Dec 1, 2015

7 Ways to Make Your Content Go Viral: Insights from BuzzSumo

Why do people share?

If you want a post to go viral, you need to know what triggers sharing in the first place.

At BuzzSumo we analyzed 100 million posts in 2014 to look for patterns in most shared content. The most shared content had either some or all of these features:

  • Invoked awe, laughter or amusement
  • Appealed to people’s narcissistic side – made them look smart for sharing
  • Were lists or infographics
  • Were from trusted sources

The New York Times interviewed 2500 people to determine why they shared a story online. The main reasons were:

  • To bring valuable and entertaining content to one another
  • To define themselves to others (give people a better sense of who they are)
  • To grow and nourish relationships (stay connected with others)
  • For self-fulfillment (to feel more involved in the world)
  • To get the word out on causes they care about

A Marketo study found people shared to:

  • Give - offers, or discounts
  • Advise - tips, helpful hints
  • Warn - potential dangers
  • Amuse – entertaining content
  • Inspire - images and quotes
  • Amaze - pictures and facts
  • Unite - be part of the tribe

So while there are some differences, there’s a fair amount of overlap in these lists. So the first viral lesson for 2016 is to make sure your content taps into some of these reasons.

Reality check: viral posts are rare!

Viral posts are outliers. They are not the norm; they are exceptional. We’ve analyzed over 500 million articles to see what the typical share count is. Most content gets very few shares. The average is 8 shares, just to manage your expectations in 2016!

Buzzsumo - Total Shares across all networks

This is true even of the very largest viral sites. Their top posts will significantly outperform the rest of their content. Even for BuzzFeed and their competitors, their viral posts are outliers.

​So what worked in 2016?

Here’s a rundown of some posts that broke through in 2015. For this review we didn’t look at big movies, music, game launches, etc. These are areas where there is a lot of paid promotion. We also ignored celebrity content (which can be hard to do on the internet!), even though these influencers can drive huge traffic. For example, Adele’s new song “Hello”, has already had over 475 million views on YouTube!

Viral Content - Adele Hello

So let’s assume you’re not Adele. What can the rest of us do to get some of that share volume? Let’s look at what some of the best sites have achieved in 2015 and figure out what’s driven their bigger posts.

1. Lists stills rule

Let’s start with Buzzfeed, the masters of viral content and the list post. We can see from their most shared content below that among all of their best shared, they also have outliers that really blew through the roof. Their top post of 2015, “21 things you know only if you’ve been best friends for 10 years” has almost double the shares of their 5th post.

Why did that particular post work so well? It makes the sharer seem smarter, it’s funny, it helps people define themselves to others (such as their friends), it’s a list, and of course, it has a compelling headline, as you’d expect from BuzzFeed.

Viral Content - BuzzFeed Lists

Another format that really works is the inspirational quotes list. BuzzFeed’s second most shared post fits firmly into this category.

Viral Content - BuzzFeed Books

This one had over 9 million views and over 1 million shares of beautiful, inspiring quotes.

People share content that is helpful. BuzzFeed produce a lot of health and exercise-related content that fits into this category.

There are also list posts, or “listicles”. List posts remain a format that people like to share and perform strongly in all areas.

Viral Content - Buzzsumo Healthy Content

This last post is a form of infographic or picture list post. It is a series of images with portrait style images that are Pinterest-ready.

Viral Content - Buzzfeed Exercise

Top Tips for 2016

  • Work on the headline. BuzzFeed create 50 potential headlines for every article
  • Share content that provokes awe and amusement in the list
  • Share helpful content in list format
  • Images work – think picture lists

2. It’s good to be awesome

Let’s look at the New York Times, another publishing giant; what worked for them in 2015? Again we can see that the top posts are outliers, and interestingly, most are not news pieces.

Buzzsumo - Awesome content

Can we gain any insights from this list?

The second post is interesting. Using the word “love” has obviously made an impact on sharers. It’s got double the shares of the fifth most shared on this list. It’s a “how-to” post, and the headline is certainly engaging.

Viral Content - Fall in Love with Anyone

Also performing really well is this travel post, which was the fourth most shared with over 500k social shares. It’s a list post with pictures, and also appeals to our love of travel and adventure.

Viral Content - 52 Places to Go

Beautiful imagery is a common themed in most shared content, and image list posts work particularly well.

Be like the New York Times:

  • Share the love – posts with the word “love” in the headline do well
  • Visually rich posts with awe-inspiring graphics

3. Be funny

People like to share entertaining content – that’s a consistent driver based on our review. For example, this post on the New Yorker got twice as many shares as any other post on the site:

Viral Content - The New Yorker

That got 1.5 million shares.

People like to share entertaining videos too – one of the top Vines this year was this one:

Viral Content - UniLAD Top vines

Are you considering humor when you create your content? Brands sometimes get this wrong, but it’s better to try a little humor than take yourself too seriously.

4. Do your research

Helping people to go deeper into topics with new research is another effective way to drive shares. Huffington Post saw viral numbers for their articles. The positioning of the first one, with the “it’s not what you think” tag is very effective, and challenges perceived wisdom.

Viral Content - Secret to Living Longer

The second most shared was on living longer, the secret of long life; now who wouldn’t want that!

Viral Content - 109 year old woman

However, avoiding men may not be the answer, as one example is not scientific proof!One of USA Today’s top posts showed the opposite point of viewon long life.

Viral Content - USA Today 82 Years Married

So maybe the moral for men who want to live a long time is to be married? Either way, this post topped USA Today’s most shared content because it was heartwarming, happy, and inspirational.

TED talks that share new research also do well. The same addiction story is in here, along with some other research based pieces.


Warnings are another form of more directive research. The research we referred to earlier suggested people shared to warn people of things. This appears to be the case if we look at the most shared content on 2 of its top 3 posts in 2015 were cautionary tales:


A subset of research is showing trends. These slides from Mary Meeker are a good example of highly shared content with nearing 3m views. It also helps that they’re in Slideshare format – it’s easy to digest, much easier than a dense report.

Tips for 2016:

  • Can you do original research and challenge conventional wisdom in your field?
  • Can you alert or warn people about a risk or mistake they may not be aware they’re making?
  • Can you summarize key trends and predict what will be big in 2016 for your industry?

These are all ways to stand out and potentially break out from the content noise.

5. Quiz it up

Perhaps you can blame the blue/black (or was it white/gold) dress, but 2015 was the year of the quiz! They do exceptionally well, playing to several of the reasons for sharing; they’re often funny, they can show the sharer in a positive light (depending on score, or which Modern Family character they’re most like!), they can be informative. They’re also very easy to produce compared to longer form, research-backed content.

This one from PlayBuzz did exceptionally well, approaching 4 million shares.

Viral Content - Playbuzz (What is your most dominant character trait)

This next color quiz was particularly popular. You are almost drawn straight into it, and it asks you if you can see the different color before you keep clicking.

Look how it outperformed all content on this site by literally millions. They had tried a number of similar quizzes after this one, but none of them really took off. The content just didn’t get ignited in the same way. So what drove the virality of this post? Our own research suggests that just a few influencers can get the ball rolling and then cause the spread effect by sharing with their followers.

Tips for 2016:

  • Can you create quizzes based on existing content (e.g. repurpose lists or how-to posts into quizzes)?
  • Can you use your product or feature set to create an outcome-based quiz (e.g. where’s the perfect holiday destination for you in 2016

6. Help people be successful

Here’s more of a B2B example – the top shared post on LinkedIn this year. It went viral perhaps because of the use of the word success, and it’s a title that resonates, taps into mindfulness. It presents itself as helpful content, and has had over 3.6 million views on LinkedIn.

Viral Content - Travis Bradberry (How successful people stay calm)

It turns out that focusing on being successful makes a big difference on LinkedIn sharing:

Tip for 2016

  • Can you focus any of your content on enabling user success? If you’re targeting LinkedIn users, then this should be on your list

7. Be surprising

Sometimes it’s just about sharing something unexpected. This surprised and delighted people in equal measure. The top post from London’s Evening Standard in 2015:

Viral Content - Evening Standard (Drinking three glasses of champagne)


Going viral is a difficult thing to engineer in content marketing. It’s not always clear what will ignite a post to make it go viral. Evidence suggests it is not simple about the content but about amplification. In our research, sharing by just five influencers can be enough to ignite content. Paid amplification can also help kick start things if you have a potential viral post.

However, not even the best sites know exactly as we can see from the outliers on their own sites. You may be surprised which content breaks out to be your hit in 2016. The odds are (and the data shows) that viral posts are outliers, and most of the time you’ll under-perform. But you will increase your odds if you:

  1. Create great lists
  2. Incite awe and inspiration
  3. Are funny
  4. Share research, warnings and trends
  5. Create quizzes
  6. Focus on helping people to be successful
  7. Surprise people

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