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Chances are you’ve ended up on an Upworthy page at one point or another. They are masters at leveraging social networks to drive traffic to their site; a site that displays content…which isn’t even theirs. And while they’d be the first to admit that they don’t now exactly how to go to viral (that can’t be completely predicted), they do have a set of rules they pay by.

When trying to go viral yourself, you can do worse than to model your efforts after a company that is doing it so masterfully…over and over again.

Plus, modeling sites like Upworthy and Viral Nova can be very lucrative.

But What is Going Viral?

Well, it seems that there is an actual mathematical equation here.

Upworthy defines going viral as shares/view x clicks/share:

What is going viral?

But let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to be doing any calculations like this. To the most people, including myself, “virality” is very subjective. It just means getting a ton of clicks, views and shares. Or at least more than we normally get.

And “a lot of traffic” certainly depends on what industry you are in.

So the math equation can be more or less ignored here. The statement at the bottom, however, can not be.

The number of clicks in this equation is very important here. The more clicks you get, the higher your viral “score”. And headlines get clicks. 

Here’s the thing this slide doesn’t mention..

Headlines also get shares (the other number that can grow your viral score in this equation).

My Headline Hypothesis

In fact, I would hypothesize that there is an inverse relationship between a headline that gets shared, and a headline that leads to content consumption.

Take news, for example. These headlines are often more detailed and explicit. In fact, a traditional journalistic headline will tell you almost the entire story. Readers are more likely to share the content without ever reading it just based on headline.

Sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed, on the other hand, are not in the business of journalism. They need to attract clicks that lead to actual content consumption. Then, and only then, will they get the shares to go viral.

In fact, as you can see from this example, in Upworthy’s case the more vague (but intriguing) a headline is, the better:

Viral Headline

The Headline Editorial Process (Write Lots of Headlines)

Did I mention the folks at Upworthy take their headlines seriously? Like…seriously.

The editorial process for their content requires 25 different headlines to be written before picking the winning headline. Yes 25. How many do you write on average? I know I don’t write 25 (unless I’m writing a ad copy…maybe).

But they do have a pool of headlines to then choose from. How do they choose? Here’s how:

Why People Share

It would seem this is pretty much what the editorial process boils down to. After all, Upworthy is pretty much just a curation site.

Any “original content” focus goes directly to the headlines.

Make Sharing Easy

Sites like Upworthy make their social media buttons pretty evident. They also make it easy for you to share their content by pre-populating the share content.

People don’t want to work any harder than they have to. Making them fill out a headline or Tweet content is already more work than they need to do. So don’t make them do it.

For example, I just made it very easy for you to tweet this:

If you want your content shared, make it easy for visitors to share it. (Click to Tweet This)

And when setting up your social sharing, you have to remember…

Images are a Big Deal

What do you notice when you are skimming through a social network?

Upworthy gets a huge amount of traffic from Facebook. When you scroll through the timeline, images likely stand out more than any headline will. The same is true for LinkedIn. And it’s certainly true for Pinterest.

Images can attract a lot of clicks. So proper images aren’t something to be overlooked. This is certainly an area where I can improve.

And here’s a quick solution for that improvement for all my fellow WordPress users…

The NGFB Open Graph+ allows you to customize the share content for several social networks to make sure that what gets shared looks like it actually belongs (the defaults can certainly be a little iffy sometimes).

Be Mobile Ready

If you truly go viral, you’re going to get a ton of traffic from mobile devices. By 2015 you’ll likely be getting more traffic from mobile devices than from desktops either way.

So be prepared to go mobile. A responsive site sure does go a long way. But the last thing you want to do is have a site built in Flash that doesn’t even render on Apple devices (yes, I still run across these sometimes). Need a new site? Get one here.

Caching is Your Friend

If your’e going to get an influx of traffic, you need to be caching. And possibly caching aggressively depending on just how much traffic you’re getting.

If you are running WordPress, get a good caching plugin. Also check out CloudFlare for both caching and CDN capabilities.

If a ton of traffic is going to be the norm for you, then you probably also want to look at getting a hosting account that can support that sort of data usage.

The last thing you want is for people to try to get to your site and not be able to do so.

One Last Thing…

Upworthy has a unique business model. They don’t create a lot of their own content. But they are masters at curating and formatting in a way that make other people’s content go viral.

This certainly isn’t the model for most businesses out there. Certainly not brick-and-mortar ones. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t take what’s working for Upworthy and apply it to your own content.

But before you do anything else…you have to create content worth sharing. Just as Upworthy did here. Here is the original SlideShare presetnation from which I took the slides: