What makes some content marketing irresistible, while the bulk of stuff you see every day is easily forgotten? Have you ever stopped to analyse what you choose to read, comment on and share versus what you choose to ignore?
Here’s a good example – the “hot mugshot guy” used in this post should be very familiar to you. Why? Because Jeremy Meeks shot to fame two weeks ago when the Stockton police department posted a photo of him on Facebook after arresting him on a serious weapons charge.
The image quickly went viral with hundreds of thousands of likes, comments and shares and the story was picked up by every major newspaper, radio and cable TV program across North America (and in many other countries). He now has two major modelling agencies chasing him to sign a contract.
Now Jeremy’s mugshot is not particularly fascinating, earth shattering, important or even relevant to the lives of most of us, yet somehow, this simple Facebook post unwittingly outperformed almost every other news story on the day it broke. It had the “je ne sais quoi” that is required for content marketing to go viral on a global scale.
And if you think about it, there are lessons that we can take from this story (and other successful posts like it) to boost the persuasive power of our own content marketing so that it inspires and ignites both passion and action among our readers and customers.
Contagious: What Makes Things Catch On?
What was it about the last piece that you read or saw – whether it be an article, photo, advertisement, content marketing or video – that took it from mildly interesting and elevated it to the realm of positively sharable?
As you no doubt suspect, content marketing that has the potential to go viral can be a huge asset to you for two reasons – it feels great to make it and it can bring lots of attention to what you’re doing to solve real problems for your customers. Unfortunately, if no one sees your content marketing, it’s not really that useful to anyone.
Content may be King, but you will be the Lord of a very small domain if you are still reaching only one hundred people next week with your valuable message. Here are my Top 5 Tips to magnify the chance of your message reaching hundreds of thousands based on neuroscience, behavioral science and the success of the most popular posts on Linkedin.
- Lists Work
Ironically, I read a post last week where the author lamented the overuse of articles titled “The Top 5 Tips”, “21 Secrets To” etc. He postulated “why do so many authors write posts with lists”? A quick bit of research on my part revealed that the Top three articles in the past few months on Linked in (in terms of readers, shares and comments) were all list based posts:
- 10 Simple Concepts to Become a Better Leader, Dave Kerpen .
- 6 Toxic Behaviours That Push People Away: How To Recognize Them in Yourself and Change Them, Kathy Caprino
- The #1 Career Mistake Capable People Make, Greg McKeown
In fact, nine of the top ten were list based articles. But could this just be a coincidence?
In-depth research by Buzzsumo supports this phenomenon. Buzzsumo analysed over one hundred million articles online and concluded that lists and infographics were more likely to be shared virally than any other content. Love them or hate them, lists outperform how to articles, videos, explanatory posts and other content marketing in terms of shares and comments. Done correctly, a good list post will provide hands-on, practical tips that you can put into practice today.
One of the vital elements that is believed to cause a list to spread, is its level of “practical utility,” as described by a recent study By Berger and Milkman (University of Pennsylvania – Wharton School of Business. The ability to use and apply the information contained in a post is a key element that drives content to spread virally. In effect, the list creates a memory inducing trigger.
Essentially, we tend to share what we’re thinking about—and we only think about the things we can actually remember. Lists make it easy for our brains to grasp, remember and file away valuable information for safe keeping and retrieval. They convey the content you are about to read contains a nice packet of useful, easy-to-digest information that you can share with others to add value and create dialogue.
- A Good Picture is Still Worth a Thousand Words (and Ten Thousand Shares)
Neuroscience has proven that your brain is a highly visual beast. Somewhere between 80% and 90% of brain activity is associated with making sense of visual stimuli, and the brain processes these visual stimuli much more quickly—about 40 times more quickly—than it does auditory stimuli.
This makes perfect sense when you think about the role that visual cues played in the survival of our ancient ancestors—particularly the way in which the old brain reacted quickly to keep our cavemen ancestors out of the jaws of tigers and mammoths. The old brain is extraordinarily fast at processing these visual cues, “seeing” them in only 2–3 milliseconds and reacting to them almost instantaneously.
In sharp contrast, it takes your new brain (or neocortex) a relatively snail-paced 500 milliseconds to process the exact same visual data. Since humans cannot rely on the slow processing speed of the new brain, you are hardwired to make decisions and take action at the old brain level that are mostly based on visual input and instinctual responses. Your neocortex kicks in much later in the process to help you find data, proof, and justification for the gut decision you have already made.
This of course makes visual imagery one of the most powerful triggers you can harness and use to your advantage when creating content. As they say, a picture really is worth a thousand words. However, not all pictures are created equal. The visuals you use in your content must mean something to the old brain of your prospect—they must have a “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) message and they must stimulate a strong emotional response. A well crafted story or a sharp picture that captures the essence of your reader’s most pressing source of pain, holds the power to trigger a wave of comments and shares.
And as you might expect, the Top 3 posts on Linkedin all used strong graphics to convey a quick emotional response and draw readers in. The most successful, the article by Dave Kerpen also cleverly utilized a shareable infographic as the primary photo. It’s a visual snapshot and roadmap for the 11 concepts he outlines on leadership. It is no surprise that his article received over 126,000 shares on Linkedin alone and a whopping 7400+ comments.
- Not All Shares Are Created Equal
Not all shares will have the same impact on the ultimate reach of your content marketing. Studies show that getting just one person who has influence online to share your article can have a multiplier effect on your content. It pays dividends to pay attention to the influencers that are currently sharing content that closely matches or parallels your own. By building relationships with them and inviting them to engage, you can exponentially increase your chance of reaching 4x more shares, than by relying solely on your own network.
After analysing over one hundred million articles, Buzzsumo compared the number of social shares for articles that had zero influencers versus those that had at least one influencer (where an influencer is defined as someone who receives at least 200 re-tweets on average, for every 100 tweets posted). What they found was that just having just one influencer share your content will boost your reach and shares by 31.8%. Having three influencers doubles the number and having 5 would almost quadruple the number of social shares you receive.
Interestingly, some recent research in the area of neuroscience seems to back up the notion that some people are far more effective at spreading ideas, stories and content. In “Creating Buzz: The Neural Correlates of Effective Message Propagation”, Falk, Morelli, Welborn, Daumbacher and Lieberman mapped the brain centers associated with ideas that are likely to be contagious. They were hoping to create maps which could be used in the future to forecast which ideas should be successful and who is likely to be effective at spreading them.
The scientists found that increased activity in the Temporoparietal Junction (TPJ) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (“the mentalizing network”) of the subjects, was associated with an increased ability to convince others to get on board with their favorite ideas. What this research is suggesting is that some people may have a pre-disposition to be able to share ideas on a global scale.
As this research evolves, we will get closer and closer to discovering what differentiates ideas that bomb from ideas that buzz. Like all ideas, stories, content marketing etc, these concepts cannot spread virally on their own – they rely on effective social communication for dissemination. Messages which produce greater “mentalizing activity” in the brain when viewed are more likely to be passed on and the subjects appear to be more motivated to pass them on. The social currency of being a person who is known for spreading information of value (i.e. an information broker or ideas salesman) is incredibly valuable. Various networking sites such as Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter have long recognized this phenomenon and put formal strategies in place to promote these individuals as “information brokers or experts” and increase the overall engagement of readers with news and posts on their sites.
Case in point, the most successful article on Linkedin by Dave Kerpen was shared and commented by 5 highly influential readers. Those 5 alone were directly responsible for 511 likes and comments plus hundreds of LinkedIn shares, tweets and Facebook likes. As a result, over time Dave Kerpen has built up a following of over 458,000 people on Linkedin by writing great, shareable posts.
Similarly, Greg MeKeown’s post had 6 or 7 influencers who contributed to the large number of likes, comments and shares (particularly within Linkedin).
- Clickbait Sucks
For any entrepreneur, manager or blogger, headlines are vital to an even more important end — drawing a substantial amount of attention to topics that really matter. But designing memorable, curiosity-inducing headlines isn’t enough. As you know, content, articles and posts don’t go viral because people click — they go viral because people share.
“Clickbait” — overselling content marketing with outrageous headlines that entice the maximum number of people to click and visit a website — works to generate some views but it will never be enough to create viral content. Formulaic headlines don’t guarantee content that has the potential to go viral. To comment or share, your readers have to love what they see when they hit your site, see your video or read your post. That is why the two most crucial factors in motivating readers to share your content are the quality of and the emotion that you create with the insights you provide.
Ask yourself these three questions – “Does the content that I am about to post:”
- Engage or entertain on a relevant topic?
- Draw the audience in and invite them to imagine their world from a new perspective or inspire them to share their opinion?
- Deliver on the promise of the headline?
Headlines definitely matter but your content will only go viral if readers love what you are saying so much they are inspired to comment and share it with everyone. As you would suspect, all of the most read and shared articles on Linkedin delivered on the promise that the author’s made in their headlines – substantive posts, quality insights and practical tips that readers appreciated and felt compelled to share.
- We Share What Makes Us Feel Good
Emotion and repetition are the adhesives that cement events to your memory. As leading American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio puts it: “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.” Emotions play a part in virtually every decision you make, whether you like it or not, and sharing content is no exception. When something has an emotional impact on you, you are far more likely to remember and react; in that way, your strongest emotional responses will stay with you for your entire life because they create a deeper engram (or impression) in your mind.
Your emotions produce strong electrochemical responses that have been proven to directly influence the way you handle, respond to, and hold onto information. The cocktail of hormones that flood your mind when you experience strong emotions causes the connections in your brain to speed up, intensify, and be reinforced.
A strong emotional trigger is much more likely to drive you to share content or buy a product, than a rational argument for doing so. Emotional connections occur because your feelings are stirred. This happens whenever content you see causes you to “put yourself into the situation”. So content becomes great or memorable when it hooks you in—it effectively makes you a part of the scene and you feel the feelings of the story that is unfolding about something that is relevant to you.
As a sharing stimulus, emotion is incredibly powerful. And there is no more effective way to tap into or unleash the emotions of your readers than to tell them a story. Through the ages, we have passed on our history and our wisdom to our children in the form of stories. As a child, you likely came to expect a story from the people that you loved and looked up to—your parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, ministers, and babysitters. Your brain felt comfortable and safe with both the stories and the storytellers and you are likely to pass on these stories, to your friends and your own children.
But the spectrum of emotions is large and research suggests that 3 particular emotions are more likely to result in content going viral. While anger, surprise and sadness motivated some people to share, awe, laughter and amusement universally outperformed all other emotions in inspiring social shares. For the most part, people want to be uplifted by posts and we also want to think that sharing interesting, practical and fun content brings value to our relationships, creates social currency, spurs conversation and inspires reaction.
This premise is supported by the Berger and Milkman study (University of Pennsylvania – Wharton School of Business), which examined the sharing of articles from the New York Times in 2008. They looked at approximately seven thousand articles to determine what characteristics the most-emailed articles had in common. After controlling for many other factors including author popularity, placement, timing etc., they discovered two features which stood out as being important to success – the positivity of the message and how much it excited the readers.
Not surprisingly all 3 of the top authors on Linkedin that I mentioned earlier utilized the element of storytelling to make their point. Their articles were positive, uplifting, fun and entertaining. Reading each one leaves you with the distinct impression that you can easily work these tips into your own work environment and that sharing these insights with your colleagues would be a great way to build camaraderie and create some thought provoking and constructive dialogue.
Even Aristotle (in 350 B.C) was obsessed with the pursuit of the secret to make his content persuasive and memorable – so that his ideas would be passed on from person to person. Replace oratory with online content creator, and Aristotle’s pursuit of the illusive key to what makes ideas catch on and spread, seems incredibly contemporary. Although with our modern day ability to track and analyse brain activity and data from millions of articles and websites at a time, we are much closer now to clearly defining the variables that cause us to engage deeply with and share content virally.