What makes an article go viral... according to science

01 February 2017

What makes an article go viral... according to science

Everybody seems to want their content to go viral. The problem is that creating a viral article has long seemed to be as much about good luck as about good judgement – until now. Neil Patel has scientifically analysed almost 12,000 of last year’s viral articles to work out just what it is that sets them apart from the competition.

1. It’s a numbers game

Including numbers in blog titles is hugely beneficial to readership figures and the numbers have proved this. Almost two thirds of the viral blogs analysed had numbers in the title. Numbers often go together with list posts, which regularly feature at the upper end of lists of most-shared content.

The theory behind why posts with numbers are so popular is that they provide internet users with a quick, easy and generally fairly accurate way to judge whether an article is useful for them. For example, if two articles are around the same length but one is titled “3 top tips on X” and the other “10 top tips on X”, then it’s a reasonable assumption that the former provides a greater level of detail on each tip. They tap into different reader groups.

Use numbers whenever you reasonably can, aiming for at least half of the articles you write.

2. “This is what” you came for

The idea that “brevity is the soul of wit” predates the internet by, literally, centuries. On the internet, however, it takes on a whole new level of importance. Phrases such as “This is what” make a definite statement, which inspires confidence that the writer knows what they are talking about and is going to get straight to the point with meaningful content, which is worth the time it takes to read. Other great aspects of post titles include “How to…”, titles which ask questions (Does your dog really understand every word you say?) and titles with some degree of controversy/trending value (Do you agree Brexit means disaster?).

Always choose titles that are short and impactful, without being boastful. If you can safely stir up a bit of controversy or make the most of a trending topic, so much the better.

3. Averages can be deceptive

According to the statistics, the average viral article had approximately 350 words, however this is a case where averages could be misleading. When articles are shared on social media, the platforms use the URL to create an image with a headline. The power of images both on and offline is now common knowledge and an effective image is an enormous help when it comes to getting internet users to like and share content.

In fact, images are so powerful that some of the articles Neil Patel analysed were simply an image and a tagline, without any actual writing at all. It would therefore appear that when it comes to creating viral articles, the key is to go either short and focus tightly on the key points or create long-form content with plenty of meaningful detail. News articles are a slightly special case and tend to work best at around 500 words.

In terms of going viral, quality is more important than length

4. Reference multimedia elements

While blogs are still essentially about words, they increasingly contain multimedia elements such as videos. Making this clear in the title lets the reader know exactly what to expect and again encourages both engagement and sharing.

People absorb content in different ways, using a combination of approaches to presenting information opens up your article to different reader groups, increasing the chances of social shares and virality.