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Going Viral: Learn How to Write Popular Posts from This Blogger’s Success

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Paula Pant Going viral: we all want it, yet it seems impossible to achieve unless you’re already a popular blogger. What about up-and-comers? Do we have any chance of hitting that traffic jackpot with one of our posts?

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Paula Pant about how she writes popular posts. Paula will be speaking about the art of jaw-dropping content at NMX 2014 (get your tickets here). Here’s a little preview of what you can expect at the show:

Allison: What has been your most popular post of all time and why do you think it was?

Paula: My most popular post is one that I think the NMX community would also love: Stop Crying That There Are No Jobs. Create One.

I wrote this post after speaking back-to-back at two conferences: one for journalists, and one for bloggers.

I felt that many of the people I met at the journalism conference were feeling pessimistic about the future. Newsrooms were on hiring freezes, were laying off their reporters, or were shutting down entirely. Major newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News had recently collapsed. There was an undercurrent of “we’re screwed.”

Then I went to a blogger conference. Most of the people there had no formal training in writing or storytelling. But they were ultra-optimistic about the future. They spotted online opportunity everywhere they looked.

I’m a journalist-turned-blogger, and I write about shattering limits, ditching the cubicle, and living life on your own terms. My readers are the type of people who refuse to get confined by limits. If no one will create a job for them, they’ll create one for themselves. That’s the Afford Anything way of life.

You write so many awesome posts – what do you think it was about this one in particular that resonated with so many people?

I’ve intentionally cultivated a readership that loves the idea of entrepreneurship, location independence, freedom, and controlling your destiny. The themes of this post fit my readership perfectly, and I used storytelling as my tool to illustrate that theme.

This isn’t an instructional post — it’s a motivational post — but not in the cliche-drenched, “rah-rah” cheerleader sense of the word. It motivates through telling a true-life story, not through reiterating feel-good slogans. Storytelling is our most primal form of linguistic communication; even young children love hearing stories.

How did you come up with a title for your post? Do you think that the controversial message contributed to the popularity?

Prior to this article, I wrote gentle headlines. The headline of this particular article is far more “in-your-face” than what I usually wrote.

After I saw it’s success, I began writing more controversial and opinionated headlines, such as “Quit Thinking About Consumption. Start Thinking About Creation,” and “The Rebel with a Retirement Plan.”

Popular posts are great, but as we all know, readers’ attention spans are limited. How do you keep people engaged after reading the post instead of bouncing onto the next thing?

I keep a call-to-action at the bottom of each blog post, encouraging readers to join my email list. After all, my goal is list-building, not just pageviews. I also internally link from the article to numerous other articles, use the nRelate plugin and the LinkWithin widget, and keep a list of my most popular posts on the right-hand sidebar site-wide. Lately I’ve also started using Opt In Monster to increase my list sign-ups, as well. I’ve been pleased to see that I consistently have strong metrics in average time-on-site and pages-per-visit.

When you were writing this post, did you have any idea how popular it would be? Or did it surprise you?

I had no idea that this post would become so popular. To be perfectly honest, I feel as though I’ve written plenty of posts that are better than this one. But my readers seem to adopt a different view.

I’ve found, in general, that the posts that become most popular catch me off-guard. I’ve learned to stop making any predictions about which posts will leap to the top of my most popular list. Instead, I focus more on the process — writing top-notch posts — and allow the results to unfold as they will.

Thanks, Paula, for a great interview! Remember, you can grab a ticket to see Paula speak live at NMX 2014. Make sure you’re in the audience to ask her any questions you might have about writing great content that goes viral!

24 Brilliant Bloggers Talk About Writing Viral Posts

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Brilliant Bloggers is a bi-weekly series here at NMX where we look at the best posts from around the web all surrounding a specific topic. Every other week, we’ll feature a brilliant blogger, along with a huge list of more resources where you can learn about the topic. You can see more Brilliant Blogger posts or learn how to submit your link for an upcoming edition here.

This Week’s Topic: Writing Viral Posts

We all dream of waking up one morning to find that a post we wrote exploded over night and drove millions of new readers to your blog. Heck, forget millions most of us would be happy driving thousands or even hundreds of new readers to a post. We all cross our fingers that one of our posts will go viral, but the fact is that this isn’t common no matter how good your content may be.

Viral posts spread like an infection – fast and to many people. But what exactly defines a post as viral? And how do you replicate this success again and again on your blog? This week’s Brilliant Bloggers is all about how to write posts that set you up for this success. There may be no silver bullet formula you can follow that guarantees your post will go viral, but you can at least nudge things in your favor as much as possible!

Brilliant Blogger of the Week:

leo widrich What Makes Content Spread: The Anatomy of a Post that Got Over 500,000 Likes by Leo Widrich

If anyone knows a thing or two about viral posts, it’s the guys from Buffer, who see people sharing certain posts (and not sharing others) every day. In this post from Buffer’s Leo Widrich, the entire process of going viral is broken down into chunks, using a specific popular post as a case study. If you’re writing great content, but just can’t seem to reach that viral level, this is a post you need to read.

Also, make sure you follow Leo on Twitter at @LeoWid and check out Buffer as a content-sharing tool. Disclosure: they’ve exhibited at our conference in the past, but I wouldn’t recommend Buffer if I didn’t think this was an amazing tool.

Even More Brilliant Advice:

  1. 7 Steps to Create a Viral Blog Post by Jason Delodovici (@jdelodovici)
  2. 11 Tips to Write a Killer Blog Post that Can Go Viral by Nandita B. (@nanditaSEO)
  3. Create Powerful Viral Blog Posts With This Ten Point Plan by Scott Dudley (@ScottDudley)
  4. Five Easy Tips To Write Viral Blog Posts by Gary Lawood (@lawmacs)
  5. Forget SEO: Here’s How to Write a Post That Goes Viral by Neil Patel (@neilpatel)
  6. Go Viral: How To Write A Successful Blog Post by Josh Ebsworth (@CW_JoshE)
  7. Going Viral: Analyzing the Shared Characteristics Behind Viral Blog Posts by Tom Ewer (@tomewer)
  8. How I Used Twitter to Attract 34,771 Unique Web Hits by Derek Halpern (@derekhalpern)
  9. How to Go Viral with Your Blog Post by Terri Lee Ryan (@TerriLeeRyan)
  10. How To Plan And Write A Blog Post To Go Viral by Francisco Rosales (@socialmouths)
  11. How to Write Articles That Go Viral by Daniel Zeevi (@DashBurst)
  12. How to Write Copy that Goes Viral by Seth Godin (@ThisIsSethsBlog)
  13. How To Write For Viral Marketing by Chris Lentzy (@chrislentzy)
  14. How to Write Posts that Go Viral by Onibalusi Bamidele (@youngprepro)
  15. How to Write Posts that Go Viral in Social Media by Leslie Anglesey
  16. New Blogger? Create a Viral Post in 5 Simple Steps! by Greg Digneo (@GregDigneo)
  17. No More Blah Blogs: Let’s Go Viral by Hannah Kaufman for Savvy Panda (@savvypanda)
  18. Our Viral Blog Post Formula by Caitlyn Muir (@scribblinghappy)
  19. The Simple Secret Behind Writing Viral Blog Posts by Srivathsan G.K. (@dangerdiabolick)
  20. The Truth About Going Viral: What I Did After 1 Million People Stopped By My Blog by Jeff Goins (@JeffGoins)
  21. The Ultimate Guide to Creating Viral Content by Neil Davidson (@WEBPRESENTER)
  22. Who Else Wants to Write Viral Blog Posts? by Jasmine
  23. Why Content Goes Viral: the Theory and Proof by Carson Ward (@carson_ward)

Did I miss your post or a post by someone you know about writing viral posts? Unintentional! Help me out by leaving a comment below with the link.

Next Brilliant Blogger Topic: Hosting Webinars

I’d love to include a link to your post in our next installment– and if you head to the Brilliant Bloggers Schedule, you can see even more upcoming posts. We all have something to learn from one another, so please don’t be shy! Head to the schedule today to learn how to submit your post so I won’t miss it.

Why Going Viral Might Not Matter Anymore

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People talk a lot about creating content that “goes viral.” There’s no one definition of what viral really means in terms of raw numbers, but typically something viral causes a huge traffic spike. For some blogs, that’s 10,000 hits. For others, it’s a million.

Regardless of traffic goals, I think some companies and content creators are putting too much focus on the goal of going viral. I would even argue that creating viral content doesn’t matter as much as it once did. Let’s explore viral content a bit with a few mini case studies.

Funneling the Traffic

One of the problems I see often with so-called viral content is that people can’t even tell you who created it. A good example? The petite lap giraffe commercials. You may still remember them from last year when these commercials were being promoted like crazy both online and through traditional television appearances.

This time last year, hundreds of thousands of people even signed up on their mock site to say, “I want a petite lap giraffe too!” It was a very cute idea.

But can you tell me the company being advertised in these commercials?

I would venture to guess that most people cannot. I know I couldn’t without looking it up. The answer is DirecTV. Now, maybe when these videos first created a craze more people could answer that question correctly, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have been able to…and I loved those commercials.

My point is, going viral doesn’t matter if people don’t know or care who you are. Your viral content should funnel them to some sort of action – clicking through to other videos, subscribing to your mailing list, becoming a fan of your blog, buying a product. Spreading a single video or other piece of content is not enough if the action ends there – and with most viral content, that’s the case.

In other words, if you don’t see a sales spike (or subscriber spike if that’s your goal) along with your traffic spike, viral content doesn’t really matter.

Confusing the Audience

Often, the lack of sales or other action on the users’ parts is because viral content attacks the wrong market. In order to make something “go viral” you usually have to think outside the box. The content has to be funny, unique, original, emotional or somehow otherwise worth sharing. Being useful isn’t enough.”Viral” only happens when people need to share your content because they want to be the first to show their friends.

The problem is, most content that fits this bill gets away from your brand/blog’s goal or purpose, at least a bit.

Earlier this year, I had a call with a potential client who wanted me to produce content for his blog, with the aim of everything I did having super viral potential. Now, you all know as well as I do that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. So, I tried to get that across to the client, to tell him that I could focus on topics with the potential to be very popular, but I couldn’t guarantee that anything would go viral.

His response? “Add more cats. People love cats. That sh*t goes viral in a second.”

Erm. Okay, great. Only…his blog has nothing to do with cats. He went on to talk about how a funny cat video at least once or twice a month would be optimal, and while I agreed that this would certainly be popular if marketed correctly, I couldn’t seem to get through to him that it wouldn’t really help his blog or ultimately his business, which had to do with finance.

When you move away from your content too much for the sake of creating something that will go viral, what’s the point? People who view a cute cat video aren’t going to want to read a financial blog (most of the time at least). It’s too far of a leap. Now, maybe I can do some spin-off posts using that idea, like “What your pet can teach you about budgeting” or whatnot…but there has to be that tie-in. Otherwise, you’ll confuse anyone in your audience who does choose to check out the rest of your site. People who follow-up with the makers of viral content expect more of the same. If you don’t deliver, they don’t stick around.

Viral for All the Wrong Reasons

Viral content also doesn’t make sense if you don’t go viral “correctly” – and that’s hard to control. A good example – anyone want to guess what post Technorati crowned as the most popular (most linked) in 2011? It was a post from Netflix called “Explanation and Some Reflection” in which Netflix admitted their attempts to restructure the company were a mistake. Most bloggers would be ecstatic to have the most popular blog post of the year…but unfortunately, I’m willing to guess that most of the links back to that post were critical. It went viral for all the wrong reasons.

Now, I don’t think Netflix COE Reed Hastings wrote this post in order to drum up some traffic. It was damage control for the company. But what I do see a lot of content creators doing is publishing posts that are extremely controversial for the sake of controversy. They call out popular bloggers or experts in their field, trying to bait them into a reaction. They slam stuff everyone likes. They voice opinions they don’t believe in order to get people to click.

Be controversial…but be genuine too. If not, you’ll go viral for all the wrong reasons, and unfortunately, negativity toward a company or blog is something people remember. You didn’t remember who made petite lap giraffes popular, but I bet you remember which company’s CEO went on an infamous hunt in Africa and tweeted pictures of himself with dead animals.

Going viral isn’t always a good thing, no matter what kind of traffic spikes you see. Again, you need to focus on your end goals, whether that goal is to make sales, get subscribers, build a brand, or something else. If your viral content isn’t helping you achieve these goals, the traffic doesn’t matter.

It’s an ROI Game

I know people cringe when they have to talk about ROI, but that’s really the game here. Viral content isn’t something, in most cases, that you throw together. It’s usually stuff that takes a lot of work. So are you getting a return on investment for your work?

Traffic is not a return. That’s where a lot of people go wrong. Traffic is just the middle man on the way to the real return – your goal. That’s what you need to be measuring, not the crazy traffic spikes you’re seeing.

To give an example, let’s say I spend 10 hours creating a funny video for BlogWorld that goes viral. I use a special link code and determine that the 100,000 hits I got on the video translated into 100 tickets sales for our event. Now let’s say I instead write 10 posts that take me an hour each to write, and each gets about 5,000 hits and leads to 20 ticket sales (because the content is more relevant to the type of people willing to buy tickets than a funny video is). Those ten posts combined netted more ticket sales for BlogWorld. It was a better use of my time, even if the video traffic was nice and flashy.

Or course, it’s not always so cut and dry. Maybe the 100 video sales were people who had never heard of BlogWorld before, while most of the 200 post sales were people who were going to eventually buy tickets anyway. Or maybe some of the video traffic led to fans who weren’t ready to buy today, but who will consider future BlogWorld events.

The point is, study your stats beyond traffic. It’s find to hope your content goes viral, but it might not matter was much as you think. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race after all.

Invisible Children’s Co-Founder Naked and Detained: Was the Viral Success Too Much?

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It’s been a whirl-wind few weeks for co-founder of Invisible Children and Kony 2012 creator Jason Russell (pictured at left). As of writing this post, the Kony 2012 video has over 79.9 million views and over 1.3 million likes on YouTube. Along with viral success, however, comes extreme scrutiny, and Invisible Children has been both attacked and defended since the release of the video.

I can’t imagine how that kind of pressure feels, and it seems like Russell, 33, found his breaking point. Last night, he was  detained by San Diego police for “being drunk in public and masturbating,” according to a San Diego affiliate. Police say they received calls about a man running through the streets in his underwear, vandalizing cars, and screaming. Apparently he was totally naked and pounding his fists on the pavement at one point, as this video shows (warning, you totally see tushie if you go to that link, albeit from afar).

Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey released a statement today, saying:

Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.

Russell wasn’t actually arrested, only detained and sent to a medical facility for treatment. Police have said that he appeared to be under the influence of something, but there are no reports yet about what actually happened. Was he drunk? Was he on drugs? And if so, was he under the influence due to his own choices or was he drugged? It’s all speculation right now.

I think the question this raises for all of us, however, is this: just how prepared are we for success?

We talk a lot about failure. No blogger, podcaster, or other online content creator is a stranger to failure, and even the most successful among us don’t always make winning decisions. We talk about how important it is to pick up and move on, to learn from our mistakes, to be better next time. We’re ready to deal with failures.

But what about dealing with success? And not just from a technical standpoint. I’ve seen people talk about how important it is to be prepared for server overloads, dozens of emails every minute, and other growing pain problems that happen when you have a viral hit. What I think it even more important, though, it to be mentally ready for it.

  • Are you ready to be under an intense magnifying glass, with every mistake in your past brought to light?
  • Are you ready for your every move to be watched in case you make more mistakes?
  • Are you ready for the people in your life to be sucked into the Internet celebrity tornado?
  • Are you ready to deal with the trolls, who are jerks even when you’re not making mistakes?
  • Are you ready to question yourself even more than normal?
  • Are you ready be under intense pressure to replicate your success?
  • Are you ready for people to treat you like a hero or expert?

Success is not an easy thing. It doesn’t matter what your industry. Once, when I was working for institutional advancement at a college, we were awarded a million-dollar grant through a state programs – the largest in our school’s history. Our lead grant writer, who headed up the project, ended up having to take some time off because she was overwhelmed by the pressure. And I don’t blame her – even as a lowly student worker who did little more than proofreading on the project, it was overwhelming to fight for something and then suddenly have that level of success.

So what I hope you take from Russell’s story is not that Invisible Children or Kony 2012 is worthless or a joke, but rather that success is difficult and when unprepared for it, even the strongest people break. This is something that we all need to understand as online content creators with the ability for our work to go viral.

Picture by Jane Rahman, used under the Creative Commons attribution license.

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