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June 3, 2014 // 8:00 AM

13 Lessons From Upworthy & BuzzFeed: Viral Content's Secret Sauce

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buzzfeed_upworthy_viral_contentAs social sharing has accelerated at an exponential rate over the last several years, so too have a slew of enterprising and innovative new sites that have learned to successfully leverage the full scope of social. Two in particular, BuzzFeed and Upworthy, have had growth so substantial that it’s been hard not to hear about or notice their meteoric growth.

BuzzFeed has tripled its monthly unique visitor counts over the last 24 months, from 4.3 million to 19.3 million. At its current projected trajectory, it's set to eclipse sites like The New York Times, Huffington Post (also started by a BuzzFeed founder), and CNN over the next few years. Similarly, Upworthy has gone from about 1 million visitors in its first months to more than 20 million unique visitors per month today, making it one of the fastest growing media sites of all time.

Clearly these two sites have tapped into something important that’s fueling their massive growth, but what is it? Even though these two sites are seemingly quite different, there are a few key reasons why they are successful. Their methods are replicable, and you can use them to drive unprecedented engagement and visibility for your blog or brand. Keep on reading to see what they are.

Lesson 1: Important Audiences Are the “Bored at Work” and the “Bored in Line”

Jonah Peretti, one of the founders of BuzzFeed, said that internally, the target audience they see as most valuable are the “bored at work,” those who have jobs that use computers but are able to spend a substantial amount of time browsing the Internet without supervision. This general audience is typically looking for content that will:

  1. Alleviate boredom
  2. Connect with their current frustrations

Targeting this audience and tapping into their unvoiced frustrations led to one of BuzzFeed’s most viral posts of all time.

For the “Bored at Work” group, content that is NSFW (not safe for work) is usually shared at a significantly lower rate. Additionally, NSFW content is generally not something people are eager to share with broad groups of their friends or family.

BuzzFeed also targets the “Bored in Line,” or those who consume content on their mobile phones while waiting. They found that this audience was the principal driver of social sharing. Making sure their content was mobile-enabled and quick and easy to consume on phones led to significant gains over the last several years. Now, more than 1/3 of all BuzzFeed traffic is from mobile.

Lesson 2: What Content Spreads Depends on the Platform

According to August 2013 research, BuzzFeed is the most shared site on Facebook, with 15.9 million interactions with the brand or its content in August alone. Needless to say, the Facebook audience is key to BuzzFeed’s success and informs the type of content they create. Facebook’s world view is that it should help you express yourself and connect with your friends and family. Following this, BuzzFeed has found success by creating content that plays on the desire of Facebook sharers to express their opinions through content, especially content that will reaffirm their identities or relationships.

In addition to creating content your users want to share, it’s important to optimize the content -- such as the Facebook headline, excerpt, and share image fields -- for when they share it. These will allow for more aesthetic and informative sharing, increasing the odds the content will continue to be shared.

Lesson 3: Certain Content Types Work

BuzzFeed has identified several specific content categories that the majority of their successful content fits into. These include:

  • LOL: Humorous content
  • Win: Content that is particularly useful, ingenious, or admirable
  • OMG: Content that is shocking
  • Cute: Self explanatory, generally animal-based content
  • Trashy: Schadenfreude-esque content. People like to feel better about themselves by mocking or ridiculing the failures of others, especially the famous
  • Fail: Content that points out the failings of both individuals and society -- a way for everyone to collectively vent through shared frustrations
  • WTF: Strange, bizarre, and other curiosity-triggering content

Consider these types of content when brainstorming your content. Always ask yourself, how will this content make the reader react?

Lesson 4: Use Incredibly Strong Emotional Triggers

If you look at BuzzFeed’s most popular posts, you’ll notice a common thread: They are intentionally emotionally evocative. The most successful of their posts, like “The 45 Most Powerful images of 2011,” were intentionally crafted to make the viewer feel highly emotional.

Upworthy puts the same emphasis on emotion -- they make sure to value the emotional responses they have when decision making. For example, when Upworthy staff writer Adam Mordechai was deciding whether or not to publish a documentary about the late Zach Sobiech, a major factor in his decision was the fact that he cried while watching it -- and then cried again when watching it the second time. It’s important to analyze data, but you can’t underestimate the importance of human emotion.

Lesson 5: Stack, Stack, Stack

Sure, one compelling paragraph, video, or image can make an emotional impact, but what about several? What if you publish multiple examples of content that trigger a certain emotion under one post? This sort of “stacking” multiplies the power of the post and can be a very useful tool when trying to influence an audience.

Take, for example, one of BuzzFeed’s most successful posts: 21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity. Maybe one or two of these photos could have made a reader think and feel, but it’s unlikely they would have received the almost 15 million views the 21-picture version did. And in this case, each image served to provide evidence to the thesis that humanity does deserve a little faith. If you can provide lots of examples of the topic at hand, especially if you have a specific objective with the post, it’s a route definitely worth exploring.

Lesson 6: The Importance of Self-Identification

It might seem logical that going for the largest common denominator when creating content would be the most effective, but this might not always be the case. Targeting a specific audience can be extremely successful. For example, look at this BuzzFeed article, “21 Problems All Sarcastic People Understand,” which has reached more than 5.5 million views since May 12.

This type of post helps attract people who believe they have a certain characteristic, experience, or opinion -- in this case, anyone who self-identifies as sarcastic. (Which, turns out, is a lot of people.) This sort of post generates interest from lots of like-minded people, who then share it with more like-minded people, which leads to more and more pageviews. 

Lesson 7: Originality Is Overrated

Often times, content can either be repurposed, updated, or presented from a new angle, creating a new spin on an already published story. You don’t always have to start with a blank page -- it’s OK to work with what’s out there as long as you provide some sort of value. In fact, seeing what’s out there and what works is crucial to better understanding what audiences are looking for.

Maybe one of the most widely used examples of this is the, “What kind of _______ are you?” quiz. Just doing a BuzzFeed search on the words “What kind of” will provide a snapshot of how niche some of these surveys are getting (“What Kind of Pizza Are You Based On Your Star Sign”), but it’s because it’s been identified that they work. When you know an audience responds to a certain setup, see what other ways you can use that setup with different content.

Lesson 8: Curation Is Underrated

Sometimes it’s not all about producing super new, never-before-seen content, as counterintuitive as that may sound -- sometimes, resurfacing old content can work wonders. Upworthy actually digs through the Internet archives to find compelling stories that originally went under the radar. 

As Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley said, there’s plenty of content on the Internet, but because there’s so much, it’s hard to identify the best media. That’s the task Upworthy has taken upon itself. Co-founder Eli Pariser estimates that Upworthy only publishes about 60 pieces of content a week in order to make sure each story can genuinely garner interest. 

And there’s a hidden benefit -- because the content isn’t necessarily timely, that means it’s very unlikely another publisher will be discussing the same stories. This is much, much harder to accomplish with recent news and trends.

Lesson 9: Use the Same Terminology as Your Audience

BuzzFeed has a style guide like every publication should, and it’s their attention to detail that allows their content to remain clear and consistent. They break down the proper usage of everything from “Republican National Convention”  to “duckface” (one word) so that all of their articles, quizzes, etc. have the same appearance. This helps create a solidified brand as well as make their content feel more familiar to those who see articles popping up on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Another takeaway from the style guide is the fact that BuzzFeed chooses to determine the appropriate style for words and terms people may find facetious, like “man-child,” “J.Law,” and “1D” (an abbreviation for One Direction), but giving these “silly” phrases a space in their official style book indicates how seriously BuzzFeed takes pop culture and the subjects its readers care about. It’s acknowledging that while some of the topics may be light-hearted, that doesn’t make them unworthy of attention. They’re not afraid to speak the language of their readers, which is vital for a sustaining connection.

Lesson 10: Activism Can Be a Key Driver in Sharing

Upworthy wanted to prove that it wasn’t just cat videos that would go viral -- and it turns out, they had a point. Co-founder Koechley said people also share content they see online because they’re passionate about the topic and want to spread ideas about it. Because they have an emotional response after reading or watching it, they want to share this information as well as show others that they care about real issues and follow the news stories of the day.

Upworthy caters to that by publishing content meant to inspire or shed light on an issue or cause. People who want to make a difference or participate in the discussion will share this content to ignite conversation or even encourage action.

Lesson 11: Great Content Is Only One Half of the Equation -- the Title Is the Other

Upworthy often comes up with 25 headlines per story, knowing that many of them will be terrible. Why? They say it’s because once you start getting desperate to think of more headlines, you’ll start to think outside of the box. Try this method with your own content by overcoming your fear of failure. It’s impossible to churn out 25 awesome headlines, but in the process of trying, you’ll likely come up with something amazing.

In addition to this strategy, Upworthy has several rules, but two of which seem particularly important:

  1. Don’t give it all away in the headline.
  2. Don’t form an opinion for the user in the headline.

These two points go hand-in-hand: Give the reader an intriguing idea of what they’re getting into, but don’t say everything and then tell the reader how to feel about it. Upworthy calls this creating a “gap in curiosity.” Don’t make the headline so vague no one wants to click, but don’t make it so specific that they don’t have to click, either.

Your headline should create a curiosity gap, but it doesn’t have to end there. According to Upworthy, the featured image can demonstrate the same characteristics to draw a reader in and cause him or her to click/share. Coupling a powerful headline with an attention-grabbing image can make for a very effective pitch for reading the content.

Lesson 12: Even the Best Only Get It Right a Small Portion of the Time

Don’t be discouraged if every piece of content you create isn’t a home run. Sure, you see BuzzFeed and Upworthy posts constantly shared on social media, but you’re not seeing the ones that miss the mark. While many of their top posts have received hundreds of thousands of views, 66% of Upworthy’s posts haven’t broken the 20,000-views mark. Now, 20,000 views is still a significant amount, but in the context of Upworthy, it puts into perspective how not every article is going to go super-viral.

Lesson 13: Be Human

When you’re juggling so many objectives and strategies when creating content, it’s easy to forget one of the most important criteria: making your content human. This means focusing on the human aspect of stories -- forgetting to do this can make your content seem contrived and robotic. Ask yourself: Why would people want to read this?

Here are some human themes that Upworthy cites as being engaging, along with some recent examples:

When you remember you’re dealing with a real audience and not just metrics, you’ll remember that these stories should, deep down, be about humanity.

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Topics: Content Marketing

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