How to Go Viral on the Internet

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I’ve been thinking about the rules of virality a lot recently. I mean, at this point, we all know that there isn’t some formula that instantly makes content go viral. Some seemingly dumb things are randomly picked up, and other great content is thrown to the side with very few views.

However, having said that, there are certainly ways you can boost your chances of success.

Disclaimer #1: I don’t claim to be an expert. These are the simply the rules I have picked up based on years of experience and observation on the Internet.

Disclaimer #2: Virality is fickle. It doesn’t actually follow any rules. So take all of this with a grain of salt.

The "Rules" of Internet Virality

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Timing is everything!

Let me repeat that for you: TIMING. IS. EVERYTHING. 

This is probably the most important thing to keep in mind. You could do everything else right — have a catchy title, make it as SEO-friendly as possible, share it with all the right people — and you’ll still probably fail to go viral. Granted, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; after all, virality is fickle. But the right timing increases your chances of success TREMENDOUSLY.

Why, you may ask? Good question.

Let’s say you write a blog post about the GOP presidential debates. When do you think everyone will want to hear about that? Two months later? A year later? Even a week later? No. They’ll be browsing their timelines and searching Google the minute it ends so they can find people who think like them (or not). They want to hear about it ASAP. And then the majority of people will promptly forget about it because that’s how attention spans work on the Internet.

So when do you want to publish that blog post? As soon as humanly possible. Right after the debate. Within a couple hours of the debate at the latest. Heck, DURING the debate, if possible.

Another example. Let’s say you record a cover of that popular song that just came out on the radio and want it to get lots of hits on YouTube.

What will increase your chances of success? Posting the video as soon the song is released. 

The sooner you post the video, the better your chances will be. In this case, even if you have crappy audio quality and the music video isn’t high production, your chances of success will still be higher than someone at your level who posts a better-quality video months later. That’s just how the Internet works, because people want to hear covers AS SOON AS they hear the song, and then they go on to find another favorite song and stop searching for that song of which you just made a wonderful cover.

Always, always consider timing, even down to the last second. Posting at 2 a.m. might not be as smart as posting at 7 or 8 p.m. when almost everyone is relaxing on the Internet before bed.

Or maybe you’re trying to reach a global audience. Maybe people in California or Japan or Germany want to read your stuff more than people in your given area. Consider their time zone.

IT ALL MATTERS. 

TIMING. IS. EVERYTHING.

Catchy Titles

In my opinion, the title, or headline, is probably the single most important physical aspect of your post. When it comes to SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, the title ranks first. So any words you use in your title should be the search words people will use to find your article. Preferably, these words will also entice people to click through to your content.

This, unfortunately, often affects creativity and leads to clickbait headlines such as “You Won’t Believe ——-!” or “Five Reasons You ———!”

All you writers out there are probably a bit peeved about that, but it’s the honest to goodness truth. If you make a post about your reaction to the latest episode of The Walking Dead, and you title it something artsy and vague like, “My True Feelings,” chances are you won’t get many views. (Only fiction authors or popular Internet personalities can get away with that shit.) But if you title it, “The Walking Dead: Why Daryl Dixon is a badass,” you’ll probably get more views.

Things to consider:

  • Popular names. Try putting in names of characters, TV shows, celebrities, etc. These are popular search terms that will lead people to your work. Also, it’ll entice people to click it.
  • Lists. As much as you might hate it, those “5 Types of —-” and “5 Reasons Why —-” posts get a lot of views for a reason. People love lists, and people love knowing how much more they have to go before they get to the end. Part of that whole short-attention-span thing.
  • Clickbait. Similar to the previous point, you may not like it, but clickbait headlines get a lot of views for a reason. If you’re just looking for views, this could be your road to success. If you’re looking for credibility, you might look into another method.
  • Leaving something out. Give people a reason to click. If you purposefully leave something out, they’ll want to click through to find out more. Bait them. Like...clickbait. Hah. Get it? 
  • Or put everything in. If the content is interesting enough, it doesn’t matter if you leave something out. Sometimes people also like to know exactly what they're getting into.
  • Thorough, but to-the-point. Not too long, not too short. If it’s too long, it’ll get cut off when people share it or see it in a search engine, or they could lose interest. If it’s too short, it’s probably too vague.
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Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

I already brought this up, but I’m going to delve a bit deeper into this topic. Search Engine Optimization is when you make your post as searchable as possible. SEO-friendly content is easy to find in a search engine, because it has key words in appropriate places.

We’ve already discussed SEO-friendly headlines/titles. But that’s not the only thing that helps optimize your post for search.

  • Subheadings or descriptions. Sometimes, blogging sites will allow you to attach a subheading to go under your headline. On YouTube, you make a description for each video. Either way, this description can expand on your title, establish the tone of the content and further optimize your content for search engines. Whatever popular name you couldn’t put in the title, consider putting it here, if relevant. If it’s a comedy post, make it funny. I must emphasize: Thorough, but to-the-point.
  • Tags. A lot of people overlook this section. YouTube has it, WordPress has it, heck, pretty much every publication tool on the Internet has it. This is where you put any and all words and phrases associated with your content. You can put as many as you want, so go ham at it. Wrote a post about Disney World? Tag every godforsaken princess and their sidekicks. And that random townsperson. And that rock.
  • The post itself. Yes, every word within your post is searchable. Don’t skimp on adding a popular search term in favor of a fancier-sounding word unless it really adds something to the post. Example: Consider avoiding that cute nickname for a celebrity unless it’s well-known, or it adds to your voice. This does not mean that you can’t use your own unique voice—you can. Just carefully choose your words.

IMAGES!

Do I even need to explain this? People like pictures. Add an awesome, eye-catching feature image. Use images throughout. GIFs and memes. People love GIFs and memes.

If you’re talking about video content, you’re pretty much already set. A catchy thumbnail will be key though. 

Social media

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You knew this was coming. Virality is entirely determined by how people share the content, and social media is the way to do that. However, you’re going to have to put a bit of thought into how you share it. Just sharing willy-nilly on every social media platform isn’t going to cut it.

Let’s run through the thought-process you should have whenever posting to social media.

  1. Who. Who do you want to see your post? Who will enjoy your post the most? Who is more likely to share your post? These are all questions you need to ask yourself.
  2. Where. Where is your audience? Some content won’t do as well on certain platforms, because different platforms have different audiences. That said, it never hurts to post in as many places possible, but put more effort into making quality posts on the platforms that matter.
  3. When. Again, keeping your audience in mind, when will they be on these platforms, and when will they be the most willing to share your stuff? If it helps, analyze your own (or a friend’s) social media habits and see how timing affects your desire and willingness to share something.
  4. How. How will you structure your post? That all depends on where you’ve decided to post it. Remember this: NO TWO POSTS SHOULD LOOK EXACTLY ALIKE. A post to Facebook should be different than a post to Twitter. Here are some quick tips for different social platforms:
    1. Twitter: Shorten links. Use hashtags. @ User handles, if relevant. Short and to-the-point. Include images, especially images with text. (Pro tip: That image text doesn’t count towards the word count!)
    2. Facebook: An engaging image, which usually comes with the link. Tagging relevant users, pages, businesses. A few sentences. (Pro tip: Don’t make it so long that the post would require a “See More” option if possible, or put the important stuff in the first few lines. Pro tip 2: Apparently 46 characters is the ideal length. That's pretty short, but welcome to the internet.)
    3. TumblrLots of tags. Maybe a sentence or two. More visuals. (Pro tip: Make it funny. Pull out a funny quote, funny image or funny still from your video.)
    4. YouTube: Engaging title. Engaging first sentence of description. Engaging thumbnail. Tags. Get to the point in under ten seconds (preferably less).
    5. LinkedIn: You won’t go viral with this, but you might be able to get it in the right hands. Thorough, to-the-point description that gives people a reason to view your content.
    6. Instagram: The best image possible, preferably something that has some sort of aesthetic value to your audience. Use as many hashtags as freakin possible. The caption pretty much doesn't matter. 
    7. Google+: Just don’t.

Emotional Response

On the note of social media, why do you think people share things? Obviously, because they have some sort of connection with it, and they want others to know. They had some sort of emotional response. 

Let’s go through some of the different responses around which you can tailor your content:

  • Relatability. People love it when they can relate to a post, especially if it’s something they do that they think is weird or that they’d normally never tell anyone about. Think about all the times you’ve seen your friend share a post with the caption, “SO TRUE.” Lots of times, I bet. If you can connect with your audience, it makes for a much more shareable post.
  • Controversy. This type of content is probably the most successful especially in terms of engagement, although be prepared for negative feedback. Controversial content tends to take a stance on an issue. People who agree with you will find your content and rave their support for your position; other people will angrily rant their opposition and get into arguments with people in the comments. Both sides will share, one wanting to show what they believe and the other laughing about how stupid you are. But if you’re going for virality, this is the way to go.
  • Extreme Emotion. Usually, this type of content leans towards extreme sadness and tries to make the audience cry. Other times, it’s something extremely heartwarming, making the audience smile. Or perhaps, it aims at making the audience extremely angry and frustrated. Controversy can do this too, but something as simple as videos with cute animals and happy music that cause people to cry can go just as viral.
  • Hilarity. And of course, the ever-elusive funny content. These are the one-minute or even 10-second videos or those Tumblr one-liners that have thousands or millions of views for no apparent reason other than that they’re excruciatingly hilarious. They can be higher-quality (Buzzfeed) or low quality (home video). This is the type of content that most people try to make in order to go viral (think newbie YouTubers). Reality check: You’re fighting with the majority of Internet content for virality. It’s going to take much more than a funny video to make that work. (See: every other point made in this blog post.)

And the most important “rule” is…

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Luck

Yep. That’s the secret to success. You can pack your bags and go home, because this is it.

In tips #1-6, I gave you maybe 10% of the reason a post goes viral, but the other 90% is complete and utter dumb luck. After all, if there really were a secret to virality, someone would have figured it out by now and exploited it tremendously. But that’s not the case.

As I said before, timing is everything. Sometimes, your timing is accidentally perfect, and your content falls into just the right hands. Sometimes, someone will find your content from years ago, and it will all of a sudden go viral for any number of reasons. Sometimes, something that doesn’t follow any of the above tips goes viral for reasons unknown to mankind.

And your question of “why” is totally valid, because there often isn’t an explicit reason why one thing goes viral over another seemingly equal (or better) thing. There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason. Just pure, unadulterated dumb luck.

In a way, I didn’t give you the rules of virality—I told you how to make your post more successful. Following these tips will help you get more hits, more engagement and more shares than you would otherwise. However, keep in mind that following these tips does not ensure that your content will be a viral hit. It only ensures an extra little boost.

So how do you go viral on the Internet?

I would start stocking up on those four-leaf clovers and horseshoes, because you’re going to need a shit ton of luck.