Is there a formula for viral content?

By Srinivas Rao, Contributing {grow} Columnist

Every now and then I will write a post that meets the following formula:

  • It has a clickable headline (i.e 7 ways to increase traffic, 5 ways to get more followers, etc)
  • It’s something I think will get shared plenty
  • It’s a safe topic that has probably been repeated 1,000 times before

Mark (being the smart guy that he is) never accepts the post and tells me it won’t cut it. That’s why the content at {grow} brings a unique perspective that you won’t find on many other blogs. The writers are held to a different standard, especially if there’s a formula involved!

You Can’t Manufacture Authenticity

And yet, we’re all looking for that magic viral “formula” right?  In the past when I’ve had a blog post go viral, I’ve tried to make an effort to write something that will catch fire again and can rarely reproduce that effect.

A conversation with Danielle Laporte made me realize why. When you approach producing content this way, it’s not authentic. It’s manufactured. It loses the personal touch that makes people read your blog.  To quote Scott Stratten, “what people spread is emotion.”  When you write a post in the hopes of getting tweets, traffic, and likes, you filter your voice through that lens.  It’s  a bit like adding artificial sweetener to your dessert and wondering why it doesn’t taste as good as real sugar.

Stop Trying to Fit In

People who fit in rarely make history. They get lost in the echo chamber. What makes you human is that there is no other person on this planet like you. Infuse that into every blog post you write.  As Mark once said, social media amplifies your competitive advantage, so make sure you leverage it.

Take a Stand

If you’re afraid to offend people or fear people disagreeing with you, get over it. If you want to write something that makes an impact, it’s unlikely it will appeal to everybody.  If you lose some people because of what you write, they may not be the right members for your tribe. As you’ve probably heard before, if you try to appeal to everybody you’ll appeal to nobody.

Create Art, not Marketing Material

One of the things that holds most business blogs back is that  most of their blog posts read like PR puff pieces that promote their products. But we’ve entered an age in which everybody is in the publishing business. Everybody is a creative business owner. So you have to create art, not marketing material. Entertain and inspire.

Ditch the Scripts and Formulas

Scripts, formulas and best practices will only get you so far. You might even be the most popular person in the echo chamber. But if you ever want to get out of the echo chamber you have to ditch the script.  I’d recommend taking a week off from reading any other blogs so you can reconnect with your own voice.

Writing anything formulaic with the intention of inflating vanity metrics is a recipe for mediocrity. Forget the traffic, tweets, likes and comments for a while.  For some reason when you stop keeping score it goes up on its own. Write as if you’ve got nothing to prove and you’ll resonate with your audience in a way you never have before.

Srinivas Rao writes about the things you should have learned in school, but never did and his the host-co founder of BlogcastFM.  You can follow him on twitter @skooloflife

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  • Srinivas, this is excellent advice, and quite possibly the reminder that I needed right now to get back to the topics I get fired up and passionate about. 

    Excellent advice, and glad to hear Mark holds everyone here to that standard as well!

  • It’s a great idea. I think the idea on blogging management is identical with marketing management in business. This article prove it…

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  • Andreas Duess

    Great post, Srinivas. The reason so many people are looking for the magic formula, just like medieval alchemists tried to turn lead into gold, is laziness.

    Being authentic is hard work. Being authentic demands accountability, demands standing up for what you believe. Being authentic demands sacrifices, doing the right thing even if it’s not convenient.

    Not many people are prepared to commit to the above, hoping for the “formula” to do the work instead.

  • Solid advice buddy. Nice to see you at {grow} Good place to be. So, the course I took to to write formulaic blog posts was a waste of time? Dammit 😉 Yes, I wonder if you can write with passion and use some smart approaches to structure to help consistency or is all that just leading the bus into the mediocrity lane?

    I understand the idea of ditching the formula. Feels kinda like ditching school. Andreas below says we are lazy if we use a formulaic approach. I would have to agree with that in conext of creativity but it doesn’t feel that way when writing. I’ve tried it (the formula) and find it much harder to form a cohesive story using a set structure. I wonder, if you have great story ideas, does the formula help bring it to life?

    Thanks for sharing. Love to hear your thoughts or anyone’s for that matter…….

  • Andreas Duess

    Ralph, by formula I don’t mean abandoning tried and tested principles of writing. When I talk about formula, I mean headlines like “Nine reasons why Apple will be bankrupt next year” and “Three ways to triple your twitter followers”.

    I consider headlines like this little more than link-spam, designed to grab attention but typically delivering little but fluff. 

  • Thanks Srinivas,
    What a great insight. I blog on career and work search, and my two best received posts this year were deeply personal, relevant but not didactic. I believe readers crave authenticity over novelty. 

  • Great advice. I know one of my biggest problems as a blogger is following the rules in the first part and over thinking SEO. In the end, it’s all about providing good unique content to your readers!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for bring up so many great points!  As a blogger of a small blog, I’ve found people don’t read my blog for my catchy titles, but rather, they want something real.  I don’t like the idea of trying to “catch” readers, like a lure or bait, I want to attract loyal, engaged readers.  Driving traffic to my site just for the sake of, seems hollow & artificial.

    I liked the artificial sweetener analogy–so true!

  • Srinivas… Dude couldn’t be more on Target with this post.
    You have to be educated to how Content Marketing works.  That is a reality.  You don’t need to be a Guru but you need to educated.

    After that it’s all about Authenticity, Trust and Voice.  

    And work… 

    Very good stuff.


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  •  Eric, 

    Glad you found it useful. The real irony of this post is I wrote it because I was completely stuck on what to write about. I kept thinking “how do I write something that will get lots of traffic” and this idea was the byproduct. 

  • Laziness is a tough one. I see friends who have me help them start blogs and they don’t realize that people who have really crushed it have put over 1000 days of work into their efforts. It’s definitely hard to be authentic because it takes longer to be successful when you are. Sure you might get lots of traffic with a 10 ways to grow your fans post. But is that really going to connect you as as voice to pay attention to?  I don’t think so obviously.   Even with a formula, the key to using it successfully is adaptation. 

  • I think it’s ok to use some headlines. The key is not to become dependent on them as your formula for success. When I wrote the most popular post on my blog, I didn’t do it so it would go viral. I saw it and thought “yeah, 5 ways to give yourself an education that kicks the crap out of the one you got in school works.” But  the content supported it too, and I wrote it with the intention of creating something useful.  The way I see it formulas are like training wheels for finding your voice as a writer. 

  • When you’re very personal and vulnerable your readers relate to you so much more.  Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Yeah, I think we can get a bit crazy about overthinking SEO. But I have actually talked to really successful bloggers (i.e people who got book deals) who didn’t know the first thing about SEO. 

  • I’m glad you liked the artificial sweetener analogy. I was a bit concerned the diabetics in the audience might take it the wrong way. But the idea came from my dad who is diabetic and has desserts with artificial sweetener. 

  • Thanks Ryan. I hate the term “guru” because it’s like placing people on a level above others like we should take their word as gospel.  Authenticity is something you can’t fake.  When you’re raw and real with your content, people connect with it. If you try to paint yourself as an unflawed superhero, it’s a bit bogus. 

  • Couldn’t agree more! You should always aim for shareable, interesting content that gets your point across first and foremost – and really, what’s the point in going viral if your message isn’t clear and compelling?

    Thank you for a great post; this is excellent advice for anyone looking to draw a bigger audience to their blog.Helen Androlia, Community

  • Hi Srini,

    You can create a name for yourself by solving problems and providing something that is worthwhile and meaningful, well yes, but injecting your personality into the mix makes it that much more special, right?

    I also think simply being yourself is the only sustainable formula. Playing a part can get old.

    I really, really struggle with headlines and think I’ve read 1,000 posts on how to create the most magnetic headlines. I’ve sure done my share of them, but oftentimes I make that decision because I can’t come up with a unique headline I’m truly happy with. Sometimes the boilerplate works, but I’m not always 100% happy with it.

  • So true! Some of the best-written blog posts I’ve done did not go viral while others, for which I had done minimal effort and did not think much of, did go viral. Why? Hard to tell, but most likely because the latter was written more instinctively and resonated with more people than the former. This is great post, by the way. And very likely to go viral… 😉

  • Thanks Helen 

    I’m glad it resonated with you. It seems to have struck a chord with many people and I’m really grateful for that.  I think that you learn something from your audience reaction to each post. 

  • The headline is one of the most complicated things in any post. I think some of the professional copywriters might go nuts if they read this because I’ve kind of said to forget about those headlines. Don’t get me wrong I think a good title is important. But where it really starts is with your intention. IF the intention is create something of lasting value, something that will be truly useful, then you’ve really got it down. 

  • Frederic, 

    I’ve experienced exactly what you’re talking about. I think when we try to identify that it factor we kill it. But when we create art, that’s when the real magic happens. 

  • I loved this post. Thanks Srinivas.

  • Lovely article. Very true and touching. As someone who writes first and foremost I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. And I can promise you, after reading about a hundred blog posts about blogging, I’ll definitely take some time off and find my inner blogging voice! 

  • Thanks Elizabeth. It’s kind of challenging because we’re constantly told to connect and learn from other people and I have no doubts that it influences us, but at the same time unplugging can get you back in touch with your own voice. 

  • Thank you 🙂

  • Dimitris Ioannidis

    For someone like me who is trying his first steps on blogging, this was the best piece of advice I have taken.
    Thank you

  • Anonymous

    This is excellent advice for going viral. Here’s another good resource for viral marketing:

  • This is so good, Srinivas, I had to print it to keep it for reference on my desk. It’s so easy to lose your voice and follow a formula, especially when everyone pushes SEO and likes and follows.

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