If you are fortunate enough to have a popular website, it is fairly easy to make something that a lot of people see. You just put it on your front page. It is slightly more difficult (but still not very difficult) to make something that people will click on. You write a grabby headline, or pair it with a thumbnail that stands out and demands attention.
But if you want to make something that people will share – something that a reader, after coming to your front page and clicking on your clever headline and reading all the way to the bottom, feels compelled to tweet or put on their Facebook page or email to a group of friends who share the same interests – the whole process gets a lot more complicated (and a lot more interesting).
At BuzzFeed, we’ve made a science of trying to figure out exactly what goes into that process. Our interest in trying to make things that people want to share has helped us grow to over 130 million monthly unique visitors, 75% of whom come to our site from social sources, such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
The Ryan Gosling ‘hey girl’ meme
The first thing we learned about viral content is never, under any circumstances, say the words “viral content“. Because it sounds like a vomit bag. You’d be surprised by how many people break that rule.
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The second thing we’ve learned is that the things people like to share the most are things about themselves. This isn’t as vain as it sounds. Sharing something about yourself is often a statement about what you believe in, what causes or values you align yourself with, and what, in particular, you love and identify with. And although it’s true that people’s motives for making identity statements online aren’t always quite so lofty as saying: “Here I stand. I can do no other,“ it’s worth remembering that even a selfie can be raised to an art form (as you will know if you’ve ever had the good sense to Google the term “extreme selfies“).
But the lesson here for an online publication is that on today’s internet, your readers are your publishers – they are the people who decide which of your articles or lists or quizzes or infographics (another piece of jargon that’s worth avoiding because it sounds like homework) to share with their friends. They are more likely to do that if the act of sharing helps them to make a strong statement about who they are.
Otters who look like Benedict Cumberbatch
The third thing that we’ve learned about viral content is that people are more likely to share something if they have a strong, positive emotional response to it. A 2010 study of the New York Times “most emailed“ list found the articles that made the list tended to fall into one of four categories: awe-inspiring, emotional, positive or surprising. And the lesson from this isn’t so much that people like to feel feelings when they engage with a piece of content, it is that when it works – when the thing actually makes them cry or exclaim or feel inspired or shocked or happy – they want to share that experience with others.
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This is a good thing for the internet, which has emerged from a dark period of clever headlines written specifically to trick Googlers into landing on a page that may not be particularly valuable to them into a vastly more social space; one in which online publishers, who now need to compete for “likes“ rather than clicks, must focus on creating things that people genuinely find engaging enough to share.