12 Principles for Creating Viral Content

INBOUND 2018 HubSpot Overit Marketing

This blog’s coming at ya from the brain of possibly the coolest person at Inbound – Nadya Khoja. I mean, seriously, I want to be that cool when I grow up. But I’m OK if it doesn’t happen.

Nadya talked about a topic that’s hot for social media marketers and content marketers alike – viral content.

First off, let’s talk about what viral means.

Viral content is something that gets a lot of engagement and shares. Not more than your usual content kind of sharing, but like the whole internet knows about it and your grandma sent it to you by Facebook Messenger kind of sharing.

As Nadya shares, the way we usually approach content is brainstorming and throwing out ideas, then putting them in a content calendar for the month, quarter, or even year. I mean, that’s usually how we do it. Of course, there’s some research in there, but we like to plan things out.

But if you want to write content that actually excites and engages your audience, you’ve got to approach content from a completely different angle.

The internet says that there are three components to creating engaging content:

  1. Write a Promising Introduction
  2. Tell a Compelling Story
  3. Leave Your Audience with Questions

That’s it. That’s the end of the talk. #yourewelcome

I’m just kidding. Obviously. This blog is called “12 Principles of Viral Content”, and Miss Khoja delivered.

Here’s what actually goes into creating viral content, from the lovely folks over at Venngage:

Principle #1:  Solve a Burning Problem

Place yourself in the audience’s shoes. What problem are they trying to solve?

Start form there, and look around to discover stories from the answers to those problems.

The key here is to provide NEW answers to existing questions. Don’t be the person that gives the same answer everyone else does. Think about how your content compares to what’s out there, and find a way to position yourself differently. What makes you stand out?

Principle #2:  Find Hacks to Common Struggles

Ever heard of the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”? If not, your girlfriend probably has a copy. I kid you not, this book was a bestseller around the world. It CHANGED LIVES.

But the brilliance of it was that Marie Kondo didn’t write a book about cleaning up your house. That’s old news and totally boring. Her approach was different. It was to focus on what brings you JOY and let go of the rest. Same problem, different perspective.

How can you apply this to your own content?

Identify a common task we’re all familiar with, then find a way to structure and simplify that task.


Principle #3: Bust a Myth

This is a fun one. It’s all about disproving theories. For example, “Millenials Are Lazy”. Well, maybe that’s not true (it’s not), so talk about it.

One of the reasons people DON’T like this approach is they don’t want to be too controversial. If that’s a concern for you, consider this: Strong hate or love is not a bad thing. It’s emotion. And emotions drives behavior. It causes people to rally behind your cause and support you. It causes them to buy. It causes them to share your content and talk about you. Strong emotion is a GOOD thing. It just sucks if the strong emotion is because they don’t agree with you. But that’s OK, because we all know that not everyone is our ideal customer. As long as you’re not being inflammatory for the sake of being inflammatory, and you’re sticking with your own personal values, you’ll be fine.

Here are some of the benefits of myth busting:

  • More links
  • More shares
  • More debate

Principle #4:  Challenging the Status Quo

Gary Vee is a great example of this. (Check out his article Super Bowls Ads Aren’t Expensive Enough).

Be different. Stand out. Create content that goes against the status quo – IF it means something to you and your business.

Here at Overit, we’re not totally status quo. We’re OK with being different. That’s what our clients love about us – we’re as real as it gets.

The other great thing about challenging the status quo is that it brings up debate. Debate means conversation. Conversation means engagement. You see where I’m going…

Principle #5:  Reframe the Question

This is a really cool one. The idea is to identify what the question is and approach it from a different angle.

For example, Bill & Melinda Gates wanted to raise awareness about how deadly malaria is.

But that wasn’t so easy sticking with traditional means. So they got creative and created an infographic about the world’s deadliest animals, showcasing how mosquitoes are the top killer of humans in the animal world, responsible for 725,000 deaths per year.


Principle #6:  Put It in Perspective

We tend to stick to the common frameworks of storytelling.

Michael Jordan is ___ tall, has scored ___ points, has made ___ shots, etc. Congratulations, you’ve just written the same boring bio everyone has written about the man.

Stand out by coming in with a new perspective. How can you talk about the subject you’re talking about in a completely different way? What different lens could you position it through?

Here are some neat ideas from the interwebs:

4 Reasons You Need Athletes on Your Sales Team

The Economics of NBA Superstars

Principle #7:  Mashup Multiple Topics

The idea here is to take two seemingly unrelated topics and find one element that connects them.

Venngage did a great infographic on what you can learn about design from Star Wars. This piece blew up, because they released it around the time Star Wars: The Last Jedi came out.

Think about what’s happening currently, or what’s trending, and find a unique way you can combine that with a topic related to your business.

Principle #8:  Go Outside Your Immediate Field

Your content doesn’t have to be only about what your product or service is about.

HubSpot is a great example of this. Even though they technically sell a CRM and marketing automation software (which, in my totally unbiased opinion, is super awesome, so feel free to ask me about it), they write about inbound marketing, advertising, entrepreneurship, etc. Long before I was a HubSpot user, I was in their audience, consuming and engaging with their content.

Consider the topics that surround what you specifically do and find a way to incorporate those into your content marketing plan.

Principle #9:  Find Niches and Subcultures

People seem to be obsessed with subcultures. Think Reddit threads, Facebook groups, etc.

Find a way to get involved with those (or, better yet, create one), and see what happens.

Principle #10:  Exploring and Visualizing Origin Stories

For every topic, there’s an origin story. How the first shoe was made. How the owner of your company went from drummer in an industrialized rock band to CEO of a 35+ person agency. How content marketing has evolved over the years.

Take some time to think about the origin stories of influential people in your field, specific fields of interest, or aspects of the product or service you offer and create content around that. There is always going to be an audience for origin stories.

The best way to depict these types of stories is using timelines.

Principle #11:  Envision the Before and After State

How does your product or service take your customer from before to after?

Of course, before and after photos are great, but can you take it a step further?

When we’re thinking before and after, it’s not just how we look. It’s what we have, what we feel, what our average day is like, and what our overall status is in life. Those are all things to consider. How can you visually portray that? Or tell it in a video? Or showcase it in a case study?


Resource:  This blog came highly recommended on this subject by Nadya.

Principle #12:  Include a Reason to Share

Ask yourself:

  • Would I share this?
  • Will this help someone better express themselves?

Because, here’s the deal, content goes viral because someone SHARES it.

When people care, they speak, write, and act in response to that care. So what you want to do is find an aspect of your product or service that strikes an emotional chord. Maybe it’s a powerful success story. People get emotional about the stories about other people, especially those they feel they can connect with.

I mean, consider this story about Pinto, a dog with a grapefruit-sized mass on his head. My buddy Chris took him in (Chris & his wife are local to the Albany area and rescue senior dogs). Turns out, Pinto has cancer. But that doesn’t stop Chris and Mariessa. This story touched so many people that People Magazine picked it up. PEOPLE MAGAZINE. Picked up a story about a dog in Albany with a cancerous mass on its head. People love stories – especially touching ones.


Well, there you have it. 12 Principles for Creating Viral Content.

I’m curious which you’ll use in your business!