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The Anatomy of a Hit: What It Really Takes to Go Viral

05/28/2015 03:52 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

Making anything go viral is more science than art.

That's what Jonah Berger, UPENN researcher and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, has found. "Many people assume that for something to go viral you must be lucky. There is a science. It's not a perfect science. We can't guarantee 10 million views, but it you understand the psychology behind why people share, you'll be more successful."

As we go deeper into the age of social media, understanding these principles has never been more important. Actually, understanding them is like having a superpower.

The right idea packaged in the right way at the right time can overthrow a government, launch a new product to millions of people, or change the way a community thinks about a topic overnight.

To understand these principles and make them actionable, I interviewed entrepreneurs who've cracked the code to consistently generating millions of shares of their content...

1. Write and Test Multiple Titles

Emerson Spartz

Emerson Spartz, founder & CEO of Spartz Inc.

Our network of sites attracts tens of millions of visitors per month. In my experience, the difference between a good title and a bad title can be the difference between getting 1,000 views and 100,000 views. If people don't click to read your content, they sure aren't going to share it.

Fortunately, title testing doesn't have to be a complex ordeal. Here's the simple approach I use:

  • Create 5 titles. Each title should try a different angle; don't just slightly change the same title. For example, let's say one title is '6 Ways To Be More Productive'. A variation like '6 Ways To Be Super Productive' would be too similar. Instead, I try a very different angle like '6 Habits To Follow Immediately After You Get Up'.
  • Get fresh perspectives. I email 5-10 of my closest friends the 5 titles and have them pick 2 or 3 they would be most likely to click on. You don't need to share the whole article since you are just testing the title. Also, don't let respondents see each other's feedback as that might alter how they respond.
  • Make Minor Modifications. Use the title that your friends pick the most. At this point, I get feedback on different superlatives like exceptionally, worst, or best.

This process works on multiple levels. First, it gets past availability bias, which is our tendency to get attached to the first responses we come up with. Second, after hours of working on an article, we often lose touch with how people with a fresh perspective will react. Finally, we can take advantage of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon, which is that groups of diverse, independent individuals often make better decisions than individual experts.

2. Use This Tool

Neil Patel

As Emerson said, the one element that affects virality more than anything else is your headline. 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will read a post.

The best tool for creating viral headlines is BuzzSumo, because it allows you to see the most shared articles for any keyword(s). When using BuzzSumo:

  • Type in keywords related to your field or sector. This returns the most shared articles on the web over the last year with those keywords in the title.
  • Look for patterns. Look for patterns in the most shared articles. You will almost always find some. Like I did, you may find that articles with specific numbers in the title do better (i.e., How Spending $162,301.42 on Clothes Made Me $692,500 was shared 10,000+ times).
  • Improve the top titles. Try to come up with a better variation by cross-referencing it with these headline formulas. If you' are unable to, then move onto the next title in the Buzz Sumo list.

3. Don't Publish Unless Your Content Sparks An Extreme Emotion

Blake Goodwine

The content on our sites is shared millions of times per month. In my experience, the key to creating viral content is setting the bar really high. If you use humor, it needs to be hilarious. If you provide an insight, it needs to be groundbreaking.

Your goal should be to create content that's so good, readers simply can't continue their day without clicking on it in their social media newsfeed and sharing it as they read it.

While this sounds intimidating, it's really not so hard when you know the formulas to use. First, you need to think about how your content will spark the strong emotions of awe, curiosity or disbelief. To do so, I recommend this great step-by-step resource put together UPENN Researcher, Jonah Berger.

Then, look at your content through the reputation lens and ask yourself the following question:

"Will readers be proud of branding themselves with your content? Does your reader want to be the reason all of their colleagues, friends, and family get to experienced the content?"

Remember that for someone to share your content, they must attach it to themselves in front of all their social media followers. This is no small feat given how ferociously people protect their reputations.

If you hit on emotions and identity, you have a strong likelihood of having successful content.

4. Narrow Your Audience, Don't Broaden It

Derek Flanzraich

Derek Flanzraich, founder and CEO of Greatist

I'm a big believer that the more you narrow your target audience, the more readers you can actually reach. We've seen that play out on a big scale with Greatist, which now has 10+ million visitors per month. Constraining your audience to reach more people may sound counterintuitive, I know, but here's why going narrow is so powerful:

  • Helps You Pick The Best Platforms. Helps you decide whether you invest your resources in reaching and optimizing for Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat, etc. for the most successful distribution.
  • Helps You Make Your Content More Relevant. If you're somewhat relevant to everyone, you're really relevant to no one--and in the saturated content space online, success only comes to the signal, not the noise.
  • Helps You Create Content That Gets Shared Big Time. The more content resonates with someone, the more likely they'll share it. So instead of asking yourself, "How can my post reach 1+ million views?" you should ask yourself, "How can I make something that a particular group of 10,000 people would love so much that they just have to share it with their network?" And even though a piece of content might be for a very specific audience (56 Reasons You Should Move To Finland Immediately, for example), if they love it that much they'll probably share it with their entire network.

When Greatist was starting out, we wanted to reach "everyone with an interest in health and fitness being easier." That was silly. That's a huge market, obviously--but no one can start there. Instead, we moved to 18-35 year olds looking for a trusted health and wellness source online. Then we went to "18-35 year olds trying to just make healthier choices." Each time we've narrowed down our audience, our audience has become easier to find, our followers have become more engaged, and our traffic has grown in a big way.

To keep that momentum, we're always on the lookout for new, niche audiences that no one's served especially well with content. Once we identify a group, we do a little method I call "The Little John":

  1. Write down who our audience is.
  2. Define what we want them to do.
  3. Narrow the audience down more. Waaay down.
  4. At the same time, broaden the ultimate call to action.

Let's assume we started with "Millennials" and ended up narrowing down our audience to "young students on a budget and with limited time." Now, if we want to offer recipes, instead of sharing a list of things to cook with expensive ingredients that take hours to make, we'll offer recipes that save time and money. Suddenly the piece of epic content we're creating is uber-relevant to a specific group of people... and it offers the best, most exhaustive and comprehensive answer to address a very real challenge they're facing. As a relevant example, our article, 34 Healthy Breakfasts for Busy Mornings, has been shared nearly 600,000 times.

5. Use This Type Of Image (Not All Images Are Created Equal)

Nadine Hanafi

Nadine Hanafi, Founder and CEO of We Are Visual

It is no secret that visual content is some of the most viral content online. While most people know this, they usually miss out on how to use visuals most powerfully. Here's how I incorporate high-quality, viral visuals:

  • Simplify Main Concept Into A Metaphor. If people don't quickly understand your idea, chances are they'll promptly leave. I simplify concepts in two ways. First, I think of a metaphor that communicates the concept. Decades of research shows that, contrary to popular belief, the brain is wired to understand complex concepts with metaphors, not abstract reasoning.
  • Simplify The Metaphor Into A Visual. Images are particularly good at evoking emotion, and emotion is one of the core reasons that people share content online. Then, I think of a visual that embodies the metaphor. If a photo can't capture the essence of the metaphor, I hire an illustrator. A great place for inexpensive illustrators is Fiverr.
  • Find A Visual That Evokes Emotion. Not all images are created equal. To find viral images, I recommend searching by emotion, not just by topic. For example, let's say you want to show surprise. Search 'surprise' on Google Images.

6. Use Your Own Curiosity As A Litmus Test

Jordan Harbinger

The way that I think about viral content is, "What is going to be crazy, crazy, crazy interesting for me?" When I do that, my content goes viral for two reasons:

It deeply resonates with a small group of people who will share it. I know that a small fraction of people are going to be equally crazy about it, and they're going to share it with others as a result. There's a lot of vanilla ice cream content creators out there that are like, "My audience is anyone interested in being a better person, male or female, any age." That content is going to fail.

My authentic passion shines through. Passion is contagious. When I'm passionate, my listeners become passionate. I don't try to hide that passion or who I am by putting up a 'professional / business facade'. Instead, I focus on being myself. What I sound like on my podcast is how I sound when I've had a glass of wine with friends that I grew up with, and I'm goofing around. That's the you that people want to build a relationship with.

7. Rewatch (or Reread) and Dissect Your Favorite Content

Emerson Spartz

Todd Wiseman, co-founder and president of Hayden 5 Media

It takes creative risk to express your message in a way that captures attention and starts a conversation.

The goal of taking risks isn't just to push the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. It's about finding the most effective way to communicate a message in an attention-starved world.

"You don't get credit for being safe," sums it up perfectly. If what you're creating is going to piss some people off, but it also happens to be brilliant, that's OK. Think about what they pull off on SNL and The Daily Show. Many people aren't pleased about it, but the reward is great, and the audience they appeal to loves it. One video that we did the creative and production for is Trojan Condoms Unrolled, which had 3+ million on all the video platforms it was shown on. It has a few sexual innuendoes, but overall, it is tasteful and informative.

In order to be creative, you don't need to be a genius who creates completely original ideas from scratch. An approach I recommend is:

  • Develop the creative concept. In the video world, this means brainstorming, creating a bullet point/visual summary, and turning that summary into a script.
  • Look for niche creative talent. I recommend looking for people who are expert at creating exactly the type of content you want to create. In other words, don't hire the horror writer to pen a comedy. In order to find these freelancers, I recommend searching the credits on existing viral content you like and then finding people's profile on IMDB or elsewhere. On Youtube, the credits are often in the description under the video.

What do you think are the keys to making ideas spread that weren't mentioned in this article? Which of the ideas in the article most resonated with you? Leave your thoughts in the comments. I read and respond to every comment, and I'd be very curious about your thoughts.

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Special thank you to Ian Chew for being an integral part of putting this article together.