43 Tips for Creating Viral Content Campaigns [Research]
In the past, most of us have made an educated guess at “How To Create Viral Content” and the “Best Practices for Getting Press.” But, what’s better than an educated guess? Factual research, right from the horse’s mouth.
Over the past two months, I surveyed over 500+ leading digital publishers to find out what they want, and don’t want, from content creators and outreachers. Coinciding with this research, I expanded my Harvard Business Review study to discover how age and gender may impact viral emotions.
Today, I’ve combined my findings into 43 actionable tips for creating viral content and placing it with high-authority publishers.
How to create content that wins on the web
These first 18 tips for creating viral content campaigns are about commencing with the right type of content.
1. 30% of publishers want a finished asset without prior contact
Most people are pitching writers finished campaign assets (infographics, videos, etc) without any prior communication. In fact, most people are sending blanketed pitches and mass-spamming any publisher they can get the email of. Stop doing this, and do tip #2.
2. 70% of publishers want to collaborate on content
Rather than pitching a finished product, find ways to collaborate with top-tier writers who frequently cover your business vertical. Find out what makes that writer tick: Do they like interviews, or visuals? Do they cover one topic frequently, or a variety of topics?
Once you have a deep understanding of that writer’s beat, pitch him or her 3-5 ideas that build on their previous coverage. Try to pitch ideas that will allow you to help with the research and/or design — the more heavy lifting you do, the stronger the relationship becomes.
3. 39% of publishers want exclusive research
Gone are the days where you can create a lackluster infographic by compiling stale data from 1-3 years ago (at least, if you want to get major press). When I asked top-tier writers “What does the perfect piece of content possesses?” the majority wanted exclusive research. Your goal is to find ways to use survey tools, public API’s, or your own internal databases to source information that isn’t widely known. Turn this data into a unique angle that will resonate with a broad audience, and you’ll be a step ahead of your competition.
4. 27% of publishers want breaking news
If you follow tip #3, you’re well on your way to delivering breaking news. If you’re financially strapped and can’t perform your own research, you have a couple of options (1) Stay in-tune with social networks such as Reddit, which frequently break the news first (2) Research .edu and .gov studies that may not be widely known, and find a way to visualize their findings in a unique and engaging format (3) Stay on top of Google Trends to discover what is up and coming in your industry.
5. 15% of publishers want emotional stories
Emotional stories aren’t just the heart-wrenching stories you see on the news at night, done right, any form of content can evoke viral emotions. The point here is to stay away from advertorial content and overly branded assets, and create a campaign that pulls on your heart strings.
6. 19% of publishers wanted high-arousal emotions
High-arousal emotions appeared repeatedly in the open-ended responses, with answers centering around content that incited surprise, interest and humor. “Other” responses also focused on creating content with unusual angles, trending topics, interesting data and actionable advice.
7. 19% of publishers want articles
When I asked, “What content format do you want to see more of?” the largest percentage of votes were for “articles.” However, the takeaway here isn’t to inundate publishers with any blasé blog post; you want to create long-form, research-heavy blog posts that include tips #3-#5 above. You’ll also want to break up the heavy text with data visualizations where possible.
8. 65% of publishers want you to visualize your data
Although articles ranked with the largest singular percentage of votes, when you look at the next six content formats, you see that they all include some sort of data visualization: 13% infographics, 12% mixed-media pieces, 11% data visualizations, 11% images, 11% video, 7% interactive maps. Thus, when coming up with ideas you should try to focus on topics and research that will be data heavy, which will allow you to create a variety of visuals the publisher might want.
9. Press releases, badges, and widgets are a thing of the past
Press releases, badges and widgets all came in at under 5% each. This is likely due to this format’s inability to incorporate tips #3-#5 above.
10. Interactive projects are on the rise, if you’re trustworthy
“Interactive Projects” also fell into the 5% bucket; however, most publishers cited the reason this format isn’t as highly sought-after is that iframes present a security issue. Find ways to incorporate more authority signals into your website and your email signature, to show you’re a trusted source.
11. Viral content is strongly correlated to positive emotions
Our research study showed that most viral content incites positive emotions, rather than negative emotions. We found top-ten viral emotions included: amusement, interest, surprise, happiness, delight, pleasure, joy, hope, affection, and excitement. The bottom ten emotions included: anger, politeness, frustration, doubt, embarrassment, despair, hurt, guilt, contempt, and shame.
12. Viral content activates contrasting emotions
Content that activates a greater diversity of emotions is more likely to go viral, and contrasting emotions increase emotional impact. For example, interest, surprise, and amusement behave as emotional multipliers for positive emotions, and empathy acts as an emotional multiplier for negative emotions.
13. Surprise is the linchpin for viral content
Emotions that fit into the surprise and anticipation segments of Plutchik’s wheel of emotions were extremely common in highly viral content. Specifically: curiosity, amazement, interest, astonishment and uncertainty. When you conduct exclusive research, in turn breaking a common thought process or introducing a new theory, you’re more likely to activate these emotions.
14. Ego-Bait drives social sharing
In our experience, if you can tie geographic and/or demographic ego-bait into your campaigns, you’ve immediately increased the social sharing element of your campaign.
15. Generate content that feeds the “viral Loop.”
What better way to go viral than to have your own readers multiply your content for you? The “Viral Loop” occurs when your reader engages with your content, and through engaging with it, they generate a new piece of unique content. A great example of this is the “Elf Yourself” campaign.
16. Younger Millennials report less positive and surprise-based emotions
Millennials (ages 18 – 24), have been saturated in digital content, making it more difficult for you to get an emotional rise out of this demographic. A way to reactivate these emotions is to focus on creating more dynamic content that allows this age group to have a unique experience. Your goal is to create a rare campaign asset that will inspire childlike wonder.
17. Men report more joyful feelings than women do
While men report more joyful feelings, they also exhibit a slightly smaller range of emotional reactions. Instead of generating a wide range of emotional reactions with this group, focus on creating a campaign that activates a single emotional agenda: joy.
18. Women report more trust emotions, negative emotions and greater emotional complexity
Women reported experiencing more overall emotional complexity than men, so you want to create campaigns that incorporate the emotions from tip #11 to push their buttons. Also, try to incorporate data from authoritative sources to increase the trust factor for this group. Go light on the negative campaign ideas, since women are more likely to feel this emotion (and it’s on the lower engagement spectrum for viral content).
Want high-authority press? You need to earn it
Creating content with viral potential is one thing but getting it published and promoted so it goes viral is another. Here are 24 tips on getting high authority press.
19. 85% of Americans get news on a desktop or laptop
The Pew Research Center found that 35% of Americans “frequently” get their news on a desktop or laptop. With the migration of readers from print to digital, the robot invasion was inevitable. It’s now our responsibility to break through the noise, and deliver something valuable for publishers to share via Pitching publishers best practices.
20. Editorial voices are outnumber by PR professionals by almost 5:1
A 2014 report shows that PRs outnumber journalists in the US by a ratio of 4.6 to 1. You can get an understanding of how most journalists feel about this by reading publishers’ guest post policies.
“Too many submissions we get are clearly just pitches for a company, attempting to masquerade as thought pieces, a press release dressed as a guest post.” – TechCrunch guest post policy
“Many [PR professionals] have a misunderstanding when it comes to the difference between advertorial and guest posts.” – Gigaom guest post policy
21. Top-Tier writers get 3x the amount of email you do
The average worker receives roughly 12,000 emails a year. Meanwhile, writers at top-tier publications reported getting over 100 pitches per day, or, 38,000 emails per year — adding up to 26,000 emails from people trying to get press.
22. 45% of writers publish one story per day
When you take into account that most top-tier writers get pitched an average of 500 times per week, yet on average the writer will only publish 5 stories per week, you quickly see the pile of email waste rising well above a writer’s ability to tolerate it.
23. 40% of writers get pitched a minimum of 20 times per day
While top-tier writers receive upwards of 100 pitches per day, even your mid-tier bloggers get a minimum of 20 pitches per day. When it comes to content marketing spam, no one is safe.
24. 11% of writers “often” write a story based on content that was sent through a pitch
While we keep pitching, only 11% of writers will “often” cover the content we send. What then can we do to increase the number of writers who will write about content? Keep reading to find out what publishers really want from your pitch.
25. 64% of writers want you to establish a personal connection before pitching
In an age where social networks open us up to communication from people who we share common interests with, writers now expect you to make that personal connection.
Use networks like Twitter to engage socially with a writer weeks prior to any pitch. Find a blog post that resonates with you on a personal level, or relates to your content, and provide an engaging discussion in the comment thread.
Get the writer to recognize (and appreciate) your name before you ever land in that person’s inbox.
26. Leverage anonymity and the identifiable other
A Northwestern Law study that found:
“The degree to which we perceive another person to be similar to ourselves in traits and attitude and to be worthy of our generosity or assistance, depends on the extent to which we perceive a personal connection with that person, no matter how trivial.”
Building on the point above, you don’t just want to network on a professional level, but also on a personal level. Do you both have a love for dogs? What about an interest in cooking? Find some way to connect, and you’ll demonstrate that you’re not just another spam bot.
27. 85% of writers will delete a pitch with spelling/grammar errors
Remember the middle school grammar lessons you slept through? Big mistake, because now your pitch and your content are in jeopardy. Luckily, there are plenty of free online grammar courses that allow you to refresh your knowledge, such as Grammar Girl, Purdue OWL and Syntaxis.
28. Marketing speaking will get you sent straight to the trash
I asked writers what other words will get you auto-deleted from their inbox. “Marketing speak” came in at number one, with words including: revolutionary, stunning, life changing, and incredible. Other doozies such as ALL CAPS fell into this bucket, and a salutation such as “Dear Blogger” showed the email was likely spam.
29. 81% of writers want to receive your pitch via email
An overwhelming number of publishers requested your pitch come through their inbox. An important note: make sure you’re pitching the writer’s work email, and not their personal email account.
30. Social Media Pitches aren’t as popular as you think
You’ve probably seen the posts that rave about pitching publishers on social media. Well, straight from the horses mouth, they’re telling you: “Don’t!” Only 9% of publishers said social media pitches were the preferred format, and most of these responses came from smaller site owners. Instead, use social media as a networking channel only.
31. Thinking of calling a writer for a pitch? Might as well mark yourself as spam
Less than 5% of publishers wanted to be reached by phone, or by contact form. Again, these were mostly independent blog owners who may have more time to field these calls. Several high-authority publishers went into the open-response section to lament about people who phoned instead of emailed:
“Don’t cold call journalists because they are almost always not going to appreciate it.” – cNet.com
“Never phone call. Ever.” – HuffingtonPost.com
“Don’t call me. Use email.” – InfoWorld.com
32. 85% of writers want a pitch that is less than 200 words
If you’re verbose, it’s time to cull it back. 45% of writers requested a pitch that is “short-and-to-the-point” at less than 100 words, and the other 43% requested a pitch that gives a “cursory explanation” at less than 200 words.
33. 12% of writers want an in-depth explanation
Only 12% of writers want a pitch that is greater than 300 words, and most of these responses came from smaller sites. Instead, keep your pitch to a maximum of three short paragraphs that succinctly explain the unique findings from your research, and how your campaign builds upon that writer’s previous coverage or ties into that person’s beat.
34. Don’t have an exclusive campaign asset? Offer an interview
Several news publishers called out the fact that they’re always looking for an interview opportunity, more than a visual asset. Find ways to offer an exclusive interview with key stakeholders, and you’re one step closer to building that relationship.
“If you can’t offer me an infographic, data visualization, or interview opportunity, odds are you can’t help me.” – USAtoday.com
“Offer to hook me up with an interviewee.” – LifeHacker.com
“Give me a hard-to-secure interview.” – ESPN.com
35. 85% of publishers open your email based on its subject line
Your subject line is your call-to-action. Take 5-10 minutes to test a few subject lines by sending them to your own inbox. See what sticks out to you best, and whether or not your words are being cut off.
36. 6-10 words is the ideal subject line length
Make sure to keep your subject lines short and sweet so they don’t get cut off in the writer’s inbox; one study recommends keeping your subject lines at 6-10 words to lift email open rates.
37. Use subject lines that generate curiosity on demand
George Loewenstein, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University explains the “information gap theory of curiosity” creates curiosity on demand. The theory is based on an innate human behavior that’s triggered when people feel there is a gap between what they know, and what they want to know. When people feel this gap, they are compelled to fill it by taking action, such as opening your emails to read more
Therefore, you need to create these knowledge gaps in both your subject line and the body of your pitch. This will increase your open rates and your CTR. You can do this with curiosity based subject lines, statistics from our study that disprove a common thought, etc.
38. 42% of writers want the subject-line-format to be “Content Title, Type.”
This subject line format is likely the most preferred because it’s the most descriptive, and tells the writer whether or not your content fits their beat within a few seconds.
39. 29% of writers want a personalized subject line
Personalized subject lines likely stand out the most in the writer’s inbox, since so few people take the time to make that personal connection. A few personalized subject lines I’ve used include:
I’ll trade your NY Grizzlies for FL Alligators – Kelsey Libert on Twitter
You Have a Beer Chime, We Have Cowbell – RE: Exclusive Study
I See Your Black Lab, Todd, and Raise You My Chocolate Lab
These subject lines have nothing to do with the content you’re pitching. The goal is solely to make a personal connection with the writer based on something you found in a that writer’s personal blog, bio, or social media accounts.
40. 19% of writers want a subject line that includes a statistic
If your content is data-heavy and/or provides an insight that isn’t widely known, then a statistic based subject line is the way to go. This builds into the information gap theory of curiosity, where the statistic will drive the writer to open your email and engage with your content. A sample subject line that fits this format would be, “Kylie Jenner posted 451 selfies to Instagram [Celebrity Selfie Study]”
41. The least preferred subject line format is “Hi, Name.”
Only 10% of writers want you to call attention to their name in your subject line, and most of these responses came from smaller site owners. In fact, most high-authority publishers see this as a common spam format, so it’s best you refrain from using it.
42. 69% of writers want to receive your pitch in the morning hours
When it comes to timing your pitch, the early bird gets the worm. Only 22% of writers want your pitch to come in the afternoon, and a mere 9% want to receive it in the evening hours.
43. Use scheduling tools to send your email at the optimal time
You don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to send your email at the optimal time; instead, use email scheduling tools like Boomerang or Streak to schedule your email to go out between 6am-9am. Make sure you pay attention to what time zone the writer is in, so you get your timing right.
What 60 top writers say about viral content
What else did top-tier publishers have to say about content creation and promotion? We asked, “If you could give 1-3 points of feedback to people who pitch to you, what would you say?”
Check out the responses from 60 top-tier writers:
Author Bio: Kelsey Libert is a Marketing VP and partner at Frac.tl. She is a viral marketing and media relations speaker, and she’s published on the Harvard Business Review, Marketing Land, HubSpot and Buffer. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her at the dog beach with her two dogs.