As search engines pay more and more attention to social signals, going viral is rapidly becoming one of the best ways to build links, attract attention, and establish authority and legitimacy in your field.
How Social & SEO Are Linked
Let’s start with the obvious: social media builds links. In fact, viral content serves the same purpose as a link building campaign: gathering endorsements that establish authority and legitimacy in your field.
If one site is getting thousands of social shares, it sends three clear messages about your site to search engines:
- Your site is active
- Your site is current
- Your site is invested in the needs of your audience
Search engines boil down to one basic concept: helping users find what they’re looking for. Large amounts of social shares indicate that a mass amount of people not only found what they were looking for on your site, but also liked your site enough to share it with others.
Viral content is like the mass endorsement of the public; a giant thumbs-up formed from thousands of hands.
Viral Content = Valuable Content
By gaining a massive amount of social shares, you’re not just boosting your SEO signals—you’re also creating content with value for your customer base. Viral content is a win-win for both your brand and your search rankings. Like anything else in life, however, value takes time and talent to create.
Viral content is quality content. It’s passionate, it’s well-written, it’s eloquent, or it’s hilarious. If you want the thousands of shares, you’re going to have to put into the hours to make something with real value for your audience.
These 21 viral ideas are fantastic ways to attract tons of shares—but if you’re not willing to put in the time to put out something good, don’t bother. Fluff does not go viral.
21 Types of Successful Viral Content
1.) The Manifesto
The Manifesto is the viral equivalent of preaching to the choir. Write a passionate, eloquent, or well-researched argument that your niche will wholeheartedly agree with. Since you’ve already got an army of believers who agree with you, they’re already primed and ready to share your argument.
Example: Why I’m a Vegetarian, Dammit, an essay on a vegetarian recipe blog, received over 14,000 shares on StumbleUpon alone.
2.) The Controversy
The opposite of the Manifesto, the Controversy is all about stirring up some dissent in your niche. Write a well-written rebuttal to another argument, challenge a popular opinion, or spark a controversial discussion and watch the reader comments fly.
Example: Stop Coddling the Super-Rich, Warren Buffet’s August 2011 op-ed in the New York Times, straddles the line between a manifesto and controversy: it went against everything we expect the super-rich to argue, true, but it was also something the general public agreed with. As a result, the controversial-but-popular article landed the NYT a ton of coverage and shares.
3.) The Promise
Give your readers a timeline or promise for improvement: “Seven Days to a Better Body,” for example, or “23 Tips That Will Make You a Better Photographer.”
Example: 31 Days to an Organized Home received an overwhelming amount of shares on Pinterest since it offered a target audience (primarily crafty, DIY-minded women) a step-by-step walkthrough to achieve a desired result (an organized home).
4.) The Urgent Attention-Grabber
Create a “must-read factor” in your headlines that implies readers will miss out on important information if they don’t read, such as “13 Mistakes That Are Ruining Your Blog.” Time-sensitive material like “Five Events in 2012 You Don’t Want to Miss” is another fantastic way of attracting shares, since they imply a “before it’s too late” sense of urgency.
Example: A Box You Want to Uncheck on LinkedIn had a title that made readers curious (what does the box do?) along with valuable information that users felt compelled to share with others (I should warn my friends about this).
5.) The Epic
Why do a top 10 list when you can do a top 100? Go for gold and craft a mega-list relevant to your industry. Examples of epic titles include “50 Must-Have Firefox Add-ons,” or “101 Tips for Increasing Productivity.”
Example: Magazines have been doing this for years: just look at the Time 100 or women’s magazines with covers like 341 Budget Beauty Secrets Inside This Issue.
6.) The Ranked List
Ranked lists (Top Ten, Best 50, Greatest 100, etc.) have the benefit of being both controversial and interactive. Every ranking sparks an internal discussion within your readers: is #28 truly greater than #26? Does the #1 ranking really deserve the top spot? And how on earth did ________ not make the list?
Example: Few sites embrace lists like Time.com, which goes so far as to release a massive “Top Ten of Everything” series every year, featuring everything from the “Top Ten Tweets” to the “Top Ten Oddball News Stories.”
7.) The Man of the Year
Instead of creating a ranked list, cut to the chase and just announce your #1 selection. Take a stand with your own niche: App of the Month, Best Industry Site of 2011, Blog of the Year, etc.
Example: People’s Sexiest Man Alive, Oprah’s Book of the Month, Time’s Person of the Year, Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year…
8.) The Directory
Why make readers sift through mounds of data when you can do it for them? Collect the best links from around the internet and share them with your readers. Gather the best advice for your niche, the top news stories, the leading Twitter accounts in your field, or a simple collection of interesting information.
Example: The Most Interesting 50 Articles on Wikipedia combed through a massive directory of interesting Wiki articles to present only the most interesting stories.
9.) The Quiz
Quizzes are popular for several reasons: they’re interactive, they’re fun, and they’re user-focused. They can also start a discussion (I got this result! Which one did you get?). Example: There are three main types of quizzes: user-focused (Which Superhero are You?), test-your-knowledge (Name All 50 State Capitals in 10 Minutes), and just-for-fun (Rapper or McDonald’s Menu Item?).
10.) The Pop Culture Tie-In
When you embrace the latest craze sweeping the Internet, be it a meme, video, trend, or movie, you’re capitalizing on the thing-of-the-moment. Create your own meme or tie a post into something current (the Muppet movie, Herman Cain’s political debacles, etc.). Just make sure you’re not posting something that’s already oversaturated (the world does not need another Charlie Sheen joke).
Example: A current example is the Pepper Spraying Cop Meme.
11.) The Expert In viral content and in life, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Name recognition is a powerful thing. When Mark Zuckerberg talks about Facebook or Mario Batali talks about food, people listen. For even more viral impact, gather a group of experts: “15 Published Authors on Writing,” for example.
Example: The previous Warren Buffet example made headlines because it wasn’t an average Joe writing his opinions for the NYT…it was a mega-rich celebrity.
12.) The Viral Video
From Snakes on a Plane to the Old Spice Man, the road to viral marketing has been paved with viral videos. Make a trailer for an upcoming product, film a demonstration, or create something downright goofy. Just make it original or make it good—Internet users have no shame about stopping a boring video 15 seconds after it starts.
13.) The Visual Aid
Visual representations of mass amounts of data are easy-to-digest while still containing a lot of “meaty” content. Infographics aren’t the only example of this—think graphs, informational videos, or interactive maps, too.
14.) The Tutorial
From simple articles to complex ones, step-by-step instructions and how-to articles are always popular. Craft larger tutorials like “Beginner’s Guide to…” or a “Complete Guide to…” or keep it simple with a basic how-to article.
Example: It doesn’t have to be complicated: 37 Ways to Tie a Scarf received over 43,000 shares on StumbleUpon alone.
15.) The Freebie
Create something of significant value and give it away for free– and encourage sharing. You’re positioning yourself as an authoritative brand, someone a reader will return to for more information in the future.
Example: Seth Godin’s free eBook “Unleashing the Ideavirus” is the perfect example of a successful viral freebie: it was packed with information, completely free, and Godin encouraged people to share.
16.) The Create-Your-Own Activity
Like a cross between the freebie and the quiz, the Create-Your-Own is all about letting a web visitor create something unique, personalized, and (generally) brand-related.
17.) The Collaboration
Sometimes it takes a village to make something go viral. Collaborative content feels like a group effort—or, in the case of memes, like a virtual flash mob. As an added benefit, you’ve got a head start on the viral sharing snowball effect: users naturally want to share and promote content they’ve helped make.
Example: Submit-your-own memes like Paula Deen Riding Things, submit-your-own-picture blogs like Cake Wrecks, and serious posts like 21 Readers Tell What They Wish They’d Known About Photography are all collaborative examples
18.) The Incredible Story
The Incredible Story reflects all those human interest news stories we all love to share: the dog who traveled 30 miles to return home, the man who pulled someone from the subway tracks. These stories impress us; we feel compelled to share them with others.
19.) The Knee-Jerk Reaction
Why has a video of a baby panda sneezing gained over 124 million hits? Because it’s short, simple, and straightforward: a baby panda sneezes, and it’s cute. As Seth Godin writes, “Nietzche is hard to understand and risky to spread, so it moves slowly among people willing to invest the time. Numa Numa, on the other hand, spread like a toxic waste spill because it was so transparent, reasonably funny, and easy to share.”
20.) The Ridiculous
It’s bizarre, it’s off-the-wall, it’s never been seen before, and it’s hilarious. Content that catches your audience by surprise and then makes them laugh is some of the most successful viral content out there.
21.) The Hybrid
Hybrids combine several different aspects of the other types for one superpowered piece of viral content.
Example: Boston.com’s 50 Scariest Movies of All Time was a ranked list (#6), invited the audience to share their own opinions (#17) and let users create their own top 50 list in an interactive game (#16).
I’d argue that creating your own hybrid trumps every other type on this list. You’re creating a strategy that’s uniquely targeted to your own brand and audience—and you’ll be doing what “going viral” is all about: doing something remarkably different from everyone else.