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On Feb. 26, 2015, BuzzFeed published a post asking one simple question: “What Colors Are This Dress?”
Although the answer seems simple enough, it launched arguably one of the biggest internet memes of all time. And whether you were team blue and black or white and gold, the accompanying image was simply unavoidable, making it’s way onto just about every publisher. It was truly viral content at its best.
This is the kind of success most brands only dream of, and Roman Originals–the retailer behind the dress–saw huge returns. Within a month, their organic traffic increased by 420 percent and their press mentions by a whopping 17,550 percent. The overnight success left many marketers like myself wondering, “What it is about some silly piece of content that can have such a profound impact on our online sharing behavior, and more importantly, can it be replicated?”
Luckily, more and more research is being dedicated to viral content, specifically on what triggers someone to click “share.” In one of his earliest studies that scraped nearly 7,000 New York Times articles, Jonah Berger noted that highly shared posts are typically useful, surprising, and positive, but above all, highly emotional.
Visualize the SUCCESs formula for viral content with this free infographic with original research from Fractl.
Brothers Chip and Dan Heath—also devotees to the science of viral content—agreed, particularly about the surprising and highly emotional elements. In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, they offer six components they believe elevate an idea from shareable to viral: Their SUCCESs model argues that viral content should be:
In total, the following three campaigns earned 2,300 placements and more than 140,000 social shares:
Below I’ll walk you through each of the Heath brothers’ principles, providing a six-part recipe on how you can generate similar, highly viral content.
For an idea to be simple, it needs to be easily understood, and quickly. To gain your audience’s attention, identify a central theme and make sure your content connects to this idea whenever possible.
For instance, in Sexually Suggestive Emojis, a month of tweets from the United States and more than 50 European countries were condensed into 14 easy-to-read charts. In less than 10 minutes, readers could easily identify global trends in how these emojis are used – including their own countries.
Another easy way to simplify your content is when you’re setting your campaign goal. Do you expect the campaign to drive conversions or do you want it to boost general brand awareness? You’ll also want to make sure your goal is as specific as possible: The more specific you are when setting your goal, the greater the likelihood you’ll actually reach it – and this specificity will help you focus both your content and time.
Below is a three-step guide on how to set attainable goals:
Beyond an idea that’s quickly understood, another easy way to earn someone’s attention is to offer content that is shocking. This guarantees an element of surprise, which will drive results because instead of adding to the white noise on the internet, you’re actually breaking through.
In the case of Hotel Hygiene Exposed, the results yielded a shocking finding: The nicest hotels actually had the most germs. This made outreach a breeze, with big name publishers like Yahoo taking full advantage of the added shock value with headlines like, “Eww! New Study Finds Expensive Hotels Have More Germs.”
Producing controversial content is also a great way to add something unexpected. Below are a few different approaches to controversial content:
The Heath brothers say something is “concrete” in its ability to be described through sensory language. In other words, your content should be understood using one of the five senses. So how can you do this with online content?
Let’s take a moment to review the Velcro Theory about memory. This concept argues that although it is unlikely for someone to totally comprehend – or “grasp” – brand new information, it is likely that they will be able to grasp small bits of information as long as their prior knowledge presents something for this new information to “hook” onto – much like a piece of Velcro. By connecting your content’s new information to things your audience already knows, it makes retention and discussion much easier.
In the case of online content, concreteness often stems from being able to visualize new concepts. For example, in Reverse Photoshopping Comic Covers, the core theme of the campaign was to offer a new way to discuss body image issues – particularly with men. When comic book icons like Batman, Iron Man, and Captain America shed their bulging biceps in an effort to look more like an everyday individual, audiences suddenly had a new way to talk about more difficult concepts like body dysmorphia.
Think of something’s “concreteness” as being able to compare apples to oranges.
A great example is this campaign–Data IRL–that visualizes what digital storage size would look like in the form of storage boxes. If you assume 10 megabytes of data is equivalent to one standard storage box, an iPhone’s 4 gigabytes of data suddenly becomes much easier to understand: It’s 400 storage boxes, or–when the boxes are lined up–enough data to stretch nearly the length of 1.5 football fields.
Keep in mind what you can compare more difficult concepts like data storage to is only limited by your imagination. A good jumping off point is by taking a look around you and identifying what you use on a day-to-day basis (think a can of soda or a deck of cards); these are the type of routine items that make something unfamiliar suddenly incredibly relatable.
Figuring what you want to present, though, is only half the battle. You still need to figure out how you want to visualize the data. Luckily there are a few tools out there for anyone who might not have a designer on their team, including the following:
Readers want to see content that is trustworthy, and something that is data-driven is a great way to boost authority and earn credibility. Your methodology should be readily available and include the following:
An easy way to boost credibility is to partner with a reputable third party, specifically someone with expertise in your industry. For example, if you’re producing a campaign that focuses on sports injuries, consider reaching out to organizations like the Sports Physical Therapy Section (SPTS) or the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). They could offer assistance on how closely your data aligns with common trends in sports-related injuries or how specific injuries should be treated. But how do you get in contact with them? All you need to do is reach out via email explaining who you are, what your campaign is about, and some options on how they could help with the final project – “options” being the keyword here as you’re more likely to get a response if you offer more than one way to participate.
A great example of this in action is the Hotel Hygiene Exposed campaign. We reached out to a third-party lab to test the four samples we collected from nine different hotels. This outside testing helped make the bold claim that the nicest hotels are actually the dirtiest that much more valid.
Don’t forget about the value of secondary research – and how easy it is to access. It’s simply the analysis of data or information that was either gathered by someone else (e.g. researchers, educational institutions, etc.) and reusing it to add more authority to your current content. Two of the most common secondary research sources include the following:
So how can you include these in your campaign? At first glance, it doesn’t seem like the Reverse Photoshopping campaign has a quantitative element to it. However, the landing page includes stats from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention on the levels of obesity for both men and women in America—stats that are both easily accessible and familiar to any audience. Here’s what it looks like on the LP:
This is a big one. As much as credibility can help keep your campaign fend off trolls, remember that people have an innate desire to make a personal connection with content, regardless of their opinion. An emotional connection is essential in order to drive shares, and one of the biggest goals for marketers today is to help brands create messages that people want to share.
Luckily there’s a wide range of emotions for your content to tap into, as illustrated in these three campaigns:
The most successful emotional content ignites an immediate reaction: Audiences should be able to easily click, read, and share your content because it triggers an opinion – and they want the rest of the internet to know.
During production, you should continually ask yourself one question:
Would I share this campaign with my friends?
This is the easiest way to determine whether or not your content tells a story – and often times the best content tells more than one.
The comic book campaign, for instance, was created for a California-based organization that provides resources to individuals struggling with eating disorders, but the 1,300 pickups and 105,000 social shares indicate that the content reached well beyond its targeted audience – in large part because it allowed publishers to tell multiple stories.
For example, some readers were less concerned with a discussion on body image and instead focused their attention on general criticism of the project. “Superheros can’t save the world if they’re lounging around like the average American,” criticized a reader at Smash.com. These sentiments were shared in the comment section of a Spanish gaming site (whose audience probably had little interest in finding out more about eating disorders).
What these two placement prove, though, is that the pop culture theme helped the content resonate with more than one demographic. Yes, these characters don’t relate directly to eating disorders, but in the right context, they can connect issues about body image to a much larger audience.
Humorous content is a great way to drive stories, as emphasized through some of the headlines for the emoji campaign:
So what are some ways you can tickle your audience’s funny bone?
In an age where viral content seems to come and go within a matter of minutes, it’s unlikely that your content will reach “The Dress” levels of internet immortality.
The good news, though, is that more studies continue to prove that a content’s viral potential isn’t a matter of luck. Remember that there are many factors that influence what we share online, and the SUCCESs model serves as a great blueprint when outlining your next content marketing campaign. The key ingredients for a viral hit include credibility, an emotional connection, and the ability to tell more than one story–along with an idea that isn’t too vanilla and offers a new, often debatable perspective.
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