What Makes Content Spread: The Anatomy of a Post That Got Over 500,000 Likes

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This month, I was kindly invited to speak at a conference in Las Vegas. In the audience of my panel session were two people, Marc and Angel Chernoff, whom I’ve admired for a long time.

When I was lucky enough to be able to get dinner with them afterwards, I told them that I’d have loved to switch roles and be in the audience listening to their advice.

Why? Marc and Angel run one of the most incredible blogs at marcandangel.com. They publish inspiring content that regularly spreads across social media, garnering thousands if not hundreds of thousands of social shares.

Over dinner, we talked a lot about blogging and blogging strategies. One of the most fascinating pieces Marc and Angel have written is a post that got more than 500,000 likes, 20,000 Tweets and several more thousand shares on other social networks. Here is the title and link to the post for you to look up yourself:

“30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself” 

Why did this post go so viral? We discussed a lot of different things they learned from writing it and hundreds of other articles over the past seven years. Marc and Angel (on the right), had been writing content for a long time already, so lots of different factors have brought them the success they see today. I thought I’d discuss the most important elements we talked about for more of us to learn from.

Here are the 6 most important ingredients, according to these bloggers, to achieve viral impact wit your content:

1.) The science of persuasion: Nailing the fear of “missing out”

One key thing Marc and Angel mentioned to me is that they actually wrote two similar posts: One was titled “30 Things to Start Doing for Yourself” and the other, “30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself.” The second, more negative one performed better. They said using negative words like “stop,” “avoid,” “don’t” and similar in other posts always led to better performance.

Marc and Angel’s reasoning was that everyone wants to find out if there’s something they’re doing that they should stop.

“If there are 30 things you need to stop doing to yourself, I better check if there are any I’m still doing today,” said Marc to describe the thinking and motivation behind why a reader might want to read and then share the article.

It goes hand-in-hand with what Robert Cialdini calls one of the laws of persuasion: scarcity and missing out.

If you are writing something that’s unique that people might have a feeling of otherwise missing out on, then this is a fantastic trigger to get people interested in your content.

2.) We only read 20% of web pages – make your content easy to skim read

“On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” ~ Nielson

Another point that I discussed with Marc and Angel was that list posts have a unique appeal for readers online. The reason is simple: we all love bite-sized information on the web. A list article is the perfect format for this. A post that gives you “30 Things” is very powerful. On the one hand, you know that you can just pick out a few of the 30 things, so it is easy to skim. On the other, if all of those individual 30 points are very interesting and useful, just reading one of the 30, can be all it takes to share it with a friend.

3.) We all want to learn something and get smarter – it’s science!

A third point is that Marc and Angel’s article is filled with very hands-on, practical tips that you can put into practice today. Each of the 30 points is very well thought-out with practical advice, and there are even followups suggestions for books on the same topic.

After we discussed that people feel that a “30 Things To” article creates a strong feeling of getting smarter and learning something, I also found a great piece of new science to back it all up.

One of the most important elements for a piece of content to spread is its level of “Practical Utility,” as detailed by a recent study looking at sharing of articles from the New York Times. Moz also put together a fantastic graphic showing that “utility” can be the biggest driver of content spreading virally:

4.) Sharing buttons make content 7 times more likely to spread

Another crucial point that I observe again and again is the power of sharing buttons. This seems so obvious that it’s almost not worth mentioning. Yet, over and over, I see where sharing buttons are greatly undervalued and hurt the virality of the post. In case of Marc and Angel’s blog, they prominently feature sharing buttons both before and after each post:

A recent study from BrightEdge showed that content with sharing buttons is 7 more times more likely to spread than content without:

Adding great sharing buttons couldn’t be any easier. Try Digg Digg or any other great WordPress plugin out there.

Marc and Angel’s hit post mostly spread through Twitter and Facebook. Only afterwards did it get picked up by Reddit, Lifehacker and others. Even more reason to focus on sharing buttons.

5.) Length of content and virality go hand in hand

If you even take a few minutes to browse Marc and Angel’s blog, you will see that each piece of content has great depth and detail. There is not a single short-form post in there. And for good reason. Coming back to our New York Times study on what makes content go viral, length is one of the most important elements.

The hardest part with writing long form content is to keep up the quality throughout the whole article. And I think that is something Marc and Angel have absolutely nailed. Make sure that if you write a “30 things” list post, that your 1st point provides as much value to the reader as your 30th.

6.) Consistency and authority – Marc and Angel have been blogging since 2006

Through trial and error, Marc and Angel have tested dozens of different types and forms of content. They actually started out as a very tech-related blog and gradually stumbled upon the power of publishing more inspirational and spiritual content on their site. This strict consistency of writing more than 1,000 articles is also deeply rooted in our human understanding of how we build trust. The fact that their readers can expect a high quality article every few days, makes all the difference.

“People prefer to say yes to those things that show strong consistency in their actions.”

So says Robert Caldini in his famous studies about what persuades us to do things. Bringing consistency to the table and combining it with the “authority” principle of displaying that consistency is immensely powerful:

 

Personally, I am always extremely fascinated by what motivates people to share certain content online. And I have secretly found myself going back to Marc and Angel’s post to read it over and over again. Especially the comment section – it’s extremely insightful to see what people have taken away from the article.

What have you observed about how content gets spread across the web? I’d love to hear any insights you have I might have missed.

Photocredit: SEOmoz

Notes: A huge thank you to Marc and Angel, who shared their insights from their incredible blogging success. You can follow them on Twitter here: @marcandangel

  • http://giacomoballi.com/ Giacomo Balli

    great post!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Giacomo, glad you liked it! :)

  • Jeremy Kun

    That word count diagram is horrible! What do the axes represent?

    • http://www.milkshakecommerce.com/ecommerce-blog Martin H. Normark

      Yeah, to me it looks like 35000 words is gonna give you one share!

      • booshka

        zero words gives you 500 share?

        • http://www.milkshakecommerce.com/ecommerce-blog Martin H. Normark

          Looks like it to me, that’s why it’s not a great chart…

          • sbalcells

            maybe it tries to tell that if you yo a long length content you’ll have the best rating, considering the best rating close to 1 (like Alexa works), just guessing, best!

      • Sharon A

        Thought it was just me too tired to read correctly! Went over chart several times and gave up, but it is after 1:30 am.

      • http://www.misscellania.com/ MissCellania

        I read it as anything about 20 words is going to make your share count go way down. In other words, different axis labels -if there were any.

    • tsheng

      Y-axis is word count, X-axis is number of shares. Buffer blog don’t love axis labels haha. They’re often “illustrative” charts too, just drawn to show the trend.

    • http://www.yolkrecruitment.com/ Yolk Recruitment

      First I thought when I saw this article to. Graph makes no sense? Surely the line should be inverted more words, more shares?

    • theKONGBLOG

      B-I-N-G-O. I believe you hit the iron-steel nail on the virtual button of understanding…I concur, blog’s diagram is H.O.R.R.I.B.L.E. but I have B.I.G. heart and will forgive the blogger for mistakes do tend to happen in life #NobodyPerfect P.S. My Chemical Romance Is Over: http://adf.ly/3665718/my-chemical-romance-break-up “Sigh!”

    • Mariposa

      I agree. Very counterproductive without labeled axes!

  • http://pegfitzpatrick.com/ Peg Fitzpatrick

    Thanks for sharing this, what a great opportunity you has at #NMX to brainstorm with so many other bloggers.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Peggy, yes indeed, it was such a great way to engage with lots of smart minds there! :)

  • http://www.linguisticatelier.com/ Polish translator Warsaw

    Thanks for drawing my attention to Buffer. I know it wasn’t the goal of the article but thanks to it I noticed a great tool in social media.

    • LeoWid

      So glad I could give you a heads up on Buffer, definitely let me know if there is anything I can help with! :)

  • http://culttt.com/ Philip Brown

    Hi Leo, what things have you found that are good for helping to make a post go viral? You mention the things Marc and Angel recommend, but I would love to hear your take?

    • LeoWid

      Hi Philip, ha, that’s a great question! You are absolutely right, I definitely should put something out about what I’ve learnt so far, great thinking! :)

  • http://en-gb.facebook.com/michaelqtodd Michael Q Todd

    This is my biggest “take out” Leo. Thank you “Make sure that if you write a “30 things” list post, that your 1st point provides as much value to the reader as your 30th.

    • http://en-gb.facebook.com/michaelqtodd Michael Q Todd

      I crafted a tweet this way to express the learning from the post. Demand them to read it

      Create a negative.
      Why you may not be getting 500,000 “likes” like @marcandangel did. By @leowid on @bufferapp blog http://t.co/ufzEjtqe RT @mqtodd

      • LeoWid

        Michael! It is always truly an honour to have you stop by our blog! So glad you picked out that point and yes, I think that’s where people often struggle with list posts, where the 30th point can’t keep up with the first one – I see myself doing this too often too! :)

        Oh and that’s such a genius idea regarding using the same negative principle on this post – I’ll give it a try, it’ll be exciting to see how it goes down! :)

    • http://nickkellet.com/ Nick Kellet

      Well said Michael Q Todd and thanks LeoWid. I added it to my research on why people love lists – some great data to support @listly here for sure. Here’s the link.

      http://list.ly/i/92291

      I’ve argued many times people like to be proved to be smart or made smarter.
      I’ve also talked a lot about skimming and The Shallow by Nicholas Carr

      You were preaching to the choir with me.

      Your sharing comment is great data too. I’ve been thinking a lot about the precision of sharing lately

      My latest blog post was a “things to stop list” and it got way more views – the power of lists and negativity at work.

      Thanks again Leo. Awesome data.

  • http://www.sociallysorted.com.au/ Donna Moritz

    Just Brilliant. This one is about to shoot through Digg Digg, Buffer and be saved to Evernote, Feedler Pro and the like….It’s a keeper Leo!

    • LeoWid

      wow, that is one awesome combo Donna! Your sharing workflow deserves a blogpost in itself, would love to learn about that! :)

  • Scott

    A great post Leo but something so difficult to get right! When you see it done properly, you instantly recognize the things they did well to make it go viral but coming up with them yourselves from the get-go is hard!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Scott, thanks so much for stopping by here and yes you are absolutely right, there are always lots and lots of components that you need to get right, so I hope I could pick out the most important ones for this one here! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jbigford Jackie Bigford

    Great post Leo, and I am not in the 20% to 28% ….I read every word. Thank you and I now will take the time to go over and get acquainted with Marc and Angel. Thank you @facebook-520068709:disqus for pointing me here.

  • http://www.codeconquest.com/ Charles @ CodeConquest.com

    The difference between using social buttons and not using social buttons is very surprising. I use the Simple Social Buttons WordPress plugin on my website and I place the buttons before and after the content.

    I used to use Sharebar by DevGrow but it’s not compatible with WP 3.5 and it looks like they’ve stopped supporting it. Plus, it was kind of ugly the way it follows the content down the page.

  • http://www.howtomakemyblog.com/ Marko Saric

    Very detailed post and great advice! One of the notes for myself is to try and spin some of my headlines so I focus more on the negative words and see what difference it makes.

  • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

    Great post, Leo. This is a great case to study.

    Marc and Angel hit it out of the park with that post. :)

  • scrignac

    we a hasbeen situation all is good for you for me peoles of the commerce intersidéral thanks !

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottwayres Scott Ayres

    Some really great points here. I do agree with others below I have no idea what that Word Count graph is attempting to represent.

  • http://www.digitalpartner.org/ DigitalPartner

    Great overview, Leo! I think the fact that your last point should be just as important as your first point is the best takeaway here. Keep it up!

  • http://twitter.com/Buildsitesfree Build a Website Free

    I think the anatomy of this post is a great template to follow. Big bold descriptive elements on every part of the article. This allows the reader to skim and focus on only the parts that they want or need to.

  • http://twitter.com/SimplyD Denise

    Enjoyed the post and your session in Vegas! I signed up for buffer and looking forward to implementing it…

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelBroder Michael Broder

    What about using hashtags on Twitter? I’m a rank amateur with only 200+ followers, but I found that when I send the same tweet with a hashtag relevant to my content, I can go from 0 clicks to 20 clicks. It’s a start.

    • http://log18.us/ Mike Tayon

      Michael, did you do like I did (and am still playing with out of curiosity……) and try various searches with or with out a hashtag?

      Interesting results, BUT the hashtag seems to really dig up more focused content relative to what the search was/is for! Great simple tool that hashtag!! :) (P.S. I realize this comment sounds like a “no shit!” common sense thing, but sooooooo many people on Twitter do NOT use the hashtag, it really baffles me as to why some of them, especially business owners, or “hired people” (just to tend to social presence) are NOT doing all they can to get their brand or business OUT THERE!)

  • http://www.buildandbalance.com/ Michael_N

    What an example of a home run post that combines multiple solid elements while built upon solid authority and consistency. So much to learn here. Glad they joined you for dinner that night, Leo!

  • Mick

    Re getting “500,000 Likes”: The generations of musicians these days seem to think they’ve accomplished much by getting the Like button on a webpage clicked. As for me, I still think in terms of music and the existing dollars in my pocket I make/made playing it. ‘Likes’ don’t mean diddly to me – I can’t eat them, buy anything with them, or do anything with them. Just another useless ego stroke as is so common now among wannabes that it’s become the new norm. Go ahead – you take the fame; I’ll take the fortune.
    Mick

    • http://log18.us/ Mike Tayon

      Mick, I see your point, but you really don’t think that a solid web “presence” is important today? Just askin…….. :)

      • http://www.mehulkar.com/ mehulkar

        Not really, if that’s all it’s worth.

    • Maracay Rock

      Hi mick im a musician too, there are ways for making your online fans into peapole paying to see you life, and “virality” rules aply to any content rules such ass press notes, articles in magazines and other ways of publicity for musicians…

    • http://www.chuckbartok.com Chuck Bartok

      We work in narrow niches and are not used to Large Numbers but love the “Big conversions”
      We do enjoy the comment dialog with returning fans.
      One new site has a average stay, through 110,000 visitors last year, of over 3 minutes.
      The social pages have grown in engagement, according to plan….
      again not focused on numbers, rather relults

  • http://twitter.com/free2bimperfect Melissa

    Great post! All of this actually makes sense :)

  • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

    Leo, why haven’t you answered the questions about that funky graph?

  • Kohinoor Devroy

    Consistency is for sure one the prime factors for any content’s visibility and visibility is success

  • Marivi Avalos

    Really useful! Thank you @LeoWid:disqus

  • Switchtoecig

    Nice and actionable. I took my share-this-bunch out of obscurity into the light right away.

    Totally agree with bulleted items and other list post stuff.

    Also strongly agree with helping readers skim read the text. Bold here and there, but not too much. Make it possible for readers to take a short recap by only reading the words in bold throughout the text.

    I also have a problem with interpreting the text length graph.
    Having said that, I’d like to add just two things here:

    – the optimum length of the text also depends on a niche and target audience – who is ready to read what and to which extent.

    – there was a nice little tool on Chitika called scroll stats. Install it on your site and see which percent of visitors leave your page/s at which point. This was fascinating and helpful. It made me cut my texts short (some of them); make two posts of one (where it seems a good idea to do).

    I don’t know if it’s there anymore, but it’s worth looking for all over the net.

  • tlashier

    Some good points in this article, however I couldn’t help but notice that this blog itself has a ton of grammatical errors and incomplete thoughts. The graph is misleading, but several people have already touched on that. I just thought it was ironic that a blog about virality was this poorly formatted.

    • http://www.herlumpiness.com misslumpy

      I thought it was just me! So glad to see the grammatical mistakes bothered someone else, too. You’d think that a well-established company like Buffer could afford to hire a proofreader.

  • Tracey Bond “007”

    Affirming…motivational…directive.”
    – Tracey Bond, BondGirl007PenTerprises.com Social Media, The Social Media Management Network
    http://licensedtoequill.com

  • Hubert

    Additional likelihood, not liklihood

  • Rameez Ramzan Ali

    Here everyone saying “Wow” but on one pay attention on content. Why this content got too much exposure because they know the users need and want that’s why that content increase their credibility and one more thing content heading. Heading should be creative and informative then user click on it. Finally, content quite informative for me as well others also,

  • http://www.officeathletes.org/ Oli

    I run a few social media networks and I think posts that go viral depends not on your content by on your list size.

  • bodoh
  • bodoh

    BEWARE OF THIS CROOKS GOING AROUND CHEATING
    JM SPARTANS AKA JM MOSES SPARTANS INC PTE LTD

  • https://medium.com/@darshu Daria Shualy

    Leo, thank you for this very helpful post!

    I have a question: What do I do about the title when it’s a guest post (like on TNW or VB) — sometimes the editors come up with a title 10 times better than any title I could have come up with myself, and on other occasions it seems like it could have been more viral. Any tips / thoughts on this?