You can’t, of course, make your content go viral, unless you’re doing something sketchy:

Virality is not completely in your hands. Your audience has a big role to play. What you can do, though, is make it more likely to go viral. In order to do that, you’ll need to understand the nature of why people share content.

Why Do People Share?

What gets shared, and why? Is it a LOLcat world out there?

For most people, sharing content with others acts as a way to manage the massive amount of information we’re steeped in every day. A study by the New York Times Customer Insight Group aimed to learn why people shared content.

  • Help understand. 85% of the participants said they shared content because the feedback and reaction helped them understand and process the information. They were taking their cues on how to think about something by seeing what others thought of it. This would explain why controversial blog posts are so often shared; people want to know how they should feel about the controversy.
  • Change opinions. 49% of the participants shared content that they hoped would inform and change the opinions of others, encouraging them to take action.
  • Create an identity. 68% of the participants used the content they shared to let people know who they were and what they were all about. They wanted to reinforce a particular image of themselves to others, and show what they supported.
  • Help others. 73% of the participants shared content that they thought would be helpful to other people with the same interests as they.

why we share

Those are the reasons why people shared, but what kind of actual content do they share?

What Do People Share?

A 2013 survey by Ipsos revealed three top kinds of content that people share:

  • Interesting content. 61% of survey participants simply stated that they share interesting things.
  • Important content. 43% of participants said that they regularly shared important content.
  • Humorous content. 43% of participants said that sharing funny content was important to them.

The definition of what is interesting, important, and humorous  is going to vary across audiences, but within each audience, this kind of content is what they shared the most.

what we share

Knowing why people share, and what kind of content they share, ought to set us up nicely for going viral (or at least being pretty popular) right?

Creating Content Your Audience Will Share

Again, you can only do so much to go viral. You can pepper your social media accounts and keep the content front and center. And, you can try to create content that is more likely to be shared.

There are other reasons to create content, such as being aware of SEO and what gets found by search engines, but even within those boundaries, we want to create something that will also get shared. If one person finds us through a search, that’s great. If he shares what he found on his Twitter account, that’s even better, because now our content has been “freed” from the grip of search engines and is now in the hands of people sharing it with one another.

All of this starts with understanding your intended audience. For your content to go viral, it certainly must go beyond that audience, but it needs to start somewhere. Your audience has to back it all the way.

Do you know what your audience finds interesting? Important? Funny?

When I think of content ideas for the CoSchedule blog (whose audience is made up of content marketers), I imagine what questions that people like me, who are involved in content marketing, might be asking. What is important to a content marketer who is using CoSchedule? Perhaps they want:

What approach can we take that might get us in the share zone?

Controversial Isn’t Always Shocking

You could create content that tackles a controversial or difficult subject and give your audience help in understanding it or an opportunity to share it to get feedback from their followers.

Controversial need not be shocking, though.

Instead, it is merely there to confront a long-held opinion. Controversial content asks the audience to rethink ideas they hold dear. Controversial content is often used to change the opinions of others.

Shocking, on the other hand, is only meant to kill sacred cows for the sole intent of making people react in the extremes. It doesn’t care if there is a positive result; it merely wants to get their attention and get their jaw to drop.

Of the two, shocking has a quicker flashpoint, and can go viral quickly because of sheer shock value. It has a greater blowback and if you’re serious about building your platform, you’ll want to stay away from it. It only works once or twice before people lose interest in your content completely.

What Makes Something Funny?

Everyone has a different sense of humor and viral content that is based in humor makes this very clear.

A while back, we started having fun in the office and created a Teddy Roosevelt meme. We were all but dying of laughter as we made it. You may have never heard of the meme, however, because…maybe we were the only ones who found it funny. Teddy Roosevelt is big in western North Dakota, but maybe southern Ohio doesn’t really care. Fair enough.

Your LOLcat image could heat up the internet when shared on your Fluffy Critters Facebook page, or completely bomb when shared on the Diesel Mechanics forum you frequent.

Making funny content is tough; you really can’t predict what will go viral and what won’t. And, for whatever reason (maybe because we’re serious content marketers and don’t want to ruin our image) funny gets ignored quite often.

Of the top eight social networks, four are purely visual. Even if you don’t feel like writing a blog post that’s funny, you can still create graphics or videos for your social media pages that are funny. You can share funny moments about your team culture.

However you approach it, people want to feel good about themselves and their lives. Go ahead and make content that’s funny once in a while.

Finding An Identity

Help people find and clarify their identity with what you’re writing. I know that I sometimes don’t realize what I’m all about until I read something and think “yes, that’s me exactly” and I promptly share it.

For example, the ever-growing number of niche blogs that tackle topics of living simply and frugally create content that people share online to let others know this is who they are. Just like humorous content, any content that connects with people on an emotional level will go viral among the group of people that identify with it.

It Went Viral, But No One Read It

Sometimes your content goes viral on social media, but you don’t experience the obvious happy fallout. What’s up with that?

There is a false level to virality which involves the strange fact that people quite often share things they don’t read.

A killer headline pulled them in, perhaps, or they have a habit of retweeting from the social feeds of thought leaders without reading the links. Maybe they are trying to make sure their social feeds have lots of curated content and don’t have time to do more than grab a post out of the RSS reader and add it to the queue.

Whatever the case, you might find yourself with a post that gets lots of social shares, but not as many hits or comments as you’d have expected because not everyone is reading. It’s a kind of virality that can at least net you more social followers and set you up in a good position later.

Understanding why and what people share can only help your chances of going viral. What kind of content do you find the most difficult to create? What kind of content have you had the best luck with?