How to Go Viral: A Content Marketer’s Guide

Over the years, we’ve watched an elite club of articles generate hundreds of backlinks and rack up hundreds of thousands of views. These are the articles that went viral, circulating through Twitter, LinkedIn, Hacker News and Reddit, and picking up near-unstoppable momentum in the process.

While most articles require a sustained effort to generate traffic—sharing through social media, owned and earned newsletters, syndication, Slack groups, you name it—viral content is effortless. If content marketing is like pushing a boulder uphill, publishing a piece of viral content is the giddy moment when that boulder crests the hill and thunders down the other side, too fast for you to keep up.

These articles are rare, sure—but not impossibly so. We’ve learned from our experience that there are a handful of criteria that maximize the chances of an article going viral.

Examples of Viral Content

BLUF: The Military Standard That Can Make Your Writing More Powerful20k views
Google Wave’s Failure is a Great Lesson for Modern Real-Time Collaboration Tools30k views
How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon's Competitive Advantage30k views
Why Trello Failed to Build a $1 Billion+ Business150k views
The Dullest, Most Vital Skill You Need to Become a Successful Manager700k views

Forget About “Selling” or “Marketing”

Most attempts at viral content fall at the first hurdle because they look and feel like... marketing.

And that’s problematic: social networks are places where people go primarily to be entertained and educated. Marketing CTAs and overt sales language stick out like a sore thumb and kill an article’s viral potential in its tracks. You undermine the legitimacy of the article (if it’s even accepted). You’ll be labeled a shill.

This marketing allergy means that self-promotion is off the table—tricky when you’re a content marketer. What purpose does viral content serve if it doesn’t generate sales qualified leads (SQLs) or customers? Well—it does, in an indirect way. I wrote about it in another blog post:

“There are lots of ways that content can influence revenue without outright converting a customer—some content will never generate a concrete ROI, but is still worth writing.”

Viral content—like top of funnel content, generally—is a loss leader. It doesn’t generate revenue directly, but it does build the infrastructure required to help your “money content” perform better. The traffic and backlinks generated by viral content create a knock-on effect, raising awareness for your brand and improving the domain authority of high-converting pages, like case studies and product pages.

shot in the arm.png
We experienced this when one viral article created a permanent step-change in traffic across our entire website

In other words, writing viral content requires you to stop thinking like a marketer and start thinking like a user. Instead of optimizing content for SQLs and keyword rankings, you have to focus solely on entertainment and education. Forget about marketing, and ironically, better marketing results will follow.

Use the Communities You Want to Target

Most viral flops happen because the author approaches communities like Hacker News and LinkedIn with their marketing hat firmly glued to their head. They can’t see past the products they have to promote and the leads they need to generate, and it causes them to overlook the unique traits and idiosyncrasies of each channel.

This problem disappears when we become users—show up, every day, and you’ll quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.

For example, spend any time on Hacker News and you’ll realize that the community abides by a totally unique set of expectations, preferences and dislikes:

  • Strong opinions rule the day
  • Technology and startups dominate the discourse
  • Anything that feels like marketing is ignored—or torn to pieces

Contrast those characteristics to LinkedIn:

  • Readers clamor for inspiration and self-help
  • Management and career development account for most articles
  • Readers are more willing to read an article that leans a little self-promotional

Here’s a comparison of two successful articles. One racked up 30k views on Hacker News; the other generated 700k views on LinkedIn. Both went viral, but each article looks and feels radically different because each is written for the channel it was shared on:

ArticleGoogle Wave’s Failure is a Great Lesson for Modern Real-Time Collaboration ToolsThe Dullest, Most Vital Skill You Need to Become a Successful Manager
ChannelHacker News (30k views)LinkedIn (700k views)
TopicStartups, technologyManagement, business
FormatLong and detailed (doesn‘t “feel” like marketing)Short and pithy
AngleOpinionated and controversial;
revels in schadenfreude
Focused on career development; name-drops successful businesspeople
AppealHigh-specificity; niche subject matterWide-reaching, universal appeal

Every social network offers a different experience and attracts different people as a result. That means that content that performs well on Hacker News looks different than content that performs well on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or Reddit. Trying to make your content appeal to multiple channels often means it resonates with no one—it has to feel like it belongs to the channel you choose and nowhere else.

To maximize the likelihood of an article going viral, it needs to be shaped to the nuances of a single distribution channel. Choose a single social network, become a user, and focus your energy on writing for that one place.

Choose a Proven Narrative Hook

Despite the millions of books in existence, most stories are—at their heart—relatively similar, pulling from a handful of literary archetypes and adding their own unique spin. Content is much the same: the viral articles shared here offer relatively straightforward advice about business strategy or writing, but they set themselves apart because of a powerful “hook.”

For example, BLUF: The Military Standard That Can Make Your Writing More Powerful could easily have been called “How to Make Your Writing More Powerful”—but instead, straightforward advice is made more compelling by anchoring it around a punchy acronym and harnessing a common fascination with military practices.

You can use this to your advantage by identifying popular topics within your given community and using them as the “hook” for your writing: giving a unique perspective, offering a counter-argument, sharing a new example, or applying it to a different scenario.

High-Concept Content (8).png

You can piggyback on the reputation of popular brands or people, like Hacker News’ fascination with Amazon and Jeff Bezos:

Demonstrate relevance to a specific audience, like managers or spreadsheet users:

Or weigh in on controversial topics, like Google’s penchant for sunsetting products, or startup failures:

These topics are easy to find—spend an hour reading through a subreddit’s Best of All Time posts or Hacker News’ most upvoted content, and identify the topics that appear multiple times. If you have a topic in mind, run a site search (like “amazon”) to see how often the topic crops up and how much discussion it generates.

Frame with a Strong Opinion

There are many ways to frame a topic and share information. If virality is the goal, it pays to avoid the safe-but-unexciting “how to” and “what is” articles and take advantage of opinion. Most social networks are designed for discussion and debate; an article with a strong opinion provides potent fuel for those discussions

Strong opinions provide fodder for discussion, debate and social sharing, like this comment thread on Hacker News

Strong opinions encourage social sharing and enhance virality in one of two ways:

  • The reader shares the opinion and uses the article to convince others. You’ve clearly and eloquently articulated something the reader believes in, and by sharing the article, they’re presenting their own beliefs to the world.
  • The reader wants to challenge and discuss the article. You’ve said something that the reader disagrees with, and they want to share their expertise and experience to challenge the idea.

Here’s an example from Teampay that takes relatively commonplace financial mistakes and argues that they precipitated Zirtual’s downfall:

Or this piece from Hiten Shah, flipping the idea that Trello is hyper-successful and instead arguing that the company should have been more successful:

A note on negativity: many viral articles take a negative angle, skewing towards schadenfreude and failure. They work because of our innate negativity bias, our psychological tendency to be more affected by negative events than positive ones.

Negative headlines are particularly potent, but they need to be used responsibly. Only share beliefs that you’re willing to stand behind and back up with evidence, and don’t share anything that’s needlessly adversarial or sensational. Viral content is a powerful tool, and in the words of Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

With Great Power...

Viral content can bring connection and positive ideas to an audience of millions... or send inflammatory messages that tear through online communities like wildfire.

Like any sharp-edged tool, it has to be handled with thought, care and respect. “Going viral” is not a goal to be achieved at all costs but a powerful amplification strategy that requires ownership over the ideas you share and relies on an intimate understanding of your audience.

When used in this way, viral content becomes a force for good. It can change the fortunes of your company in a single move, propelling your ideas into the public consciousness and generating mountains of traffic in the process—or like Susan Fowler’s reflections on the misogyny of Uber, it can even change the world for the better.