The science of going viral

reading blogs

(From the graphic, The Science of Social Timing, by Kissmetrics)

By Amy Dunkle | Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

There was a time before we got our news from the Internet, before we had 24/7 access to content and the ability search for information anywhere, all from a handheld, palm-sized device.

Writing was packaged for us to read and put in front of our eyes at a specific time. Newspapers arrived either in the morning or afternoon, magazines weekly or monthly. The nightly television news broadcast once, early in the evening. A captive audience, we were bound by the constraints of news editors, who decided what we needed and guessed at what we wanted to know.

A breaking news cycle dictated when stories would be released, catering to specific times to gain the most attention and largest audience. None of that holds true today. Even a 3 a.m. tweet, depending on its content, won’t necessarily languish in obscurity even though most people in the time zone are asleep.

To some extent, serendipity plays a role, whether someone sees or hears what is written or said. But, going viral is hardly happenstance. There is science in communication.

The ability to track what works and what doesn’t has spawned an entire industry — content marketing — to parse consumption data and guide what and how we write as well as the timing and delivery to gain audience share. Although aimed at marketing, the information has value for publishing any type of content.

BuzzSumo graphic
(Graphic by BuzzSumo)

Earlier this spring, on his OkDork blog, Noah Kagan offered “Why Content Goes Viral: What Analyzing 100 Million Articles Taught Us,” based on the analytical work of BuzzSumo, a website that “provides insights into the most popular content online and the influencers sharing it.”

Broken down into a 10-point list, because “10 is the magic number for lists,” BuzzSumo explains the difference between long and short posts (long gets more shares), importance of an image (use at least one), popularity of lists (people like them), value of trustworthiness (trust has value), and the multiplier effect (a little help from my friends). Apparently, Tuesday is the best day to share overall, on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. For LinkedIn and Pinterest, drop content on Monday.

An infographic by Kissmetrics looks specifically at the science of blogging and considers the pros and cons of more vs. less posts, the different reading habits of men and women, which days are best for traffic (Monday) and comments (Saturday), and the impact of frequency.

One key takeaway is that there is a lot of content and platform information available, and the amount seems to grow exponentially with every Google search, making it much too easy to get overwhelmed and overthink the entire process. So, add these common sense rules to the mix:

  • Dip your toes in the water — write, post, blog, Tweet, Facebook, whatever suits you best
  • Pay attention and keep track — what was the timing and content of a popular post and, conversely, the painfully ignored
  • Weather the storms — don’t make rash decisions based on an angry comment or lack of attention
  • Be patient — as with any experiment, it takes time to gather data; cast your line, let the content dangle and see what you catch
  • Observe others — follow and read other people, and take notice of their impact and results
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