Memes aren’t the only media that can go viral online. Articles can, too. Cat GIFs may be cute, but stories still have the power to tug at our heartstrings and stimulate our brains. The question is: How do you create viral content? What exactly makes an article shareable? Can you really predict when your piece will gain traction and send you a flood of new readers?
To help answer these questions, let’s break down three recent stories that went viral across the web, and pinpoint what publishers can learn from them.
1. Medium’s political conspiracy
Nine days after President Trump’s inauguration, Google engineer Yonatan Zunger published “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” on Medium. The post proposed a conspiracy theory: Trump’s first week of executive orders might be a test to see how easily he could assume absolute power and overthrow the government.
Within a day, it received 12.3K shares on Medium and even trended on Twitter with up to 40K tweets. It helped, of course, that influencers and celebrities used their platforms to perpetuate the conversation.
The takeaway: Present a unique take on a trending topic, especially in a way that appeals to readers’ emotions. Zunger’s theory helped validate many American’s feelings of fear and frustration about Trump’s policies—and at just the right time. This made the post immediately shareable, if only to let people say, “Look! Our worries are not unfounded. There may be something deeper going on here.”
2. Business Insider’s look at intelligence
The title of this post alone is enough to inspire people to share: “Intelligent people tend to be messy, stay awake longer, and swear more.” Published by Business Insider International last March, the article has generated almost two million views to date. It seemed to have largely been shared on Facebook, and linked to by other leading publications, such as LifeHack.
The takeaway: Tell readers something about themselves, and they’ll be compelled to share it with their friends. Intelligent people can view this and say, “See, this is why I’m messy!” And messy people can view this and say, “See, I’m smarter than you think!”
3. BuzzFeed’s big scoop
Just one day after Stanford swimmer, Brock Turner, was sentenced to jail for sexually assaulting a young woman, BuzzFeed published the victim’s 7,200-word letter with a straightforward title: “Here Is The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read Aloud To Her Attacker.” As AdWeek reported, the young woman specifically requested that BuzzFeed break the news because it had “the right demographic and people.”
The article generated more than 11 million views in four days. And for every one person who shared it, 12 more saw it. Here’s what BuzzFeed News senior culture writer Anne Helen Petersen had to say about it:
The takeaway: Get the scoop, and you can own the conversation around an entire story. Once BuzzFeed published the letter, all other publications covering the incident—like The Atlantic and The Washington Post—had to link back to the source, causing traffic to continue flooding back to BuzzFeed.
Your recipe for a viral story
There is a fourth secret to creating a viral article, and it’s the only one you can’t control: your audience. While you may be able to predict their behaviors, it’s tough to know exactly what they’ll deem share-worthy in a given moment.
That’s why you need to focus on what you can control: your story. Find a unique angle. Give people a reason to continue the conversation. Post at the right time. With these key ingredients, you’ll be on your way to creating a story that’s worthy of the term “viral.”