A Scalable Formula for Viral Social Media Posts

At the top of every conversion funnel is the initial user acquisition. As a social media marketer, your first priority is to expose your brand to as many new customers as possible. This requires making content that’s not only likeable, but shareable.

We’ve all seen seemingly sporadic content go viral. But what if there were a formula that worked repeatedly?

Here’s a viral content marketing theory my colleague Frankie and I discovered here at Budsies:

Produce empathetic content with instantaneous understanding targeting 2% to 20% of the population.

Below, I break down each of the three elements, show examples, and give you an actionable cheat sheet to develop your own shareable social media posts.

Prerequisite 1: Empathetic Content

Emotion-evoking content is the foundation for every social media strategy regardless of the end goal.

Here are three examples of empathetic content. Note how each image evokes a positive emotion in the consumer:

Likes vs. Shares: Don’t Be Fooled!

Many brands create beautiful, inspiring original content. These perfectly composed images of landscapes, yoga poses, or dinner settings are gorgeous. I LOVE seeing these posts. And I’m not alone: they garner thousands upon thousands of likes.

Engagement is the attention placed on your brand by people who already know your brand. These are your followers reconnecting with you and applauding you.

But Engagement is Not Virality

Simply “liking” a post is NOT enough. The goal is to produce content that people actively want to share. Otherwise, you aren’t acquiring new users.

Engagement is the nurturing, second step in the funnel. The first step is acquisition.

Keep reading to learn how to create content that readers want to immediately share with specific friends.

Prerequisite 2: Instantaneous Understanding

I won’t spend much time on this topic. There’s a general acceptance that the average consumer has a limited attention span.

There are definitely videos that have gone viral which last for 3 minutes or more (see “Feats of Humanity” below), but they do not fall into a formulaic and scalable method for making low budget content go viral.

Make imagery where the zinger, the punchline, or the irony can be grasped in 1 second or less.

Bring It Home: 2% — 20% Targeting

To make content that evokes sharing, you should make the content hyper relevant to minority of the population.

When this content is consumed by a member of that minority, he feels that the post is speaking directly to him. He feels special. He feels that this post is not just engaging to the masses, but focuses directly on him and his emotions. It’s a much stronger bond than a regular engaging post.

It makes him want to say “Yes!!! That’s me!!! You totally get me!!!” or “Aaahhh that’s exactly how I feel!”.

Create content that has strong affinity to a minority of the population.

Here are a few examples. Note that most of these will NOT appeal to you. That’s exactly the point!

Birds of a Feather Share Together

What’s more, this individual’s social graph likely includes others in the same minority. Not only does he say “Yes that’s me!” but he also instantly exclaims “That’s also Charlie, Danny, and Stacy!!! They would love this!!!”. Because those three friends are in the same minority.

This is the defining characteristic of viral content: Not only does it appeal to the user, but it narrows his scope so he can immediately think of multiple specific people in his network that would have a special affinity to that content as well.

This narrow targeting is what makes people @tag their friends on a brand’s post or repost the brand’s post on their own wall.

At Budsies, we’re creating content around our new Petsies line where we create stuffed animals from a photo of your pet. Like this:

Here are some examples of social content optimized for targeting a minority:

I’d say less than 20% of men have “man buns”. But those that do are damn proud of them!
Teachers would appreciate this!

Evergreen Minorities

I have found there are certain topics that consistently produce this effect. I’ll use the same headline structure for each to show how easily they can be applied.

  • Zodiac: “6 ways you know you’re dating a scorpio”
  • Ethnicity/Heritage: “6 things only Italians will understand”
  • Career: “Every nurse can relate to these 6 #FML moments”
  • Pop Culture Icons: “6 ways you know you’re a Friends fanatic”
  • Family Structure: “6 tricks older sisters play on their little brothers”

Please tweet me at @thefurm to share your own evergreen topics so I can add them here and attribute to you.

The key, of course, is to apply the these minorities onto your specific brand or product. Your post must remain tangentially relevant to your brand. The minority element is there simply to encourage tagging and reposting.

What’s with the 2% and 20%?

OK, you caught me… the percentages aren’t perfect. There’s a chance that the sibling example above might appeal to more than 20% (can someone else do that math!?). But they are good goalposts.

Targeting a section of the population less than 2% excludes too much of your general audience. And given that all content takes time and resources to create, the small size of the target population might be make the ROI too low.

On other hand, targeting a population greater than 20% will likely lead to a general post that doesn’t have the personal appeal.

Feats of Humanity: Viral but not cost effective

There is another formula to virality: create mesmerizing and captivating feats of humanity that are absolutely breathtaking. Examples of this include:

  • Musical child prodigies
  • Athletes making amazing catches or dunks or goals
  • People jumping off cliffs in flying squirrel suits
  • Dancers or artists with dazzling performances

We not only want to applaud this content, but we want to help others discover it. It so universally amazing, that we believe all of our friends will appreciate it. We want to become the tastemakers.

As you can imagine, creating such content is supremely expensive. There are a few companies, like Red Bull, that build their entire brand around such feats pour huge funds into producing extreme human physical accomplishment.

Other Formulas

There are no doubt other scalable, repeatable methods for achieving virality. Share yours with me @thefurm