Keep testing to succeed: the “science” of virality

For the second year in a row, editors at led a SXSW workshop on the “science” of virality in social media (you can view their 2013 presentation here). While some of what they have to share is basic knowledge, e.g. “know your audience”, they’ve learned a lot about finding and promoting shareable content since the site launched two years ago.

Here are a few truths and tricks worth remembering:

1. Amazing content is priceless.

If you produce substantive, engaging, and emotional content – it doesn’t matter what form it’s in – your audience will respond. Finding – or making – content that people want to share is the biggest hurdle. The fabled “viral” content is out there, but most of it is not distributed in the right way.

That’s where Upworthy excels: they know how to craft headlines that convince people to watch. Which is why one editor bragged about convincing 8 million people to watch a 10-minute video on gender identity; this is not an easy thing to do.

2. Your audience hates marketing speak.

In other words, no one wants to read your boring press release. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating: you and your client must talk, write, and act like a human being. Your audience can spot marketing jargon a mile away and will avoid it at all costs.

To make content on a Facebook page more authentic and shareable, try to:

  • Comment on and share other people’s Facebook posts, tag friends, tweet at competitors, etc.; keep interactions patient, friendly, and kind

  • Post content in all forms

  • Admit when you screw up, because to err IS human; your audience will be more likely to forgive if you own up to a mistake

  • Understand who you’re talking to, and let them know you care — but be truthful

  • Make it easy for your audience to share what they like

3. Never disappoint your mom.

Inspiring your audience to “like” something is easy. Getting them to click through, watch a video, and send to a friend is much, much more difficult. And to make something spread to millions of people, Upworthy says you need to make sure your mom will want to share it, and that your mom’s friend’s cousin’s next-door neighbour and her entire email list will also want to watch and share.

Middle-aged women, specifically moms with young kids, share the most content on the Internet. So if a headline embarrasses or disappoints your mom, she won’t want to share it. And if she doesn’t like it, it won’t go anywhere.

4. Test. Re-write. Test again. Repeat.

The Upworthy panelists aren’t shy about praising their proprietary testing system. Every post they write runs a gauntlet of optimization techniques, and what worked yesterday won’t work today.

If your business doesn’t have budget for extensive testing, here are a few ways to test on a smaller scale:

  • Send test messages to your corporate email list, or even a personal one

  • Create a “dark post” on Facebook

  • Try A/B testing with Google Analytics

  • Use geolocation targeting on Facebook to test different headlines to two similar geographic areas; see which one gets the most lift in a set period of time

It’s imperative to keep testing, because audiences are in constant shift. As soon as a tactic proves successful, it can be overused. At the same time, your audience begins to recognize what’s happening and backs away.

5. Create content they can’t resist.

There’s an art to writing clickworthy, shareable headlines. Testing is key, but there are also a few rules. According to Upworthy editors who have tried, and tested, it all:

  • Don’t oversell (and don’t lie)

  • Don’t over-sexualize

  • Don’t make people take a stance they’d be uncomfortable sharing

  • Don’t judge; be an observer

  • Include a “curiosity gap” — promise intrigue, and deliver on that promise

  • Give your audience a reason why they should care

A few other takeaways:

Always optimize for Facebook sharing. Facebook is the place for spreading information, so ask your coding team to make it easy. Create separate fields for your  Facebook headline, excerpt, and image. Your visual will be big and prevalent, so make it work hard.

Snark and sarcasm do not work (in headlines). Chances are, the person reading your headline does not realize you are hilarious. Be helpful and clear.

Editorial judgment is still important. Even with the magic of A/B testing, nothing trumps human insight. Go with your gut.

Don’t overwhelm people with data. Bombarding people with facts tends to make them shut down and not pay attention. Keep it simple.

Let people think for themselves. Prime your audience with a few key facts, then step away and let them come to their own conclusions. They’ll thank you for it.

Leave your audience happy. Find/create content that gives people a good, warm feeling. Think positive and be inspiring.

Give them a small, easy action to take. A clear call-to-action makes all the difference. Ask your audience to like, share, read, or donate.

Entertain and inform. The best stories give audiences a hero, a villain, and a chance to make a difference. Keep it specific and local, sprinkle it with showmanship … and voilà. The chances of your content spreading virally just skyrocketed.

Good luck.

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