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What lessons can we take from the blog articles which have got the nation talking? Is it possible to learn how to write a piece of viral content? Turns out - yes you can.
Creating viral content isn't easy.
Have you ever written a Tweet and thought: “This is it. This is gonna blow up!”. Posted it. Waited with anticipation. And then got 1 like... from your cousin?
Yep, we’ve all been there.
But sometimes a piece of content does take off; it gets shared by thousands – or millions – of people. They chat about it over their Friday night pints. Perhaps it even gets featured on the news.
Why? What was it about that story that caused it to skyrocket to fame?
And what lessons can we take from the blog articles which have got the nation talking? Is it possible to learn how to write a piece of viral content?
A few years ago, an article I wrote unexpectedly went viral.
Looking back, here’s what I learnt about why…
My boyfriend went shopping with a suitcase, but why did anyone care?
I penned an article about my boyfriend at the time, taking his suitcase to do his weekly shop because he didn’t want to pay the 5p bag charge.
Funny thing is: at no point did I think, “Yeah, this one’s gonna make national headlines”. Why on earth would the Daily Mail – and its huge readership – care that Sam took his luggage to Tesco?
But they did.
It was shared on social media thousands of times. Global publications picked it up, including the Huffington Post and the Metro. I was even approached by the TV show ‘8 Out of 10 Cats’ who asked permission to use the story in their Christmas special.
Because, apparently, this bit of content had everyone hooked.
The question we have to ask is: why?
What made this article so unique and shareable?
Here’s what I know...
Where to begin: The 5 Ws.
Let’s take this back to basics.
You’ve always got to revisit The 5 Ws – Who? What? When? Where? Why? – when telling a story.
If you focus on just one or two of the five, you’re not communicating the tale effectively.
These are the questions that people naturally ask themselves when they’re hearing a story, without even thinking.
Remember, the reader wasn’t there. They want to understand the article in its entirety and it’s your role as the storyteller to bring it to life in their imagination. If they don’t understand fully, or it’s vague and unrelateable, they’ll get bored.
When you’re in the editing process, go through your piece and make sure you’ve clearly explained The 5 Ws.
Always keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity
Coming up with that bit of viral content seems to be the hardest part, right?
Well, that’s because it’s impossible to do!
If you set yourself the brief of ‘writing something viral’, you’re setting yourself up for a fall.
At best, you’ll come across try-hard – the content will feel unoriginal and perhaps not all that amusing. At worst, it’ll be a big waste of your time.
So what do you do instead? You use your experiences.
If you look around your life and pick out moments that either make you laugh, pique your interest or evoke emotion in you, you can get to work turning it into a great piece of shareable content.
It’s like being an observational comedian; sometimes the funniest anecdotes are the most commonplace.
And if a situation got your attention, chances are it’ll get somebody else’s.
Bond your audience with an emotional hook
Storytelling is about sharing emotion.
And the stronger emotions you evoke, the better.
But I’m not saying you need to be a tearjerker or jump up on a soapbox. In fact, positive content is more likely to go viral than negative content.
In my article, I wasn’t slamming the bag charge or dissing the government; it didn’t get majorly political. My focus? I just wanted to make fun of my boyfriend.
And that’s something we can all get behind!
Focus on something everybody’s talking about
Although my article was about a man taking a suitcase to the shops, it wasn’t really about a man taking a suitcase to the shops.
What really hooked the audience? It was a tongue-in-cheek comment on the State of The Nation.
At the time of writing, the government had suddenly started charging UK shoppers 5p for each plastic bag, in an attempt to cut back on plastic waste.
There was uproar; everyone was talking about it.
(Plus, Sam was too tight to fork out 5p, which a lot of people felt at the time).
We’re used to it now, but if you think back, it really did have the nation divided. It was already all over the news and it was a go-to topic for small talk. You were either outraged, or outraged by the outrage.
If people are already talking about a situation, they’ll want to know more. They’ll click on your article and read it so that they have something new to contribute to the national conversation.
What’s everyone talking about today? And what can you say, to add to the debate?
Viral content brings its audience in on the joke
Let’s face it: a suitcase isn’t funny. And grocery shops aren’t funny either.
But if you have a photo of a young lad packing his suitcase with potato waffles, rocky road biscuits and chicken nuggets, it’s something a bit out-of-the-ordinary that makes you smile. It’s not something you see every day.
Humour helps with the shareability too. Multiple studies on physiology tell us that laughter relieves our stress and bonds people socially – generating organic sharing.
The more laughs, the more shares
This is where we come back to the storytelling.
You can’t just rely on the fact that it’s funny; you need to set the scene and imply humour through your tone of voice.
I wasn’t just saying “Hi everyone, here’s my weird boyfriend and his weird suitcase.”
My story sold this ridiculous approach as the solution to the chaotic debate that was the 5p bag charge.
“It (using a suitcase) prevents bags splitting and revealing your dinosaur-shaped ham to the world, not to mention the horrific pain of razor sharp shopping bag handles slicing your hands and arms on the long walk back home.”
Use visuals to bring the story to life
You might have noticed, but these days, social media timelines are pretty much full up with visual content. Text-only content is rare, and it’s even more rare for it to go viral.
Humans only remember 20% of what we read, while we recall 80% of what we see. You don’t want people to click off your article and instantly forget what they read. You want them to remember so that they can spread the word.
Sorry, but it’s not all about you
As a writer, it’s your job to provide value to your audience.
No offence: but your reader doesn’t really care about you. They care about themselves. So what are they going to gain from reading your article?
I could have written the article in the first person, but if I had, I don’t think it would have gone viral. People really didn’t care about me and my experience in Morrisons. They wanted to hear about Sam and his suitcase, in relation to the topical bag charge, and they wanted to be entertained in the meantime.
This also makes it easier to share; if you avoid the first person, the reader can see themselves – or someone they know – in the content.
Warning! Clickbait may destroy the world as we know it
Okay, so no; it probably won’t.
But clickbait is super annoying. The dramatic subtitle was just to prove a point.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course, you need an attention-grabbing headline.
However, if your headline doesn’t match up to its content, you’re just going to end up frustrating your reader.
For example, I once read a headline that convinced me that drinking sparkling water was seriously harmful and that I’d need to stop. Immediately.
But when I read on, I learnt that, no, the article was just saying flavoured sparkling water isn’t great for tooth enamel. Just like most things.
Sure, a click-bait title may get a reader’s attention, persuading them to click through. And yes, this’ll help you meet your CTR goal, but click rates aren’t half as important as actual engagement.
You want readers to open, read, enjoy and then share your content. That’s what makes it go viral
It’s better to have fewer clicks overall, but more people commenting and sharing because you delivered them the value that your headline promised.
If you sit at your desk, too hesitant to write anything down, then there’s no chance your content will go viral!
Write, write, write some more. Write as much as you can.
And learn from it as you do. Start to notice what gets engagement and what gets ignored.
Get another writer to give it a read over; it’s always good to have a fresh pair of eyes from someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Or come and chat with us at Scribly; you know we’re always happy to help.
At the end of the day, there’s no real formula to writing a piece of viral content. But if you can communicate your story effectively, use personal experiences to fuel your creativity, tap into trending topics, fulfil your promise to deliver emotional value and truly engage your reader, then you’re already halfway there.
Then, you’ve just gotta put your content out for the world to see!
Good luck, and I hope to be reading your viral article soon.