10 minute read.

Anatomy of viral content

Paul Anthony / March 3, 2010

Posted in: Archive

One of the most positive things that can happen to a website, is the wave of traffic that occurs as a result of viral content.  I’ve been lucky enough to experience the effects on this site a couple of times, and as such I can show you the what, where, why and how.

What is viral content?

In simplistic terms, viral content is anything which can be shared, and has an element within it that encourages the reader to do so. Before larger social media sites came along, viral content was shared mostly via email. Marketers devised ways  to encourage people to “send content to a friend”, commonly via email with a link embedded in it somewhere and the process continued and multiplied across the web.

Now, with the growth of social media, this has changed somewhat. Now the doors are opened for anything to be shared quickly and easily amongst contacts.  Not just the stuff that marketers deliberated created to send in a chain.  That is good news for anyone creating content on the web.

Viral content can be summed up as the following:

“Viral content is remarkable. It is a smack in the side of the head to the reader who reacts by sharing with others.”

Get it off the ground

There are a couple of ways in which the content you create can “take-off”. The decision to use or encourage use of a particular method is relatively futile, as the community and your readership decide what works best for them. Your reader profile may for example feel they “fit” better in a particular social network.

It also really depends on the nature of your content as to how its shared between folk. I’ve personally found worth in two social sharing sites – DZone and Delicious as I’ll show you in a bit.


An obvious one, email still plays a part in content reaching other people. Perhaps not as much as it once did, but often if you start the ball rolling via email other networks follow. Your parents are probably still sending you FW: FW: FW: emails, as they aren’t as active on networks with a younger demographic. Ignore this, and you are missing out on quite a few people who still don’t get Twitter or Facebook.

The importance of email is often underestimated, and having a good subscriber base which receive updates via email always helps your content reach that bit further. Offering both RSS subscription, and email, puts you in good stead for the future. Be aware that email is much more intrusive than RSS, and as such you can expect to get wider fluctuations in email subscribers, than those who use RSS. The time that people receive their content is also important, and you should change the time that they receive your Feedburner content to tap into that. Should they receive it first thing in the morning before the working day starts? Would it be better to receive during the afternoon lull? – thinking about the type of content you are putting in front of people can answer those questions.

Social Sharing

Twitter and/or Facebook are great at helping viral content spread further. Tweets from larger influencers stand a much better chance of getting retweeted, and if their following is significantly large, the effect is somewhat akin to a bomb blast, with even those on the periphery hearing your message.

There isn’t unfortunately a secret formula for creating content that people will share, but you can examine what has worked for others, and using the same strategies reap rewards.

Not everyone on Twitter who has amassed a huge following is an influencer. Don’t make the mistake of purely looking at the numbers. In many cases, the ratio of followers to following can help. Sometimes, even that logic is flawed, with people unfollowing in bulk. If you really want to work out who the influencers are, you should turn to tools such as TweetStats ,Twinfluence or  Twitalyzer – they can give a basic idea of who is influencial, and who you should be networking with, both online and off.

Large link

Not all content gets viral exposure the minute it is launched. In some cases, it takes weeks and sometimes months for others to give it the recognition it deserves, and often it gets dug out of your archives via a larger blogger linking to it. The reach of that particular site being greater than yours, starts the ball rolling down a significantly higher hill, and as such the content gains much more traction. Notice the date that saves occured within Delicious for that particular piece – exactly the same as the SmashingMag piece, not however the same as my post date. This only serves to underline the importance of seeding content in other places with higher traffic than your own, at least when you are starting out.

One other added benefit of landing a “big fish link” is the trust gained as a result. You’ll sometimes find that the perception of an articles benefit, usefulness, or indeed accuracy will be increased somewhat as the result of a link, and as such it gets shared more frequently.

Social Front Page

It’s really difficult to say whether reaching the home page of social site such as Digg or Delicious is the cause, or the effect of viral content, but it certainly pulls in a fresh flow of traffic to a site, which then in turn continues the viral sharing process. My own personal experience to date is that a number of smaller sites that feed off the delicious popular links also help to increase your exposure. Sites such as Popurls or Buzzfeed both help keep the ball rolling.

Where it Happens

From what I’ve personally experienced, the following are some of the graphs showing how the viral process shakes out. I’ve had success with a couple of different articles – as detailed below. There’s no hard and fast formula, and you can’t always put your finger on why something works better, but there are always patterns to be found.

1) – My first article that went slightly crazy was on 9 rich text editors. This hit the delicious Homepage March 2008.

The results.

This is the delicious saves graph for that day.

Pagerank for this page now stands at a 4 on its own. Backlinks gained as a result – 881 according to Yahoo site explorer.

667 – Delicious saves at time of writing, saved on the 9th March, went viral on the Friday 13th March 2008, hit Delicious home page on Saturday 14th.  I now rank organically for rich text editors as a result. Notice the similarity of what I rank for, and the article title. This is simply because people use the article title as the anchor text for a link.

Its a good idea spend a bit of time thinking about what people are likely to search for prior to creating an article title for this very reason. A well written article that goes viral, has every change of collecting enough links to rank organically in competitive spaces.

Biggest link gained as a result? Probably from Yahoo.

Why this article worked? (IMO)

This article catered to a number of different people. Firstly, it caught the attention of developers, who put it on the homepage of DZone, secondly it was interesting to designers as well – who could use it for a reference point as to which RTE would output the cleanest code. Thirdly, there wasn’t really much as far as a detailed reference goes already out there.

If you are writing programmerish content DZone offers a good place to seed content initially. As the user base is vastly similar to delicious, it offers a great springboard for additional saves.

2) The second article which I created on this site that went viral was 9 open source e-commerce platforms reviewed. Saved on Delicious by me on the 3rd of May 2008, bounced off Dzone. on the 4th of May – and went viral on Delicious hitting the home page on the 5th. Interesting to see that it took a few days before it snowballed enough to gain traction.

The results

This article now accounts for 9% of my total pageviews, and 10% of my unique visits. The Google Pagerank of this page is again 4/10, and to date there have been 759 saves of this link on delicious. The article currently ranks at number 3 for the term “open source e-commerce” and the total number of backlinks to this page is 331 according to Yahoo site explorer.

Biggest link gained? CNet / Download.com

Why this article worked? (IMO)

I simply used the magic review formula that I’d worked out from my rich text editors post, and applied the “review” formula to something that would take a serious amount of time for a developer to research fully on their own. The review format has continued to work for me personally as a blogger, with other big hits such as this article also doing extremely well and going viral. In fact my highest traffic pieces are pretty much all found under this category.

Reviews in combination with resource bait do extremely well. These two articles alone show the power that viral content has when applied to your site. They aren’t the only ones which have done well, but do give a bit of insight and feel into what happens when something gets popular, and the effect on your traffic down the line.

How to create viral content

It really isn’t that difficult once you get into the swing of things, and there are basic principles which you can follow to help you along. The more you do it, the better you understand and get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

The main thing people seem to struggle with is ideas for stuff that isn’t already out there somewhere else. I frequently get requests from guest posters who simply want to do a ripped off list post about firefox plugins. Aint  happenin’. That’s a crowded space, with too much content that people have seen before. Snoreville. Zzzzz.

If you are going to stand out in the crowd, you are going to have to think different to everyone else, and put your own slant on things. One way to do that, is to watch trends – for example there’s an entire niche out there for something like Google Buzz, which has just happened, to which Mashable are responding. There’s absolutely an opportunity there for someone to come in an do a Darren Rowse on it. (Unsurprisingly, domainers are two steps ahead of me – buzztips.com re-registered on the 18th of February, 9 days after Google Buzz launched.)

If you are completely out of ideas, it’s also relatively trivial to see what other people in your industry are winning with. Just do a keyword search on Digg with a +d appended to it. Subscribe to the rss feed, and watch it over time. Adapt the concepts, not the content. How many visitors does the Louvre get to see the original of Mona Lisa? How many people ask to see the $10 print of the Mona Lisa hung up in your bedroom? Original content gets the juice every time, and in any case Google knows which one has been published first, so you are shit out of luck from a ranking perspective.

At a very macro level, the following works on the web:

Comedy. Research. Statistics. Pretty Graphics. Comprehensiveness. The wow factor. Tearing down sacred cows. Being first. Saving people time. Create Useful Tools. Free software. Free themes. Free photos. <-Free shit.

Apply some of these to the themes running through your site, and create something outstanding. I guarantee you’ll be pulling in the punters and basking in a warm fuzzy glow of traffic in no time.

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