Why do certain articles go viral? It’s the holy grail every editor and web producer has been seeking since social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter became important components to every newsroom. Nothing is more frustrating that to see a well-reported, carefully-crafted story fizzle out online in the span of a couple of hours.
So what steps can online editors take, at media organizations both large and small, to maximize a piece of content’s chances online?
BuzzSumo was created back in 2012 by Henley Wing and James Blackwell to do just that—analyze trends in social media, and track influencers and sharers in an attempt to quantify sharing online. For social media editors, a visit to BuzzSumo’s website is like a Sunday trip to the candy store, as their simple (and free) service allows you to search the most shared topics based on a keyword or domain.
“I think if you start any sort of analysis without clear questions in mind that you want to answer, you’ll struggle,” says Buzzsumo co-founder James Blackwell. Blackwell and his team aimed to answer three key questions: What content do people love to share, what were the factors that contributed to its success, and how can creators improve the shareability of content?
Newspapers actually have a bit of a leg up when it comes to sharing content online. In addition to the obvious advantages of having a built-in base of readers and editors who are trained at optimizing headlines, the trust a newspaper has built over the years actually contributes a great deal to more shares online.
“Typically, legacy media is more highly trusted, whereas a new blog might struggle to achieve the same level of respect as a print newspaper,” said Blackwell. “We found that unsurprisingly, people share content that looks trustworthy.”
The company has tracked over 100 million urls and 1 billion social shares over the last eight months, and as you’d expect, their treasure trove of data reveals interesting (and at times, surprising) trends on how to give your content the best chance at attaining the social media lifespan it deserves.
Conveniently, here are five things for editors to consider when it comes to sharing content on social media:
1. Long-form content is shared more than short-form content
This may seem extremely counterintuitive, considering the growth in mobile traffic and the popularity of short videos. BuzzSumo analyzed the top 10 percent of the most shared articles and found that, on average, long-form content has the edge when it comes to sharing online.
This surprising fact is backed up by a University of Pennsylvania study that found that longer New York Times articles were more likely to be emailed to friends. Obviously, this is a huge advantage for newspapers, which are still willing to put in the time and effort for in-depth reporting and investigative journalism.
Still, make sure you avoid simply cutting and pasting a wall of text into your content management system, and keep your longest pieces easy to scan. If you don’t have photos or graphics available to break up the text, sub-headlines and bullet points can do the trick.
2. Images are vital to success in social media
With the Chicago Sun-Times and others making their photographers expendable, you might think the web doesn’t value art as much as its print counterpart. According to the data, the opposite is true—twice as many people share posts with at least one image, underscoring the importance of mixing stories with interesting visual content.
“Infographics are also typically one of the most shared content types, reinforcing the hypothesis that people simply prefer to share more visual content,” says Blackwell. And it’s not just true for Facebook—posts with images perform substantially better on Twitter than those without.
In fact, infographics receive more shares on average than almost every other content type. Surprisingly, how-to posts and videos are among the worst-performing types of content when it comes to sharing.
3. Invoke an emotion, whether it’s awe, laughter or amusement
“Our research revealed that 8 out of 10 of the most shared posts over the last eight months were quizzes,” Blackwell said. For any editors on Facebook, it’s fascinating, but not surprising, as BuzzFeed quizzes seem to litter everyone’s newsfeed on a daily basis.
So what can newsrooms do, other than replace their reporting with quizzes?
The New York Times actually did a thorough study of story sharing a few years back, and discovered that media organizations should aim to appeal to their readers’ motivation to connect with each other—not just with their product. “People tend to share for selfish reasons, to help define themselves,” says Blackwell.
So try to share and spotlight content that appeals to your readers’ narcissistic side. BuzzSumo’s research shows that awe, laughter and amusement are the most likely reasons a reader shares content, while negative emotions like anger and sadness didn’t perform quite as well.
This may be obvious to some, but lists also proved popular when it comes to sharing. They give readers an exact idea of what to expect while piquing their curiosity, and they tend to be skim-friendly and easy to consume. If you want to experiment with lists, BuzzSumo’s data shows that 10 is the magic number, netting four times as many social shares as the second most popular list number: 23.
4. The beginning of the week is important for social media
Newspapers publish content every day, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to consider when to share a story online. According to BuzzSumo’s research, content typically gets the most shares on Monday or Tuesday, depending on the social network.
So how can newspapers take advantage of this? Perhaps online editors should consider not sharing Sunday’s cover story until Monday, to maximize its reach on social media. Or track when your main audience is online, and maximize sharing during that time frame.
“The really important thing to keep in mind is not to overload your audience,” Blackwell says, noting that it’s important to share content with intervals in between. “Nothing is worse than when a single user fills your timeline or feed,” he says.
5. Re-promote your evergreen content
BuzzSumo’s research shows that after three days, the number of shares across all social networks drops at least 96 percent, with Facebook plummeting the most. While most content produced by newsrooms has a short shelf life, there are plenty of features, in-depth stories and investigative pieces produced by most media companies that are evergreen, and could benefit from more social promotion.
Editors should experiment with sharing a story from the weekend again at the end of the following week, or re-sharing a feature story about an athlete as an important game nears. BuzzSumo’s research suggests it’s best to wait at least a week until resharing, and pick your battles strategically.
Obviously, there’s no guarantee following these steps will lead to viral success. And journalism requires more balance than the simple desire to drive traffic. However, BuzzSumo co-founder Henley Wing notes that it doesn’t hurt newsrooms to use data to consider ways to optimize their content to increase its reach. “When all else fails,” he says, “just put up a Dilbert comic.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.