle, followed by a brief and amusing caption, followed by an image. Each section is a separate snackable chapter.
The nature of the piece is also something to consider. Is the subject something that lends itself to sharing? Is the way that the piece is put together something that people want to share? We live in a friendly-competitive culture where we want to be in-the-know on a topic, where we want to be the ones to know first, the ones to introduce our friends to something that’s fun, quirky, or interesting.
In addition to the aforementioned attributes and the need to pass the threshold of interest and elicit a reaction, what is the degree of shareability of the content? Does it make the reader go, “hey, I need to show this to so-and-so”? Is it the type of story that readers can bring up in a friendly gathering? “Hey, did you see that article on [blank]?”
Will making sure that your content has all six of these attributes guarantee that it’ll go viral? No, not necessarily. Ultimately, virality isn’t something that can be entirely manufactured or predicted with 100% accuracy. With that said, possessing these characteristics will certainly go a long way in terms of equipping the piece of content with the foundations for potential success.