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The Secrets Behind Viral Content Exposed

One of the first viral content pieces that caught the public’s attention in the digital and social media era was a video created on YouTube in 2010, “Charlie Bit My Finger”, which received 6.9 million views. But that was nothing by today’s standards.

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One of the most recent viral (and strange) sensations on YouTube is MrBeast. In 2023 he has 169 million subscribers and 44 billion views from a YouTube video that took him 40 hours to create with the title “I counted to 100,000”.

Why viral content matters

Getting traffic and attention online can create wealth, attention and fame. Fast. 

MrBeast at the age of 24 has an estimated net worth of over $100 million. He has perfected the art of trialing and testing different content to see what goes viral on Youtube. His first breakthrough video was a mind numbing 24 hour video!

What is interesting about his story is the traffic tactic that he used to break through and get the attention that has made him one of the most famous YouTubers on the planet!

According to Wikipedia “In January 2017, Donaldson published an almost day-long video of himself counting to 100,000, which became his breakthrough viral video. The ordeal took him 40 hours, with some parts sped up to “keep it under 24 hours.”

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My first reaction to that is “WTF!!” But maybe I don’t have the spare time that some people have to watch YouTube and consume social media. 

Since then he has continued to experiment and test different creative ways of cracking the viral content code that works for him. These include expensive stunts, challenges and donations.  

But you will need to apply the formula of tenacity, passion and persistence. 

What is a viral headline? 

Simply: It’s the headline that makes a piece of content stand out, get shared and go viral (or not). And that can be an article, a video or an image. 

Creating headlines (and content) that goes viral is more art than science. There are copywriting tactics and principles but there’s no magic bullet!

How do you write a viral headline?

There are some basic templates for writing a viral  headline that work, and here are a few to get you started:

A. Template 1: “X [Benefit] You Won’t Believe [Unique Twist/Revelation]”

B. Template 2: “The Ultimate Guide to [Topic]: [Number] Proven [Benefits/Strategies]”

C. Template 3: “Are You [Desirable Outcome]? [Surprising Solution] Inside!”

D. Template 4: “[Number] [Benefit] for [Specific Audience]: The Complete [Guide/Tips]”

E. Template 5: “[Controversial Statement]: Why It’s [True/False]”

Going deeper

Going viral became an obsession for many of the original content creators and founders. Content was created to chase clicks and views. Often it was controversial. 

Sometimes content creators attacked famous personalities or used private sex tapes. One outcome of this was the bankrupting of Gawker Media.  

Gawker Media went bankrupt in 2016 after a $140 million legal judgment against it in an invasion-of-privacy case brought by the former wrestler Hulk Hogan. Gawker.com had published a black-and-white sex tape of Mr. Hogan, whose real name is Terry G. Bollea; a Florida jury awarded damages to the wrestler after a two-week trial”New York Times.

The traffic chasing media companies played at the edge of the law and sometimes they crossed it and paid the price. 

The rapid rise of social media and the smartphone (its traffic boosting sidekick) was the magic that allowed everyone to read, create and publish content from anywhere.

The key elements for creating viral content

In the dynamic and fast-paced realm of the internet, the pursuit of viral content creation has become an obsession. Seeking attention is addictive. 

But there is no singular formula for virality. Instead, it is a fascinating blend of art and science, where creativity meets data, and innovation meets audience needs.

As content creators, marketers, and digital enthusiasts, we must embrace experimentation and continuous learning. The road to virality is often paved with both successes and failures, and each experience presents an opportunity to refine our approach and better connect with our audiences.

Common traits of viral content

Viral content isn’t just a matter of luck; it follows a pattern that resonates with human psychology. Among the common traits shared by viral content are:

  • Emotional appeal 
  • Unexpected twists 
  • High-quality visuals 
  • Relevance
  • Storytelling prowess
  • Humour, inspiration and empathy

When these elements come together in harmony, they create a powerful concoction that compels people to hit that “share” button.

Emotional appeal and relatability

At the heart of every piece of viral content lies the ability to evoke emotions and connect with its audience on a personal level. Whether it’s joy, nostalgia, or empathy, content that tugs at heartstrings or sparks a strong reaction is more likely to be shared.

People want to feel a connection with what they see and read, and emotional content provides that bridge between creator and viewer.

Unexpected twists or surprises

Human beings are wired to seek novelty and the unexpected. Viral content often thrives on surprising its audience, whether through plot twists in a video, a clever punchline in a meme, or an unforeseen turn of events in a story.

When content deviates from the predictable, it creates an element of intrigue that makes people eager to share the surprise with others.

High-quality and visually appealing media

In an era where attention spans are shrinking, high-quality and visually stimulating content is key to capturing an audience. Striking images, professional video production, and engaging graphics draw viewers in and hold their attention.

Investing time and effort in the visual presentation of content pays dividends when it comes to its potential to go viral.

Relevance and timeliness

Viral content often taps into current events, trends, or issues that are of particular interest to a broad audience. Staying relevant and timely allows content creators to ride the wave of existing discussions and conversations.

Content that addresses burning questions or aligns with what is currently happening in the world has a higher chance of being shared and discussed.

The role of storytelling in viral content

Storytelling is an age-old art that continues to wield immense power in the digital age. The best viral content weaves narratives that captivate the audience, guiding them on a journey of emotions and experiences.

Stories are memorable, shareable, and create a lasting impact on the minds of the audience. Whether it’s a heartwarming tale of triumph or a suspenseful adventure, storytelling is the backbone of viral content.

Leveraging humor, inspiration, and empathy for viral success

Humor is a universal language that knows no borders. Clever jokes, witty one-liners, and amusing situations bring joy and laughter, making content highly shareable. On the other hand, inspirational content uplifts and motivates viewers, encouraging them to aspire and reach for their dreams.

Empathetic content, which addresses the struggles and challenges of the audience, fosters a sense of belonging and solidarity, encouraging individuals to share their experiences with others.

The history of viral content

In his book “Traffic”, Ben Smith goes behind the scenes of what were the most viral content platforms in the last 10-15 years. 

These include Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Gawker Media. The book is an important insight into the obsession of chasing attention online with viral content at any cost.

But there were quite a few others. So here is a quick overview of the history of viral content that was driven by the art of viral Headlines and an addiction for attention.

Brief history

The history of viral content can be traced back to the early days of the internet, but it gained significant momentum with the rise of social media platforms. Here’s a brief overview of the history of viral content and some websites that capitalized on the rise of social media:

Early Internet Virality (1990’s-2000’s)

In the early days of the internet, viral content primarily spread through email forwarding and instant messaging. Memes, funny videos, and chain emails were some of the earliest forms of content that went viral.

Emergence of Social Media (mid-2000s)

Social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter began gaining popularity in the mid-2000s. These platforms provided new ways for content to reach a broader audience through sharing and engagement.

Facebook (founded in 2004)

Facebook’s news feed and sharing capabilities turned it into a powerful platform for viral content. Memes, viral challenges, and emotional stories found massive success on Facebook, reaching millions of users within a short time.

YouTube (founded in 2005)

YouTube played a pivotal role in the spread of viral videos. Its ease of sharing and embedding allowed videos to reach a global audience rapidly. Memorable videos like “Charlie Bit My Finger” and “Evolution of Dance” became early viral sensations on the platform.

Twitter (founded in 2006)

Twitter’s fast-paced nature and retweeting mechanism made it conducive to the spread of viral content, especially breaking news and real-time events.

Reddit (founded in 2005)

Reddit’s community-driven approach contributed to the spread of viral content. Its “subreddits” allowed niche topics to gain traction, and interesting content often reached the front page.

BuzzFeed (founded in 2006)

BuzzFeed mastered the art of creating shareable content. Its listicles, quizzes, and entertaining articles consistently went viral, attracting millions of visitors and reshaping digital media.

Instagram (launched in 2010)

Instagram’s visual nature and stories feature enabled the quick dissemination of viral images, videos, and trends.

Upworthy (founded in 2012)

Upworthy focused on producing emotionally impactful content. Its curated stories with powerful headlines and social justice themes went viral, prompting widespread sharing and engagement.

TikTok (launched in 2016)

TikTok’s short-form video format and algorithm-driven content discovery led to the rapid rise of viral challenges, dances, and comedic clips shared by users globally.

These are just a few examples of websites that capitalized on the rise of social media to facilitate the spread of viral content. The internet’s interconnectedness and the ease of sharing on social platforms have transformed the way content becomes viral, turning ordinary individuals into online sensations overnight.

What is the dollar value of going viral?

How do you put a price on going viral?

The Holy Grail of media companies especially after the rise of its biggest enabler and amplifier was to get a ton of traffic for free from viral headlines and viral types of content. 

So as a rough guide and metric here are the reported capital values of the companies and platforms that supercharged virality. 

Huffington Post: In 2011, AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million. This was the first significant sale of what really was a “super blog

Buzzfeed: In 2021, when it floated on the stock exchange it briefly was valued at $1.5 billion. However, as the social media algorithm’s have made it harder to go viral in 2023 it is valued at around $86 million according to CNBC.com.

Gawker: In 2016, after filing for bankruptcy, Gawker was sold for $135 million to Univision Communications, which later shut down Gawker.com.

Reddit: In February 2021, Reddit was valued at $6 billion after a successful funding round.

TikTok: Tik Tok is currently valued around $80 billion in 2023

The two pillars (and platforms) required to go viral

Essentially, there are two elements required to make content go viral. This has been the formula right from the start. 

  • The Platforms – Social media and YouTube. This is your distribution. Before social media “viral” referred to a disease more so than a piece of content.
  • The Content Producers – The media companies and often a mass media star (or influencer) with 10s of millions of followers. The content needs to have a bit of luck mixed with the science of applied human psychology.

The formula today is still the same as a decade ago but the platforms have changed.

In 2013 the big-player platforms were Twitter and Facebook. But in 2023 interest has shifted to Instagram and TikTok. 

A 3 step viral content strategy worth testing 

One cool strategy that will give you the best chance of “going viral” is this simple 3 step process by Rand Fishkin. He outlines it further in his post – “Hook, Line, and Sinker: A Model for Crafting Successful, Viral Content

Viral content framework summary

  1. The Hook – The first thing you need to do is get attention. Often you can achieve that with a headlines that offers a big promise or maybe something controversial.
  2. Line – Deliver on the promise the headline provided in your piece of content. It should trigger an emotional response that provides a memorable association.
  3. Sinker – Make your content sticky and shareable.  

Wrapping it up

Creating viral content is an art form that combines creativity, psychology, and strategic thinking. By incorporating emotional appeal, surprise elements, visual appeal, relevance, and masterful storytelling, content creators can enhance the likelihood of their creations going viral. 

Also leveraging humor, inspiration, and empathy ensures a deep connection with the audience, forging an enduring relationship that extends beyond a mere share.

However, it is essential to remember that virality isn’t guaranteed. The digital landscape is unpredictable, and what goes viral today may not do so tomorrow.

Nevertheless, by embracing these key elements and consistently striving to produce engaging and shareable content, creators can increase their chances of leaving an indelible mark on the vast canvas of the internet.

Resources and books

Recommended books and resources for creating viral content:

Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral” – Ben Smith

Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger

Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing” by Karen Nelson-Field

Words That Sell: More than 6,000 Entries to Help You Promote Your Products, Services, and Ideas” by Richard Bayan

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