The 5 Ingredients of Viral Articles
No hacks, no secrets, just a recipe
I never personally liked the idea of hacking. There’s just something dodgy and unrealistic about it. When you hack something, you are breaking into a system via unsavory means. At some point, someone is going to notice and kick you out.
Over the past 9 months of writing seriously, I’ve created more than a few dozen stories that can be viewed as moderately viral, with Google giving it long term traffic and consistent organic social media sharing from readers. During my best month, I was pulling more than a quarter of a million views combined.
I did it all without hacking anything. Rather, I experimented and figured out the ingredients that give content that viral quality.
Without further ado, here are the ingredients — no secret sauce and no hacks, just real-deal ingredients I found worked for what’s needed to produce the kind of content that has the potential to thrive.
1. A Point of Difference
When you’re the same just like everyone else, your content becomes viewed as copies with no creative offering.
Content that thrives has a point of difference. While some topics and certain stories seem to crop up over and over again, it is the author’s point of difference that makes it interesting.
So how to do you create a point of difference?
The easiest method is to melt two polarizing ideas together. It’s not about creating controversy but creating something that is so intensely unique, giving it a quality of added value.
For me, I create a point of difference by melting productivity ideas, like Parento’s law, and cats into programming. For marketing-styled stories, I melt traditional business ideas, like MVP, and literature into stories that touch on the art of selling.
2. Narrative Voice
We all love a good story. Developing your storytelling voice — especially for technical pieces — is the thing that will keep your audience engaged.
The idea of narrative voice isn’t limited to just fiction. It is the act of embedding a human quality into the tale — something that is immediately identifiable and easy to understand. It gives your content the special quality of being relatable by creating a sense of connection between your work and your audience.
Narrative voice takes time to develop. You have to unapologetically stand for something. Be strong in your convictions in order to effectively make your point.
If you know how to communicate a voice, even listicles can effectively engage with your audience.
3. A Reading Time of 4–5 Minutes
The sweet spot for a written format is 4–5 minutes in length — so, approximately 800 to 1000 words. This is the current state of the internet: mid-range, long-form reading. If you’ve managed to capture your audience’s attention long enough, it means that you’ve succeeded in providing them with something potentially valuable.
There is no doubt that we exist in an age where our audiences are constantly starved of time. You only have the speed of a swipe or a scroll for your chance of an impression, and the ability to click away onto the next thing.
If they’ve made it to the end, then your piece may just be worthy of sharing, of tweeting, of emailing. In addition to everything else, these actions — especially when you don’t explicitly ask for them — are the bread and butter for distribution to a wider and networked audience.
4. A Teaspoon of Critical Thought
Sometimes, people overthink the process of creating viral pieces and focus more on everything but the value proposition.
When you make someone think or pause long enough to consider your ideas and words, you are engaging in a conversation with them.
These silent conversations are how you build long-term relationships.
When you offer up critical thought — the type that is created through analysis and conclusions — you offer up a unique original thought that adds to your portfolio’s value.
And this is as important as everything else because it is the thing that will propel people to go in search of more, resulting in a series of binge sessions on what you’ve previously produced.
When you have enough content, these sessions can last days, if not weeks.
5. Polished Formatting
Formatting matters. Grammar matters. Your choice of images and white space also matters.
When you get edited, editors will go through these things in order to create a cohesive visual layout and rhythm for your articles.
They will also clean up your overtly long and run-on sentences, and tighten your voice by creating a cohesive grammatical structure for your piece.
If in doubt, I personally use the Grammarly plugin.
How to Write a Viral Post
Put all ingredients into a bowl, mix well with a spatula until the digital ink turns into a malleable ball. Knead with proofreading for 10 minutes and leave to rise overnight.
Just remember that the best tasting things are often also the simplest. Don’t overcomplicate your content or worry too much about how it’ll taste.
If you come back and everything still makes sense, hit the publish button or send it into the oven of publication submissions.
It may take a few days to fully cook and get served up to a ready audience. There is no guarantee that they will like it — but like all cooking, it takes practice to get a recipe right with the available raw materials and conditions.