Viral By Design: 3 Social Media Secrets

How Upworthy Crafts Viral Social Media Success

Viral Social Media SuccessWant to create a viral social media success?

Then, take a page from Upworthy’s viral playbook.

Upworthy averaged 60,000+ shares per article, roughly 5 times Buzzfeed’s rate as noted in How To Improve Your Content Based On 2.6 Billion Social Media Shares.

Here’s how Upworthy’s content stacks up.

  • 56% of Upworthy posts don’t break 10,000 views.
  • 5% of Upworthy posts broke 100,000 views.
  • 0.3% or 5 of Upworthy posts broke 1 million views.

Understand that not every post is going to be a viral social media success. Luck and timing DO influence your social media results.

While getting your colleagues and followers to click on your content and share it is important, the key to viral social media success is getting their colleagues and followers to click on your content and share it with their social connections.

To this end, find the middle ground between entertainment and emotional connection.

Upworthy Viral Definition-2

3 Elements of viral social media success

Underlying viral social media success are 3 elements. They are at the heart of effective content curation.Viral Social Media Success

1. Discover epic content.

Viral content has a great story with a hero and a villain involved in an emotional drama that has a “super inspiring message”,  in Upworthy’s words.

Based on Fractl and Imagur’s virality survey of  800 men and women between 18 and 54 they found the following 3 factors needed for virality.

  1. Generate a positive emotional reaction. There was a significant correlation between content views and positive feelings (specifically joy, interest, anticipation and trust). Viral Images Inspire Positive Feelings-Fractil-1
  2. Arouse diverse, complex emotional responses to encourage sharing. Includes both positive and negative feelings.
  3. Add an element of surprise. Include an unexpected twist in what you share.


2. Improve the content’s framing.

Position your social media content to make it so persuasive your audience can’t resist finding out more. “If you don’t make it compelling enough to click and share no one will find it. “ according to Upworthy.

Remember you can’t give away your key information in the headline, share image, or share text or there’s no reason to read or click further.

I learned this the hard way. My ClickZ article entitled: “27.7% of Senior Management Champion Social Media – Does Yours?” garnered lots of social shares when it was published. BUT very few people clicked through to read it since the punch line was in the title.

Here are the 5 factors to improve your social media framing.

1. Leverage the power of authority in your share text. Play to the social media notion of scarcity. Don’t just focus on benefits. Add commentary about what’s unique about the content and what readers may lose by not acting on it. Include an element of FOMO (fear of missing out).

2. Remember:  your social share headline is critical to content consumption. This echoes David Ogilvy’s headline rule: only 20% of your readers will ever get beyond your headline.

Upworthy follows  the 25 Headline Rule. You must draft at least 25 headlines before choosing the best ones to test. Upworthy Title Test

Incorporate a curiosity gap into your social media headlines. Specifically, be clever but NOT TOO clever. Always allow your reader to form their own opinion. (Need more headline tips? Check: “The Secret to Headlines That Attract Readers and Shares Every Time.”)

3. Optimize your content to encourage clicking on social media. Take the time to re-imagine your social media commentary to target your core audience and hit their hot buttons. To this end, create a social media persona.

4. Select an image to associate with your shared content that attracts shares and reshares. This isn’t just based on Upworthy’s experience. Academic research on virality of images on Google+ proves this point. (Here’s a complete analysis of the research including 5 keys to social media use of photographs.)

5 of Upworthy’s secrets to amazing social sharing photos are: pit X versus Y; heavily annotate your image; use video; include screenshots, arouse curiosity, and keep it PG-13.

No one cares about your logo on social media!!!

Instead, use interesting celebrity photos, cutest things in the world photos, a weird face close up, or a combination of a cute-weird face but skip adding your logo.

5. Consider your mother when crafting your social media content. Women are key to massive sharing and, like your mom, they expect a level of social acceptability.

3. Promote your content for the world to see.

Upworthy focused their social media attention on Facebook since it’s where people spend their time on social media. According to BuzzSumo and research of 1 million articles, Facebook had 81.9% of all the shares in the study, over 4 times the amount of all the other networks combinedsocial shares by platform

This is another way of saying that you must spend a significant portion of your content marketing time on distribution, not  creation. Here are 5 social sharing powerhouses you need.

BrightEdge’s analysis of 4+ million tweets found that including a Twitter button increased Twitter mentions almost sevenfold.

  • Sites with a tweet button were mentioned 27 times and
  • Sites without a Twitter share button were mentioned 4 times.

Incorporate social sharing buttons into your content presentation. Don’t make your potential audience have to think or search to share your content.

Use persistent share buttons that hover adjacent to the content as readers scroll through. Upworthy measured a 398% improvement in shares with this test.

Showcase influencers’ commentary on your socially shared content. By highlighting famous commenters and sharers on their post page, Upworthy generated a 10-30% increase in likes.

While difficult for newbies, test using egobait to attract influencer attention. Include something  worthwhile for the influencer such as promoting or linking to their work. Don’t just use their name to trick them into clicking on your information. It doesn’t work!!! (Also get your employees to help you build your social media profile.)

Incorporate a call-to-action to encourage sharing. Upworthy tested a call-to-action button and it yielded a 419% lift. Dan Zarrella found that your call-to-action’s wording mattered on Twitter, specifically “please help” and “please retweet”.

Optimize your website to continually improve your user experience (or UX). Always be testing to increasing social media shares. Your website is your path to sharing. For example, Upworthy considered delaying the appearance of their Facebook slider by 16 seconds and increased likes by 70%.


While no one can guarantee that your content will go viral, the benefits of a viral social media success are so great that it’s worth testing every element of your social media sharing.

If you’ve had a viral social media success, what were the salient factors?

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen



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