It’s Not WHAT You Need to Go Viral – It’s WHO

Everyone dreams of going viral. Think of the traffic! The links! The search signal boosts, the audience growth, the brand awareness!

It’s true: going viral does wonders for both search and social. I’ve already written  about what makes content go viral, but we too rarely consider the who – the users who make content go viral in the first place.

Every Virus Needs A Host

Just like a physical virus, viral content requires vectors: people who pass the viral content along and “infect” others. Yet even though the audience is essential for virality, we too often focus on just the content itself – what’s a catchy topic? What are the key elements of a viral video or post? How can we write/create/film something that will go viral?

Obviously, content is important: without something compelling, people would have no incentive to share anything you create. But amazing content idles without ever being seen by large audiences all the time. Even the pros can spend weeks or months laying the foundation for viral content only to have it flounder unnoticed upon publication.

Fact: there is no magic formula to make your content go viral. If anyone tells you differently, run. But there are definite factors that can increase your content’s chances for going viral. One of those factors is learning who best can move your content towards virality.

The 7 Social Technographics: Identifying Your Audience

In 2007, Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff released their Social Technographics: six (later changed to seven) levels of interaction on social media sites (keep in mind that a person can belong to several groups, not just one):

While all groups can be certainly be reached through viral content, certain groups are more instrumental in creating viral content than others. Here’s a basic breakdown of how each group can help your content gain shares and traction:

  1. CREATORS: These are your viral heavy-hitters. Creators (bloggers, journalists, site curators, etc.) are unique in that they need material in order to create. Unlike a conversationalist or critic, who may only comment or share articles when it’s exceptionally moving or interesting, creators regularly use existing content to create their own. Whether they’re creating a weekly link posting, joining a conversation by discussing your material, or just linking to your content on their site, creators have many outlets and opportunities to share your content with their individual audiences.
  2. CONVERSATIONALISTS: Added to the list in 2010 to address Twitter users and regular Facebook status updaters, conversationalists are the users who use social media to discuss and share. Since Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. are key in spreading viral content, the conversationalists are arguably just as important as creators.
  3. CRITICS: Critics are eager to join the conversation, but they tend to be passive about sharing content. They’ll leave a comment on your site or forum, but they won’t be as compelled to share with others. However, critics are much more engaged in your content than a spectator, joiner, or inactive, and they can be a powerful contributor to heated content debates or comment section discussions. They can also review or recommend your content (and thus share it with others).
  4. COLLECTORS: Collectors tend to amass sites on a particular topic that interests them, meaning they’ll be more likely to see your content (either from a primary or secondary source). They’re also experienced in your niche, so they can best identify when something new or noteworthy comes along. Finally, social bookmarking users are collectors, meaning that these users are gateways to the crowds over at Digg, Reddit, etc.
  5. JOINERS: Joiners are the masses you gain access to when your post goes viral on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Joiners, spectators, and inactive users require more indirect targeting methods. For example, if your target audience demographic are largely joiners, you can target the conversationalists, who are more likely to share content on social networks (and thus reach the joiners via Facebook news feeds, Twitter feeds, etc.). Unlike spectators and inactive users, a joiner has the potential to share particularly interesting content with other joiners, even though they may not post or share as often as conversationalists.
  6. SPECTATORS: Spectators – not creators, conversationalists, or collectors – are behind the massive traffic you earn when you go viral. For every link, let’s say you get ten click-throughs: meaning that though nine people won’t share your content, they’ve still consumed it. Viral content has a snowball effect: to reach the masses of spectators, you’ve got to target the creators, conversationalists, etc. who will get the word out.
  7. INACTIVE: Viral content may be one of the best methods to reach inactive users. Think of the now-infamous Old Spice Guy commercials or the “Charlie Bit My Finger” video: these types of viral content are so well-spread that they reach beyond typical communities or social networks. Let’s face it: if you’re human and you have Internet access, you’ve probably seen “Charlie Bit My Finger.”

Know Your Audience, Know Your Community

Much like you would create a list of linkbuilding targets, you need a list of viral heavy-hitters: the people in your niche that wield the greatest influence. Think about popular bloggers, respected Twitter accounts, G+ users with a sizable follower list, etc. You should have some relationships with these influential users established already; if not, now’s the time to start.

Since these relationships are so essential in linkbuilding, you can start with your existing linkbuilding targets. You can also target people on SEOmoz’s linkerati list:

  • Bloggers
  • Forum Posters
  • Web News Writers
  • Content Creators
  • Resource Editors
  • Social Taggers
  • Viral Connectors
  • Journalists

You may want to run some analytics on your competitors’ successes or your  own past viral content: who was influential in getting it to go viral? Which sharers achieved the most reach? Which Twitter users had the most RTs, which Facebook accounts garnered the most shares, which G+ users caused the most Ripples? These are all ideal users to target for viral outreach efforts.

Join The Conversation Before You Publish

Relationships take time. To increase your sharing potential when you publish your would-be viral content, you need to start your sharing reciprocity now. RT your targets’ links, comment on their blog posts, share their content on social networks. Join a relevant discussion or community before you publish your own findings.

Be sincere: you’re trying to join a community, not get a favor. The more you participate, the more you’re adding value to a discussion – and the more people will respect what you have to say on the topic in the future.

Get Feedback from Your Targets Ahead Of Time

In his How to Increase the Odds of Your Content Going Viral video, Rand Fishkin suggests sending out your content to your targets ahead of time. Ask their feedback. Ask if it’d be something their communities would be interested in. If you get plenty of positive responses, you know ahead of time that your content has a better shot of going viral.

If you get negative responses (or no responses), find out why by asking for their feedback. This gives you the opportunity to adjust your content before you hit the publish button.

Better still, it gives your targets a vested interest in your content. They’ve had an exclusive first look at your work, and they’ve been given an opportunity to give their opinions. They now have a personal reason to share your content with their respective communities.

Focus On Your Audience

Source: BusinessWeek with data from Forrester Research

To go viral, you’ve got to aim viral: which means that even if your target customer base aren’t 18-21 or 21-26-year-olds, you can craft content that shares well among all demographics. By reaching the Generation Y conversationalists and creators, you can reach the Generation X joiners and spectators.

Also, be mindful of your timing: if you’re aiming for personal Facebook users, you should know that most Facebook users share on Saturdays, but if you’re publishing for a business audience, midweek postings are ideal and weekend postings should be avoided. This infographic by Kissmetrics provides a great introduction to social media timing.

Finally, aim to make your content as timely and relevant as possible. If you’re releasing an infographic on the London Olympics, for example, you should release it as close to Opening Ceremony as possible; if you had content lined up about the recent health care debate, you should have posted it the week of June 24th when interest was highest, as this Google Trends report shows:

Being as timely and relevant as possible doesn’t just help your chances of going viral. It’s also a way to sweeten the deal for potential sharers looking to join a discussion or share something their communities are currently interested in.

It’s Your Community. It’s Your Responsibility To Find Out How It Works

I can’t tell you what you should do to guarantee your content will go viral. No one can.

But you can do research to discover what’s best for your community: which users have the most reach? When’s the best time to post? What types of content do the best within your niche? What sources bring the most click-throughs? These are the questions you need to start asking if you really want a shot at virality.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search & Social


About The Author: is the Senior SEO Manager for the agency, Red Door Interactive.

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  • John Lessnau

    Even average content can go viral if you have 3 or 4 social media heavy hitters share it with their followers.  Of course, this costs money unless they work for your blog.

  • Jordan Kasteler

    Yes, John. Average content can do well with influencers behind it. The catch 22 is the content needs to be good enough to catch their attention and/or compel them to share it. You don’t have to pay them if it’s relevant to their audience and good content.

  • berchman

    Gen X range is off. In 1992 I was a prime Gen X’er. Someone presently 27 was 7 in 1992. Very different from a 22 year old in 1992. Just saying…

  • Pay4ResultsSEO

    Yes! Absolutely!

    We agree with clients their target audience and research the “movers and shakers” within that audience because, if they share the creative content our team have dreamed up, then lots of the right links are possible.  And some traffic. 

  • Bags

    Well said, Jordan. So much of life (and business) is about who you know, not what you know. Too many PR, marketing, and journalism people just don’t understand the value of a relationship. Creating something awesome doesn’t automatically necessitate its sharing… pitching it doesn’t make it blow up either. You have to have the relationships.

  • Jordan Kasteler

    Glad you agree :) Thanks for the comment!

  • Jordan Kasteler

    Yes, thanks Bags! I had a large company wanting me to set up a social outreach system in-house for them so they could have overnight results. It’s hard drive home how it takes time and lots of effort to create and MAINTAIN relationships.

  • Mandy Kilinskis

    Thank you, Jordan, for writing this piece! 

    Going viral is absolutely about who you know. Building relationships with reciprocity is the best tactic to take; especially if you’ve built relationships with social heavy hitters/creators. Once those relationships are there, the creators are likely to share your content. Even better? Mention them in your content and they are far more likely to share it.

  • Jordan Kasteler

    And thank you for reading it and commenting! You are absolutely right.

  • Yakezie

    So many marketers have approach me to make something go viral via the Yakezie Network of personal finance blogs.  I’m not interested unless it’s just purely great content and a solid idea. Sorry!



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