12 Examples of Viral Content and What We Can Learn from Them 101

Viral content spreads via sharing, word of mouth, and reproduction. It is one of the most powerful ways to promote your blog or website, because the content spreads, literally, like a virus: one person views it, it leaves an impression, they share it with two other people, who share it with two other people, and so on, until it has spread far beyond your reach.

In this post I want to examine 12 great examples of viral content and analyze why they were successful, and how we can apply those successful principles to our own content.

Simpsonize Me
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What was it? A Flash program that launched in the lead-up to the Simpsons Movie. You could visit the site, input a photo of yourself and be turned into your own custom Simpson’s character.

Why was it viral? It worked, most of all — the photos were turned into a custom Simpsons character that quite uncannily resembled the photo. It capitalized on all the publicity being given to the Simpsons at the time, and it was free and easy to share. Making Simpsons characters of your friend/yourself was an advertisement for the site: people asked how you did it.

What can we learn from it? 1) Content that capitalizes on the current ‘big thing’ has a good chance of going viral because that thing is, at the moment, occupying a seat in the collective consciousness. 2) Free –> value –> easy to share is a recipe for virality 3) the content resulted in a shareable ‘product’ — people naturally wanted to show others their Simpsonized character and that was, in itself, free advertising for the service.

The Hipster PDA
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What is it? A GTD organizer built from a stack of index cards and a bulldog clip — also the brainchild of productivity guru Merlin Mann. It was introduced via this post at 43Folders and has been further popularized by hacks, new ideas, new Hipster PDA formats and new tutorials.

Why was it viral? Most anyone can get some index cards and a bulldog clip, so it promised Merlin Mann-style productivity for virtually nothing. The original content gave instructions for making and using the PDA, so was a natural place to send those who were curious about your new possession.

The item itself was a conversation piece and asked to be talked about. The content was value-added as third parties began to write tips and hacks for the Hipster PDA — they were all linked to at the bottom of the post and the content became a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for all things related to the PDA.

What can we learn from it? People like cheap objects with a lot of promise, particularly if they’re endorsed by an expert. The process for making the PDA was really simple, which prevented some readers being lost in the loop. Physical objects are conversation pieces and help the spread of virality — they also display membership in a club of people ‘in the know’.

Great Interviews of the 20th Century
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What was it? Over two weeks each copy of The Guardian came with a booklet containing one of the greatest interviews of the 20th Century (not sure who decided which interviews made the cut). They then released the interviews free on the newspaper’s website — supposedly for those who missed one of the day’s papers. In reality, I think The Guardian’s website has a pretty firm handle on creating linkbait.

Why was it viral? It contained interviews from incredibly famous or notorious individuals. It promised ‘the greatest’ of the 20th Century. You could share one interview, or share all of them.

What can we learn from it? The internet is overflowing with facts, figures and content related to some of the world’s (or your niche’s) most famous or important people. Sometimes all you need to do is gather the best ones in one place, write a great headline, make it easy to share, and wait.

Unleashing the IdeaVirus
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What is it? A 197 page eBook by thought-leader Seth Godin (though it should be noted, he was not as well-known then as he is now). The topic? Viral marketing.

Why was it viral? It was free, and Godin actively encouraged and enabled sharing. The book disseminated freely among Godin’s core group of followers and spread outwards. It was under a megabyte and could be quickly shared via email. It coined a phrase, ‘ideavirus’, which generated over two-hundred thousand links back to Godin’s blog and various websites as it was used. Its ideas are still being talked about today (in fact, they’re being talked about now).

What can we learn from it? Free things of value that are easy to share spread like wildfire among the right audience. The process is accelerated if you have a core group of fans who will eagerly support what you do. Coining a phrase and raising useful ideas are great ways to get talked about. You won’t make any income directly but it can significantly raise your profile and open up future opportunities — for example, the eBook was later turned into a paperback and became a bestseller.

Recounting Remarkable Actions
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What is it? Captain Denny Flanagan of United Airlines provides his passengers with a word-of-mouth worthy experience, going the extra step and then some when it comes to customer service. Here’s a break-down of the story. Content with similar characteristics: a doctor who only does housecalls.

Why was it viral? Remarkable actions, people and behaviors get talked about. These individuals not only differ from the norm, they rise above it.

What can we learn from it? If you can’t be that remarkable person, and attempt something great, different, generous, or otherwise remarkable, then you can document the actions of others who bear those qualities. Tell a story about an amazing real-life character your readers might not be familiar with. If it’s interesting and worth talking about the story will get told to others. Good stories spread with absolute ease.

Miss Teen USA (video)
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What is it? A demonstration of YouTube’s ability to ensure any mistake made in public by someone of any kind of notoriety will be documented, both spreading and prolonging the embarrassment. It’s also hilarious. Miss South Carolina not only has no answer to the question: “Why can’t 20% of Americans find the US on the map?”, she mauls the English language and common sense in under 40 seconds.

Why was it viral? It’s really funny — unless you’re one of those people who is only overwhelmed with sympathy when they see it. But there are a lot of funny videos on YouTube. This one went viral because it confirmed every single stereotype people hold about blondes and beauty pageant contestants.

What can we learn from it? People like their world-view confirmed, particularly when it’s a contested world-view. Those who like your words or evidence will share them with others who have the same beliefs. Rather than writing out their own statement of why they believe something, in future, they might just link to your content.

If Clicks Were Votes
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What is it? A visualization of hits to US Presidential candidate websites, with each dot representing 100 visits. It provides a quick overview of areas expressing the most interest in each candidate — at least in Web form. Viewing the maps side-by side also makes apparent the geographical partisanship in American politics.

Why was it viral? The image conveys a lot of information very quickly. It tells us where people are interested in a particular candidate and how intensely. It also shows how support for different candidates and parties is distributed along geographic lines. It capitalizes on a new area of interest: the interplay between politics and the web.

What can we learn from it? A picture can speak a thousand words in an instant, and when the information conveyed is of immense interest to your niche, there’s a good chance those images will be shared. Visualizations are great viral content because the have the potential to present interesting facts and data in a way that won’t bore readers. Can you imagine the ‘If Clicks Were Votes’ content going viral had it been a screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet?

DylanMessaging.com
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What is it? Add your own words to the card scene from Don’t Look Back. Each card will display words of your choosing, and the words will appear in a video of Bob Dylan cycling through the cards. You can then email the message to friends.

Why was it viral? It’s a great way to send a message to someone, particularly if they’re a Dylan fan. Promotion for Dylan’s new album rides on the back of social interaction.

What can we learn from it? Great viral content, by its nature, encourages communication. It is designed to be shared and talked about. What can you do to build your content for fluid and simple sharing? What can you do to make people want to share your content? (Hint: it involves making the act of sharing rewarding in itself).

101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less
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What is it? A gem unearthed when the tape around Times Select was revealed, Mark Bittman’s list of 101 quick and delicious meals has been doing the rounds.

Why was it viral? It presented lots of value in one place: 101 quick recipes from a food expert. It promised to be the reader’s first port of call the next time they needed a nice meal quickly.

What can we learn from it? Packing your content full of value, or putting what could be material for five or ten articles into one place, can be a key element of virality. Numbered headlines and listed information can work wonders, but only as long as the information is interesting and useful. Big resources written by experts are always going to be more popular than 101 lists written by the average person. If your content starts to go viral, how are new visitors going to know your credentials? Consider including them early in the piece. It will add value to everything that follows.

Pigeon Loves Monkey (photo)
read the story behind it

What is it? A 12-week-old orphaned macaque was given over to an animal hospital in China. The baby monkey seemed depressed until it developed a friendship with a white pigeon. The above is the resulting inter-species friendship, captured on film.

Why was it viral? Images are instant, effortless entertainment. Words take time to read, effort to comprehend the information, and the time investment (if the story is lacklustre) doesn’t always pay off. A great image or photo has an instant, powerful effect. It can easily be reproduced on other sites, or shared via email/chat.

What can we learn from it? A great image (or a collection of great images) is incredibly easy to consume and share. If you can’t, or don’t want to, make your own images, you can assemble a collection others have taken. Make sure to check copyrights first, though.

PostSecret
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What is it? A blog made up of mailed-in anonymous secrets on artfully decorated postcards. The blog as a whole is viral, rather than each specific postcard (unless it’s a particularly good one).

Why is it viral? The postcards are easy to share and each postcard encapsulates the premise of the site. They combine interesting visuals with juicy secrets, also satisfying the same desire that causes us to watch reality television! There are no ads on the site, but the secrets have been compiled in a book I saw at my local bookstore, all the way down in Melbourne, Australia.

What can we learn from it? I think HughMcLeod’s gaping void blog is viral in the same way: most of the content is embedded in or delivered by imagery. Imagery is easy to share and provides quick and easy entertainment. Your site’s content could be attached to emails, sent via chat, and reproduced elsewhere. You certainly don’t need to make every post like this, but the occasional easy to share image post could add an element of virality to your site.

ICanHasCheezburger.com
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What is it? Pictures of cats, and sometimes animals, with captions written in a particular LOLcats style. The images are funny and easy to share, and they come with the site URL embedded in the bottom, so each reproduction is an ad for the site.

Why is it viral? LOLcats are a relatively recent, new kind of humor. The images have helped make it viral because they’re easy to share. Vast amounts of funny images can be made because the site contains a LOLcats generator that allows readers to quickly create and submit their own captioned LOLcats. Use of the language and slang in forums, on blogs, in headlines and on images has ensure the LOLcats idea spreads far outside the confines of the images.

What can we learn from it? LOLcats are a novelty — a new way of doing an old thing (in this case, being funny). The key to its success, I think, is the LOLcats builder: people will share their own LOLcats even if they don’t make it on to the site. Can you create content that implicitly encourages others to add to it, or build on your foundation?

What can we learn from these examples?

In the next few days I intend to write up some general lessons we can learn from these examples: lessons we can hopefully utilize when crafting our own viral content. I’d also like to release another batch of examples in future in the hope that they’ll provide additional insight into what makes something ‘viral’.

If you’ve seen any viral content lately, I’d be very interested to see it. You can email me or leave the link in the comments section of this post. I’m hoping the suggestions will include some that I never would have thought of!