Going viral. It’s a phenomenon many businesses dream of – after all, when a piece of your content spreads rapidly across social platforms, your business can see untold benefits. The ensuing buzz can boost awareness of your brand and exponentially increase your website’s visibility, as your site traffic, rank, and reach all skyrocket. But how can you make it happen for you?
To get a clear picture of how content goes viral, we examined four posts that spread like wildfire to discover the effects of their popularity on their hosting sites. For each case study, we analyzed Alexa’s key statistics:
- Number of shares on social media
- Boost in global traffic rank (the site’s popularity compared with that of all other websites)
- Increase in reach (the percentage of Internet users who view your content)
- Boost in page views (the average number of pages a user views before leaving your site)
We also looked at each site’s demographics and traffic sources.
Each piece of content we studied is unique – an anti-bullying music video, a listicle of inspirational quotes, an ad about distracted driving, and an opinion article – but they all garnered huge results. Keep reading to explore these viral phenomena – and get tried-and-true strategies to enhance your own marketing efforts. Who knows? You just might have the next viral hit on your hands.
The Viral Anti-Bullying Video
After learning his young daughter was being bullied at school, musician Khari Toure wrote a catchy song with inspiring lyrics: “I’m beautiful, I’m worthy, and those mean words can’t hurt me.” The music video features Toure, his daughter, and a cast of children from the community singing the self-love anthem.
In a time when bullying is such a pressing and much-discussed issue, the music video struck a chord with its audience. Facebook users shared it more than 1 million times, and it garnered more than 9.3 million views on YouTube (as of February 2016). On September 6, 2015, the video went live on Faithtap.com, which touts itself as “the social website with an infinite scroll of interesting and inspirational videos.” Just over a week later, the site’s reach more than doubled (at its peak) and page views doubled. Within a couple of months, the site’s global ranking had jumped by 43%.
Many viral content sites, including Faithtap.com, generate revenue by placing pay-per-click ads with advertising placement services including Google AdSense and DoubleClick. If it really takes off, a successful viral video can rake in thousands of dollars from advertising. Faithtap.com knows its audience. More than 92% of the site’s traffic comes from social media, and the demographics are predominantly composed of women aged 45 to 65 with families. For a site geared predominantly to mothers, promoting an emotionally compelling (and highly shareable) music video about being positive in the face of bullying was a marketing win.
What can you learn from this case study? If you’re hoping to go viral, you need to know your audience. What makes them tick? Plan for content with a strong, emotive hook that’s relevant to your audience. When it comes to format, videos are a strong choice in terms of viral potential. In today’s fast-paced world, some people aren’t up for reading a long article. A video, however, can immediately grab your audience’s attention and produce a strong emotional response. If you do make a video, good bets for upping the odds of virality are keeping it short, ensuring it is upbeat and inspiring, and making it timely by tying it to a current event.
The Viral Listicle of Celeb Quotes
People across the world love Amy Poehler. The popular actress and comedian, of “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation” fame, is not only extremely funny – she’s also an outspoken advocate of strong self-esteem. Mic.com, a media site geared to millennials, capitalized on Poehler’s fame by publishing a listicle (a short-form article with a bulleted or numbered list) of her most empowering quotes.
A currently popular celeb. Easy-to-digest content. An empowering theme. Shareability. All these factors made the listicle a viral hit that was shared on Facebook more than 7,600 times. The piece was published on April 13, 2015, and within a couple of months, Mic.com’s global rank increased 22%. Reach had nearly tripled by April 28 and peaked at 0.26% on June 4. Page views quadrupled in that time as well. Pretty impressive (and cost-effective) for a compilation of quotes!
Mic.com hit the jackpot with the Amy Poehler listicle. The site’s audience is primarily composed of young women, to whom Poehler is a cultural icon. The quotes are on point: “Girls, if a boy says something that isn’t funny, you don’t have to laugh” is a great example. Additionally, nearly 82% of the site’s traffic comes from social media, so the shareable listicle format gains an immediate edge.
How can you apply these learnings to your own content? For starters, choose a well-written and attention-grabbing headline. In fact, the right headline can boost page views by as much as 500%. Additionally, incorporating pop culture references, especially to universally popular topics or people, is a good way to win over your audience. As for format, it’s been proven that lists are almost always a good option when you want to rack up shares. Finally, know your audience and shoot for a topic that resonates: People are eager to share content that they feel aligns with their causes or values.
The Viral Video That Shocked its Viewers
A sobering commentary on the consequences of using smartphones while driving, this short film created by AT&T for the “It Can Wait” campaign chronicles the lives of six people in the moments before a horrific accident – an accident caused by a woman who glances down at her smartphone while driving. Her young daughter in the backseat, the man in the other vehicle, the passersby are all affected in different yet tragic ways. The moment the accident occurs, the pacing switches to slow motion – and then moments later, the accident plays in reverse, in slow motion, to underscore that it could have been prevented.
In today’s connected world, it’s clear that this video hit home for many people. Facebook users shared it more than 958,000 times, and it has more than 6.3 million YouTube views as of February 2016. Creativity-Online.com – a sibling of Advertising Age that showcases creative content – posted the video on July 20, 2015. Over the next couple of months, the site’s global ranking increased 29%. A mere three days after it went live, the site’s reach skyrocketed sevenfold, and page views increased eightfold.
Creativity-Online.com touts itself as “a site dedicated to showcasing highlights in communication, advertising, design, websites, and interactive ideas.” Its audience is primarily composed of well-to-do women age 55 to 64. Its traffic sources are more evenly mixed than the other sites we’ve examined: About a third is direct, slightly more than 30% is from search, and only around 23% is from social media.
What made this post work? At almost four minutes long, the short presented relatable characters to draw in the audience – almost as though it were a movie – and then sprang the out-of-nowhere accident. Texting and driving is a huge issue today – and a topic people can relate to and feel passionate about. The agency who created the ad sought to make it “raw and emotional,” and attempted to ensure that viewers could see themselves in the shoes of the mother in the driver’s seat who glances down at her phone. In your own content, you can draw from these lessons: Utilize surprise to build emotion, incorporate hot-button issues, and feature topics and people that viewers can relate to.
The Viral Article That Really Resonated
HoustonPress.com, a Houston-based entertainment source, struck it big with this opinion piece. In “No, It’s Not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong,” Jeff Rouner penned a brief but passionate opinion piece about how, well, you just might be wrong. “
People agreed with his sentiment – and more than 36,000 shared it on Facebook. HoustonPress.com originally published the piece on July 23, 2015, and over the subsequent months, the website’s global ranking shot up 32%. Two days after it was published, the site’s reach increased fivefold while page views nearly quadrupled.
HoustonPress.com calls itself the definitive news source in Houston. The newspaper says it has over 600,000 readers each month in print and more than 3 million page views each month online. Nearly half of online users find it via search, nearly 23% visit via social media, and just over 20% visit the site directly. The audience is predominantly well-to-do women with no children, aged 35 to 44.
This piece is relatable to anyone who spends time online arguing with people who believe they’re never wrong. Rouner wins fans with his biting tone and controversial content. The subject is also applicable to a wide audience – after all, who hasn’t met someone who’s supposedly never wrong? He also incorporates current hot-button issues that spark people’s passion, including the marginalization of people of color and the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood.
Notably, after the article was published, Rouner also included a correction that reads, in part, “I did get something wrong in the article. […] My opinion was based on bad data. Now it’s not.” He’s human, he’s fallible, and his piece appeals to virtually all who read it. When you’re planning content, you can up your chance of going viral by making it applicable to a wide audience, including points that surprise readers, and tying in current events.
How can you propel your content to spread like the ones we discussed above? The prospect of a viral hit can seem as unlikely as winning the lottery, but it’s important to focus on the factors you can control. Though there are no guarantees, you can certainly take steps to increase the odds that your posts will spread across the Internet. The above case studies reveal some actionable takeaways.
First, know your audience – know them inside and out and understand which emotions appeal to them, grab their attention, and make them want to share your piece. Stick to popular topics that are timely and relevant (bonus points for current pop culture references!) Write headlines that are catchy and high-quality but don’t over-promise. Be sure your audience can relate to your content – but don’t be afraid to shock your audience and stir up controversy. Do your research on timing so it hits your audience at the right time.
Finally, don’t be afraid to break the rules. That article, though not bite-size and bulleted, may just resonate; that video, though on the long side, may find an avid fan base. If your content never goes viral, it’s not the end of the world – but if it does, it’s sure to propel your business to new heights in the form of skyrocketing global traffic ranking, reach, and page views. If you really want to gain an edge, visit Alexa today to find out how our Marketing Stack can help you grow your business. Discover how your site stacks up against the competition. Find the best keywords for your site with our keyword difficulty tool. And enhance your site’s performance with our SEO audit tool. You have nothing to lose – and everything to gain.
The preceding list of viral posts were chosen based on two factors. First, the post had to have a significant social media impact; and second, the post had to be from a lesser known hosting site. These four particular viral posts were chosen because the publish date for the viral post directly corresponded to a rise in the hosting site’s traffic numbers. We chose to avoid posts from larger, more prominent sites since their results were less surprising and revelatory. All social media data were pulled from BuzzSumo and SharedCount to analyze total social media shares. We used Alexa’s competitive intelligence tool to analyze the website traffic and other site metrics. All Alexa data were pulled on January 16, 2016.
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