Simple Insights to Make Viral Content

Every marketing executive wants their brand to “go viral,” and up until recently, I was one of many strategists who believed it wasn’t possible to create content with the specific aim of making it go viral.

Over the past year, though, our clients have enjoyed the benefits of their content going viral about 15 times, and I’m happy to share a few things we learned along the way.

Here, we’re using the Union Metrics definition of virality, which is over eight generations of sharing.  That means the content has been shared from one unique account to another eight times.  Think of it as sitting around a conference table and passing a notepad with a message on it between eight people – except each of the people to whom you pass it turns around and shows it to all the people to whom they are connected outside the room.  While I can’t share the specific creative, this tree is what the first nine generations of a viral post shared over 20 generations looks like.  Each dot represents an account:

Post for your audience, not about them

When you listen to your audience, you should have insights that inform who the people are and what they want to express about themselves.  Once you’ve identified what they need – whether it’s daily inspiration or a badge for getting up in the morning – make it part of your content mix.  One litmus test we’ve been using is whether we can take the pronouns out and still have a meaningful post.  (Yes, you can.)  Write small: the more that post is written for 1-3 people, the farther it will travel because of that personal meaning.

Design Faster, from Their POV

On the design side, it’s really valuable to start by understanding that content that does well is not from the brand to the audience.  That’s advertising.  Content representing the brand tends to look like a company made it: it’s perfectly balanced and polished, which is a dead giveaway.

Content that people share widely needs to be what a person would make if they had awesome design skills, not what a brand would make trying to be a person.  For that reason, our best content designers purposely set time limits on how long they can build a post.  By the same token, marketers need to accept this translation of the brand identity.  Extending the visual language of your brand to include less formal renditions will enable your brand to gain a level of personal trust you couldn’t ever achieve by adhering strictly to your print or TV style guide.

The other design consistency we see in viral content is designing from the first-person perspective.  In ads, it’s typical to show idealized scenarios of people like you.  In content, it’s weird to share an image of what you might look like.  Whether it’s a simple graphic of a quote, an information visualization, or even just an object – frame it from the perspective of the person who would be sharing it.

Real Content Planning Delivers Exponential ROI

Marketers who decide not to create viral content do so on the basis that it’s too soft, lifestyle based, or lacking enough brand equity to deliver real return on investment.  Why would you promote content that doesn’t directly connect consumers to the brand or a sale?

These misguided ideas have actually become hallmarks of ineffective content mix.  When you design for personal representation and connection, you’re designing for serious top-of-funnel.  Content sharing, from a business perspective, enables your brand to gain highly targeted, highly trustworthy awareness.  When brands invest across a content mix that drives virality, the lower parts of the funnel become exponentially effective.  Lately, we’ve seen investments across the mix drop cost-per-engagement 20 percent or more.  And CRM signup through this mix in one case has outpaced traditional digital advertising by 76:1.

Yes, I’m as surprised as anyone to say that viral content is definitely a thing; it can be designed, and when people follow you through a share, they move towards the ROI actions marketers need at a far faster, greater rate than any other method.