Viral Content Marketing Tips for Non-Viral Businesses


Viral Content Marketing

Herpes Simplex is a beautiful thing

It’s flu season, folks! Viral activity is high. And even if you got your flu shot and have Tamiflu stockpiled in your hall closet,  I wouldn’t be surprised if you or someone on your marketing team is secretly dreaming of the infographic or Gangnam Style parody vid that’s going to take off faster than H1N1.

Seriously though. I’d like to think that the obsession with viral marketing campaigns is going the way of small pox. It’s not a practical goal for most marketers, and if it happens once, you can go crazy trying to make it happen again.

I may not be an advocate of viral content marketing, but I am an advocate of content marketing, the good old-fashioned non-viral kind. And I recently saw a great slide deck from Upworthy about how they package content to get millions of views. In this post, I’m going to share some of my key takeaways from this presentation. Even if you’re not looking to go viral, these tips can help your content get more clicks, opens, reads and shares – all stuff that’s good for business and the reason you’re doing content marketing in the first place. Because more eyes on your content = more potential leads for your business.

Write 25 Headlines

Upworthy defines “viral” as high shares per view and high clicks per share. And part of what drives people to click when they see a nugget of content in their Facebook feed or Twitter stream – especially if the source of the content isn’t familiar – is a great headline.

There are a couple of reasons that most marketing-related headlines aren’t great:

  1. The SEO keyword thang. Us web marketers tend to be pretty focused on SEO (ya think?) so a lot of what drives our headline writing is keyword optimization. This can lead to boring, formulaic headlines.
  2. Lack of time/effort. This one isn’t specific to the web or marketing. Everyone’s busy and the headline for an article is often an afterthought. You wrote the damn thing and now you want to be done with it.

One way around the first problem is to write one headline for the search engines and another one for people. Or, you can just forget about the search engine part entirely. SEO is so last year! Larry Kim’s new mantra is “Unoptimized is the new optimized.”

Unoptimized is the new optimized

To avoid the second pitfall, I think it can be valuable to write the headline before you write the article. But either way, the real solution is to spend more time thinking about your headline. In fact, the Upworthy crew recommends writing 25 headlines. Yes, 25! They spend considerable time on this point in their presentation. The idea is that most of your headlines are going to be crap, but by forcing creativity, one or two are bound to be brilliant (or at least better than the first crappy headline that popped into your head).

Here are some of their tips for extremely clickable headlines:

  • Leave a “Curiosity Gap” – Basically, don’t give the whole story away. Pique their curiosity with a question or a hint; this leads people to click.
  • Don’t form an opinion for the reader – You’ll probably end up forming opinions in your content, but hold off. Create curiosity, satisfy it in the content itself.
  • Be clever but not “too clever” – There’s a risk, says Upworthy, of being so cute your readers don’t get it. Where’s that line? Who knows? This will depend on your audience, so the only way to know for sure is testing.

Now, is anyone who doesn’t work at Upworthy really going to write a full 25 headlines? Realistically, probably not. But 10 is better than one. Heck, two is better than one. So whether or not you get to 25 versions, spend more time on your headline.

In fact, don’t stop at spending more time on your headline. You should also …

Double or Triple the Time You Spend on Framing

Aside from the headline, the “framing” of your content includes the “share text” (the snippet for Facebook or LinkedIn, etc.), the tweet, the lead image – all the meta stuff that people will see before they see your content, and which determines whether or not they click.

Upworthy says: “Nobody cares about seeing your logo on a Facebook post.” So if you want your content to get more views and shares, include a compelling image. All of our top posts from last year included at least one prominent image. Is that why they did so well? Probably not. But did it help? Probably so.

Here are some tips for making the most of your framing:

  • Optimize your tweets. The tweets that get the most RT’s tend to be 71-100 characters in length, include a link (that’s good for content marketers!) and avoid self-reference.
  • Tweet multiple times. Content promotion is key if you want people to see your work. The day you launch a new piece of content, send out a few different tweets over the course of the day with different headlines/text. Your full audience won’t see each tweet, so this increases the chances that someone with influence catches and shares your content. It can also help you identify patterns in what style of tweet your audience clicks and retweets the most.
  • Take screenshots (or pictures). When writing a how-to post, help your readers visualize the process. Or rather, visualize it for them. If you’re explaining how to do something online, take screenshots. If you’re explaining how to do something in the real world, take photos and upload them. Better yet, shoot a video. Look to cooking blogs for inspiration – Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) posts a high-quality image for every step of her recipes.
  • Use Creative Commons photos. If you don’t have any photos of your own, you can find good stuff via Flickr’s Creative Commons search.
  • Use a meme generator. See my meme-ified Larry above. Wait, aren’t memes totally over? Almost, but not quite yet, I think we can eke out a few more!

Write for Everyone (Not Just 27-Year-Old Dudes)

Among the many cognitive biases that impair our judgment every day are false-consensus effect (“the tendency of a person to overestimate how much other people agree with him or her”) and projection bias (“the tendency to unconsciously assume that others (or one's future selves) share one's current emotional states, thoughts and values”).

Along similar lines, I propose a new one: Blogger’s Bias, the tendency for bloggers to assume that all their readers are just like them. For example, a lot of Internet marketers are 27-year-old dudes, so a lot of Internet marketing articles are written as though their only audience is 27-year-old dudes. This isn’t necessarily conscious, mind you, but I posit that it happens anyway.

Now it’s certainly possible that it’s actually in your interest to write for 27-year-old dudes. If you want to go viral on Reddit, that might be a great strategy. But most businesses aren’t trying to crack Reddit, nor should they be.

Upworthy points out that “middle-aged women are the biggest sharers.” In fact, three of their top five content pieces ever have a clear feminist angle.

Feminist Content Marketing

And this is a presentation created by three (27-ish-looking) dudes! I find this fascinating.  

Women are out there. Are you writing for them? Here’s a tip: Envision your audience as more diverse, and it may just become more diverse. Your readers aren’t static – you are creating your audience through the content you produce. If your content targets both men and women, you’re doubling your potential reader base.

Make Your Content Easy to Share

Do you read the Unbounce blog? Unbounce is a landing page optimization company, but they’re inspiring marketers all around. Recently they’ve been including ready-made tweets (“tweetables”) in many of their blog posts, like this:


It’s more fun than simply tweeting an article using the headline, but it takes a lot less work than coming up with a witty summary or excerpt yourself. You can try this out on your blog using the “Click to Tweet” tool.

Some more insights from the Upworthy slides:

  • By displaying famous people’s tweets, they achieved a 10-30% increase in likes. (If Kanye likes it, so do I!)
  • Hovering share buttons (the kind that never go away no matter how hard you scroll) led to a 398% increase in shares.
  • Asking people to “like” with a pop-up increased likes by 419%.

I just saw an article in which Tim Ash says he hopes “pop-overs and interstitial messaging” will disappear in 2013, because they’re “irksome.” But Tim is thinking like a user here, not like a marketer. If you tell a marketer that something they do is annoying, but they’ve tested it themselves and know that it increases likes or clicks or conversions or whatever end result they want, they’ll laugh in your face. Trust me, I know, I’ve had to wipe the spit off my cheek.

Oh Yeah, One More Thing …

The dirty little secret of all viral content is luck. The small-town kid who makes it in Hollywood has luck on his side, and so does the little YouTube video that gets a million views. I have an ex who used to say “Luck is a skill” – but that kind of luck is a skill most of us don’t have. And who cares? Most businesses don’t need viral content to succeed. So don’t try to “go viral.” Just try to do better.

You can view the full presentation I refer to in this post here:


Find out how you're REALLY doing in AdWords!

Watch the video below on our Free AdWords Grader:

Visit the AdWords Grader.


Larry Kim
Jan 15, 2013

so did you write out 25 headlines for this post. just curious.

Jan 16, 2013

  Very good information. I agree that to many times people are writing articles and only worrying about the search engines and not the little things about the article that are more important. Things in the interenet marketing world are changing and now it requires a little more effort than before.

Megan Marrs
Jan 16, 2013

Yeah, take that 27 year old dudes!Do you really think memes will die soon? That's my main source of pride when it comes to feeling superior to my non-internet-obsessed friends. (Oh my gosh, you've never heard of philosoraptor? How sad...)

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 17, 2013

I don't know if they'll die exactly, but they will probably evolve and change and putting random text on a random picture won't be so cute anymore. Don't worry, panda bear raps are still in style!

Sarah Harrison
Jan 16, 2013

Doesn't everyone write their headline first? It sets the tone for the whole article, why wouldn't they? Isn't that just basic English papers 101?

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 17, 2013

Not everyone, nope. A lot of headlines look like afterthoughts to me.

Chris Mayhew
Jan 17, 2013

Some great indepth tips here, I really enjoyed reading this.However, I wouldn't so that SEO's time has come and gone. It is still as important as ever and if you're not doing it you canbet that most of your competitors are. Just don't let it control your content. You should never compromise the integrity of your content just so it can be optimised a little. Make it your mission to write great stuff and then if you can optimise it in the process then give yourself a big pat on the back.

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 17, 2013

I think Larry was kidding about the "unoptimized is the new optimized" ... or at least exaggerating!

Rank Watch
Jan 17, 2013

Well, I think that the key issues you have pointed out here and their structural procedures could be called as otimization. So, in no way you can label that "Unoptimized is the new optimized" as that too holds serious steps of conceptualization. In fact, sweeping changes have been made to appear in the SEO world and all that directs owards the quality of your content and this article points to that only.

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 17, 2013

Just a little joke.

MLM software
Jan 18, 2013

The content should not be too complicated and easy for people to share. That's important in marketing. if we mean to propogandize, we should make our content crystal and easy to understand for every one. But it often easier to say than doing.

Abhishek Bhan
Jan 18, 2013

You are absolutely right. ‘Most of titles appear like afterthoughts’ and most like description which says a lot about the articles leaving readers less curious.

Bree Pehlpsman
Jan 18, 2013

These are such great tips for anyone doing online content marketing of any kind!!  I love when you said " are creating your audience through the content you produce."  Nothing could be more true!  People love to be online now a days and the more and better content you have the more you will create followers.  Thanks for sharing this great summary!

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 20, 2013

Thank you Bree!

Jan 22, 2013

It is an awesome post with fabulous example. Thanks for sharing post about viral content marketing.

Rob Burns
Jan 24, 2013

I write multiple headlines for everything else, tweets are joining that list now. Thanks for a well-argued article.I love the tweetables idea too.

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 24, 2013

Thank you!

Michael Cheney
Jan 25, 2013

Brillaint ideas. Very informative. I'be launching a new site soon and this might be a help to me to make it viral. Thanks:)

Wave City Center
Feb 02, 2013

Thanks for sharing this! I'm passing this on, just like you suggested. :-) Will be back for more. :-)

Network Marketing Training
Apr 05, 2013

Memes usually take up the bulk of viral spreading online. If you can turn your tactic into a meme, and if people love it, then you have a potent viral marketing weapon on hand.  

MLM Software
Jul 08, 2014

It is a magnificent post with remarkable illustration. A debt of gratitude is in order regarding offering post about popular substance promoting.

Leave a comment