A Recipe for Viral Content

What are the four characteristics of social content that achieves “viral status?”

April 7, 2016

There is no surefire formula for a marketing team to follow that guarantees success in creating content that has the likelihood of going viral. Admittedly, a huge part of the recipe is often luck.

During the past two weeks my institution, Gettysburg College, had three stories achieve “viral status” — by our definition — on social media. They came together in different ways and were on different topics, but what they shared were similar elements that I believe make up the recipe for viral content.

What are the characteristics that each of these social stories shared? The elements are broad and encompass stylistic approaches, systematic processes, and a committed and engaged audience.

1. An emotional story. Humans are emotional. And we love emotional stories. If you don’t have a great story, you probably don’t have a piece of potentially viral content.

Humans want to do more than read a good story — we want to feel great stories. Our stories need characters, a plot, a twist, a challenge, and a great ending. And we need to tell them in compelling and interesting ways.

2. A committed audience. One of the golden rules of communicating is know your audience. Who is your content for and what is in it for them? If your Facebook audience consists of mostly prospective students, then the type of content that might go viral feels very different than if the page is followed predominately by alums. Tapping into what makes your audience tick and what they are going to find most interesting and compelling is a necessary step.

3. A nimble team. Planning is essential when it comes to content strategy … but you have to plan for the unplanned as well. Is your team ready to jump into action when an opportunity presents itself? Does your content development team understand social media and what your web team might need? Without compelling headlines and multimedia no one will care enough to read your posts let alone share it and like it.

4. A dash of luck. As a former college basketball coach I would always say, “I would rather be lucky than good.” There are times that your institution just ends up at the right place at the right time and someone was there to capture the moment. No amount of planning, resources, or strategy can overcome good luck. When it comes your way take it and run with it!

Bringing it all together

Here’s a look at three successful pieces of content that we promoted in the last few weeks:

• Last week on the TODAY show, Al Roker surprised Tyra Riedemonn with the news that she’s accepted to Gettysburg College — her first choice school. It reached over 125,000 people and was shared close to 400 times on Facebook. In less than 24 hours it became our second most popular piece of content ever. And that’s just organic reach.

• A story about what students could do with a degree in history, if they didn’t plan on teaching. Reached more than 40,000 people and had 150 people share it on Facebook. It will be one of our top pieces of homepage content for this year. We also saw many third-party organizations retweet and share the content across platforms.

• A video recap of our New York City campaign event featuring Gettysburg College student Ashley Fernandez '16. The video was shared more than 50 times on Facebook.

For some context, a typical Facebook post reaches between 7,000 and 10,000 people after we put a small boost on it. And most of our posts get shared 10 times or fewer.

Of course, not all of our stories “go viral” and get shared with hundreds of thousands of people, but when the opportunity presents itself, making sure your team is ready and you have the processes in place to make it happen will certainly help.

Paul Redfern leads the communications and marketing team at Gettysburg College and is a frequent presenter on marketing and brand topics at national conferences.


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