When a piece of content goes viral, there’s no magic or luck involved.
According to new research, viral content tends to contain specific elements that push people to share.
I cover 21 of these elements in today’s data-driven guide.
Free PDF Checklist: This post is 3,142 words long. Click here to download a checklist that summarizes the guide and shows you how to create content that goes viral.
Here’s my take on the data-driven tips from the infographic:
1. Use an (Odd) Number
Headlines with numbers are 36% more likely to generate clicks, according to research by Conductor.
And a study of 150,000 headlines revealed that odd-numbered headlines have a 20% better CTR than headlines with even numbers.
The next time you’re at CVS, take a look at the magazine rack.
You’ll see covers with tons of numbers, like this:
Magazines use numbers in their headlines for a very simple reason:
And you’d be hard pressed to find a headline on Backlinko that doesn’t contain a number.
For example, here are a few of my most popular posts over the last year:
Bottom line? Numbers get more clicks.
It’s because numbers give people something VERY specific to cling to.
Think about the difference between these two headlines:
“Techniques to Lose Weight” vs. “17 Techniques to Lose Weight Fast”.
The number “17” instantly makes the headline much more enticing.
What about the even number vs. odd number debate?
Sure, I occasionally use an even number in my headlines…
…but most of my posts use odd numbers (17, 21 etc.).
Like Outbrain, I find that odd numbers work a little bit better.
2. Use [brackets]
In an analysis of over 3 million headlines, Hubspot found using [brackets] in a headline bumped up CTR by 38%.
I use brackets in my headlines all the time…
…and it makes a BIG difference.
Question is: WHY?
Brackets give people a “sneak preview” into your post.
Is your post an infographic? A case study? A free ebook?
The brackets let people know…before they click.
For example, here’s the headline from one of my recent posts:
“(Two Step-By-Step Case Studies)” tells people what I have in store for you…
…which makes you more likely to click.
3. Use Short URLs
Marketing Sherpa found that short URLs are 2.5x more likely to attract clicks.
There’s absolutely ZERO benefit to using long URLs like, site.com/05/01/2015/10-ways-to-get-lots-of-clicks-on-your-blog-post.
And long URLs create this problem for people that want to share your post on Twitter:
As you may have noticed, I use VERY short (2-3 word) URLs here at Backlinko:
Actually, for three reasons:
First, a short URL gives people a high-level summary of what your post is about (more on this later).
Second, short-and-sweet URLs easily fit into social media posts.
Third, the URL is SEO friendly because it contains ONLY your target keyword.
For example, take my post On-Page SEO: Anatomy of a Perfectly Optimized Page.
The URL for that post is simply:
Boom. Simple, yet effective.
4. Use a Descriptive URL
A Microsoft study found trusted domains get 25% more clicks. Opt for example.com/cute-cats vs. example.com/blog/post?id=5421!6g.
This guideline is very simple:
Your blog post URL should give people a short summary of your post’s topic…and nothing else.
A URL with lots of junk — like, example.com/postid=2891/why-you-use-confusing-urls — confuses people.
Confusion=fewer clicks. Fewer clicks=fewer shares.
How about an example?
A while back I published a post called, Ecommerce SEO Case Study: White Hat Link Building Without Any Content.
That post is a case study that shows you how a Backlinko reader (Chris) built backlinks to his ecommerce client’s site.
Because the post was all about “ecommerce SEO”, I made the URL:
Yes, “Ecommerce SEO” described my post’s topic.
But it also happened to be my target keyword.
Thanks to the SEO-friendly URL (and a bunch of other factors), that post now ranks in the top 5 for “ecommerce SEO”:
5. Intro=Short Sentences
People only read 28% of a blog post, so you need to hook them fast.
Dr. John Morkes found that short sentences boosted content readability by 58%.
Think about it:
Why would you spend HOURS on your headline…
…then turn around and slap together a weak introduction?
It makes no sense.
In my opinion, your introduction is more important than your headline.
Because your introduction is your ONLY chance for you to put a hook in the mouth of your reader.
And you lose someone in your intro, they’re NOT going to read on (or share your post).
Backlinko’s strong introductions are one reason that some of my blog posts have an “Avg. Time on Page” like this:
And short sentences are of the easiest ways to bump up the quality of your intros.
For example, take a look at my intro for this post:
See how I hit you with a flurry of short sentences?
Those super-short lines are one reason why that post’s Avg. Time on Page is over 7 minutes.
Now that you’ve built your intro with short sentences, it’s time for the next step…
6. Add a Colorful Image Above the Fold
Xerox found that colorful visuals made people 80% more likely to read a document.
When you add a colorful image to the top of your post, you INSTANTLY make your content more compelling.
That’s why I almost always include a colorful image at the top every blog post, like this:
Pro Tip: Make sure your image doesn’t push the content below the fold.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
That image of the guy running looks cool.
But it’s so big that it pushes the content below the fold.
And your reader has to scroll to read line #1, you’re going to notice a lot more bounces the next time you check Google Analytics.
Instead of an overbearing image, align your image left or right, like this:
That way you get the power of the colorful image…without hiding your content.
7. Images=More Shares
Skyword research found that text content with at least one image generated 94% more views on social media.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Even though Skyword found that one image is better than zero…
…don’t hesitate to use a bunch of images in every blog post that you publish.
Because the simple fact is: people LOVE images.
They’re more compelling than text.
And they break up your content (which makes it easier to read).
That’s why I sprinkle in at least once image in my posts for every 200 words of text:
8. Images=More Credibility
A Claremont University study found that images — any images — boosted content credibility by 75%.
The results from this study were REALLY interesting.
Here’s how it went down:
The researchers showed people two versions of the same statement.
In version #1 the statement was text-only, like this:
(By the way, these are actual images that I pulled from the study)
Version #2 also had the same statement…with an image:
Amazingly, people saw statement #2 as 75% more credible.
By the way, Mona Lisa does have eyebrows…I looked it up 🙂
Here’s the takeaway from this research:
People aren’t going to share content unless they think it’s credible.
And when you include an image– any image — you give your content’s credibility a shot in the arm.
Whenever I use a statistic in a blog post, I include a screenshot. The screenshots make my stats more credible.
So instead of saying, “I increased my traffic by 111%” and leaving it at that…
…I’ll show a screenshot of my Google Analytics:
But what if you’re not in an industry where screenshots make sense?
ANY image will do.
Let’s say you wanted to convince people that blueberries reduce cancer risk. You’d include an image of blueberries with your statement:
And you’re set.
9. Use Pro Images
Image quality makes a huge difference. An internal Marketing Sherpa study found that pro images received 121% more Facebook shares than”semi-professional” photos.
I just told you that ANY image boosts credibility, and therefore, social shares.
But what I didn’t tell you is that image quality makes a HUGE difference.
In my experience, “quality” means three things:
1. The image is a good fit for the topic.
2. NO cheesy stock photos.
3. The image is high-res.
As long as your image satisfies all three of these guidelines, feel free to toss it into your post.
10. Publish Long Content
Professor Dr. Jonah Berger found that longer content was 76.8% more likely to go viral. Aim for at least 1,500 words per post.
This is a biggie.
In my experience, long-form content CRUSHES short blog posts.
That’s why most of my posts rock word counts like this:
There’s a good reason that I publish long-form content:
It gets results!
Not only do you get more social shares, but longer content is more likely to rank on Google’s first page:
11. Use a “Featured Image”
Social media posts that have an image grab more eyeballs.
More eyeballs=more shares.
And you can easily ensure that social shares of your post have an image…
…with about 18 seconds of work.
How? The Wordrpess “Featured Image” feature.
Just click on “set featured image”:
And choose an attention-grabbing image from your post.
When someone shares your post on social media, your image will automatically appear:
Done and done.
12. Include an Infographic
Data from BuzzSumo found that infographics generate 2.3x more social shares than how-to posts.
Infographics are dead?
Like any content — if you want your infographic to go viral — you need to bring it.
In other words:
Turning a lame post like “5 tips for Twitter marketing” into an infographic isn’t going to magically turn it into a winner.
But if you have highly-visual topic on your hands, an infographic can push it to the next level.
In fact, here are two infographics I’ve put out in recent years…
…along with some data on how they performed.
Infographic #1: On-Page SEO: Anatomy of a Perfectly Optimized Page
(4746 social shares & links from 348 referring domains)
Infographic #2: Google’s 200 Ranking Factors (Infographic Version)
(5765 social shares & links from 189 referring domains)
Infographics STILL work. But to go viral, they need to be awesome.
13. Put Share Buttons Above the Fold
A Google study found that elements above the fold are seen by 58% more people than those pushed further down the page.
There’s a game I see a lot of bloggers play with their readers…
It’s called: “Find the share button”.
And it KILLS their ability to generate shares.
I make put my social share buttons where you can’t miss ’em.
Not only are they prominently displayed above the fold:
But the buttons follow you as you scroll down the page:
Here’s the takeaway:
If it takes someone more than a half-second to find your share buttons, put them in a more prominent place.
(Like above the fold)
14. Get Emotional
A study published in the Journal of Marketing Research found content that elicits the emotions “awe”, “surprise” or “anger” was 28% more likely to go viral.
If you want your content to go viral, there’s one thing you need to keep in mind:
“Sharing content is an emotional decision” — Tweet This Quote
In other words, the more emotionally stirred up someone gets, the more likely they are to share.
And Dr. Berger found that 3 specific emotions — awe, surprise and anger — stimulated the most shares.
Here’s a real-world example of a post that presses all three of these emotional buttons:
Because the post is stirs up people’s emotions, it’s generated 12,347 shares and links from 935 domains.
Let’s dive into the emotions from this post that got people all riled up.
Emotion #1: Awe
Like I mentioned in item #10 from this list, long form content makes people feel a sense of “awe”.
And considering this post clocks in at 5600 words, it definitely fits the bill.
Also, I didn’t just list out each ranking factor.
I included a brief description for each and every factor on the list.
This insane level of detail=more awe.
Emotion #2: Surprise
The fact that someone sat down to list out 200 ranking factors surprised a lot of people.
(I even surprised myself. That post took WEEKS to put together)
Emotion #3: Anger
I didn’t intend to upset anyone with my Google Ranking Factors post.
But you know how people online can be…
Even though I clearly stated that the ranking factors are “controversial” and “speculation”…
…some people still got bent out of shape.
In fact, a lot of those angry people shared my post to just say, “I hate this post!”.
And those “hate shares” led to more traffic for me 🙂
15. Mention Influencers
Link to influential people in your post (and let them know about it). A Columbia University study found that for your content to go viral, influencer shares were”critical”.
Here’s the secret to getting an influencer to share your content with their audience:
Make them feel awesome.
How about some proof that this approach actually works?
A while back I published a case study that revealed how Jimmy generated 36,282 visitors and 1,000 email subscribers from a single post.
In that case study I pointed out that one of the main reasons Jimmy’s post went viral was that he mentioned a lot of influencers.
But he didn’t just mention influencers and call it a day. He reached out to let them know.
In case you’re curious, here’s the email that Jimmy sent to the influencers that he mentioned:
And an example of one of their responses:
Pretty cool, right?
16. Publish Between 8am and 12pm
Shareaholic found that 27% of all social shares occur between 8am and 12pm EST.
I’ve found that 8am-12pm is the “sweet spot” to maximize shares from a new blog post.
There’s a simple reason this time works so well:
8am-12pm is one of the few times where the entire world is awake.
For example, when it’s 11am Eastern in The States, it’s:
Pacific Time (US): 8am
Midwest (US): 10am
Because I have readers from around the world, I tend to publish my posts around 8am Eastern time.
That way, everyone has a chance to see it.
17. Use Hashtags
Dan Zarrella analyzed 1.2 million tweets and found that hashtag-containing tweets boosted retweets by 55%.
There’s not much for me to add here.
When you find a simple way to boost retweets by 55%, you should take it every single time.
And adding hashtags to your tweets couldn’t be simpler.
If you use the Yoast SEO plugin, just click on the “share” tab…
…and toss a hashtag or two in the “Twitter Description” field.
18. Use “Scannable” Text.
Like short paragraphs, subheadings and bullet lists. Dr. Jakob Nielson discovered that “scannable” online content boosted readability by 47%.
I’ll admit it. I’m a HUGE readability nerd.
Because the fact is this:
If your content is hard to read, people won’t read it.
That’s why I stick to 1-2 sentence paragraphs:
Lots of subheadings:
And bulleted lists:
I suggest you do the same.
Because when you add all this up, you’ll have content that’s super easy to read (and skim).
19. Be Insanely Practical
Dr. Jonah Berger found that highly-practical articles are 34% more likely to go viral.
It was hard for me to accept this at first, but here it goes…
People don’t care what you think.
Sure, if you’re a huge name with a million followers you can get away with blog posts like: “Let’s Call SEO Content Marketing From Now On”.
But if you don’t have a huge following?
Your content needs to be insanely actionable.
I built Backlinko from zero to 100k visitors/month on the back of very practical blog posts.
In fact, the #1 complement I receive has nothing to do with how handsome I am 🙂
It’s that my content is “actionable”.
If you want your blog post to go viral, make sure it contains lots of meaty, actionable stuff.
20. SEO Tag Copy=Adwords Ads
Adwords ads are designed to maximize clicks. Base your SEO title and description tags on Adwords ads to maximize traffic from search engines.
When your content shows up in search engines or on social media, two things can happen:
Thing #1: People click on your result
Thing #2: People click on something else
For your content to go viral, you need to maximize clicks to your post.
And to do that?
You need compelling title and description tag copy.
But how do you know what to put in your title and description tags?
That’s easy: just use Adwords ads.
Remember that click through rate makes up about 70% of Google Adwords’ Quality Score.
(In other words: the higher your CTR, the better your Quality Score)
So you better believe advertisers work their tails off to maximize their CTR.
And when you use their copy in your meta tags, you have a result that people love to click on.
For example, let’s say your post is about “app marketing”.
You’d simply search in Google for “app marketing”:
And use the words and phrases that show up for Adwords Ads…
…in your title and description tags.
21. Ask People to Share.
Include a CTA at the end of your post…and make it personalized.
Hubspot found that targeted CTAs (“Share these weight loss tips”) outperformed generic CTAs (“share this post”) by 42%.
You’d be surprised how many shares and comments you can get simply by asking.
That’s why I include a “leave a comment” CTA at the end of every post.
For example, I recently published a post that shows people how to increase traffic.
And at the end of the post, I toss in a hyper-targeted CTA:
Note how I don’t say something generic like, “leave a comment”.
The CTA is VERY specific to what the person just read.
Like Hubspot found, I notice that the hyper-targeted CTA works GREAT.
In fact, that post has over 400 comments:
In this example my CTA was to leave a comment.
But the same rules apply for social shares.
How about an example?
Back when I first launched my Definitive Guide to Link Building, I included a targeted CTA to tweet it out:
When someone clicked on that link, a pre-populated tweet appeared:
And that super-targeted CTA generated A LOT more shares than if I said something generic like, “share this”.
Here’s What To Do Next (Your “Homework”)
It’s important to me that you don’t skim this guide and then pop over to Facebook.
I want you to actually use the information.
So today I have something to help you implement the content from this guide: a free PDF checklist.
Click below to download the PDF: