This article was written by the insanely talented Assya Barrette.
So, you want to write a viral article…
Isn’t that the dream?
After all, a viral article can sling-shot your blog, business or writing career out of orbit and into the stars. Sub-par metaphor, but you get the idea.
But most people think creating a viral article is a matter of luck. And what I’ve learned when it comes to virality is that you make your own luck.
Content which inspires a strong emotion, especially anger, awe or laughter.
Content based on a previously uncovered story or at least an uncovered angle.
Getting the piece in front of as many eyes as possible.
Sounds simple, right?
But creating unique content with a truly emotional tone which also gets published for a huge audience is harder than it looks.
Luckily there’s a technique that anyone, in almost any niche, can use to create compelling and viral-quality content.
This strategy is underused as a content marketing strategy, so there is plenty of low-hanging fruit up for grabs.
This technique takes significantly more work than most articles you’ll create, but has the potential to yield huge dividends.
It doesn’t just involve researching popular topics, brainstorming great headlines and writing your heart out. You’ve got to jump away from your computer desk, finally take off those pajamas and do something sort of crazy.
Bummed out about having to take off your pajamas? Read on, it’s worth it.
The One Crazy, Little-Known Ingredient to Viral Content
Have you heard of any of the following?
After feeling hypocritical creating so much trash while being a environmental studies student, Lauren Singer challenged herself to stop creating garbage.
She succeeded, and didn’t create trash for over two years. She now runs an extremely popular zero waste blog and zero waste cleaning products company, and one of her articles went viral to the tune of 312,000+ social shares:
Jia Jiang wanted to become desensitized to the pain of rejection and overcome his fear of “no”. He challenged himself to be rejected for 100 different things over 100 days. He now books speaking engagements at places like Google, lands interviews with some of the most popular publications on the web, and has published a book on his experience:
Drew Manning, a personal fitness instructor, wanted to prove that anyone could get fit and healthy.
He took the radical step of gaining 70 pounds and working his way right back to his muscular frame in an experiment he called “fit2fat2fit”. He’s been interviewed on huge media outlets like ABC news, and runs a successful blog and podcast:
These stories went viral and created huge opportunities for the creators. So what do they have in common?
Well, this content is all based on real-life and completely unexpected challenges that most people would never undertake.
Every one of these individuals underwent a “crazy” challenge that resulted not only in extreme personal growth, but also a ton of public interest and newsworthy attention.
Extreme challenges are perfect fodder for viral content:
They are out of the norm and thus provoke a strong emotion.
Every challenge offers an uncovered story through their unique person and challenge combination.
Because of both of the above, it is easy to get these challenges noticed and published on mediums with large audiences.
With the right headline, these challenges cause curiosity in readers who want to learn why in the world the person would do such a crazy challenge. The article gets clicked, read and shared…
Over and over again, creating viral content like you won’t believe.
Until you read the rest of this article and see how I replicated this very same process.
How I Turned my Challenge Into a Viral Story
Life is funny. It’s funny how completely unrelated events seem to come together perfectly in the future.
That’s how my challenge story happened.
My challenge was completely unrelated to the work I do now as a green living blogger, and as a content marketer. I undertook my extreme challenge for deeply personal reasons as a result of the tragic loss of my father in September of 2014.
After my father’s passing, my sisters and I had to go clean out his apartment. For weeks, we worked entire days donating, selling and throwing out the enormous volume of stuff that my dad, a normal consumer just like me, had accumulated.
I was shocked and distraught.
The way we consume in our society is extremely out of touch with the realities of life and death, and this experience showed me just how bad it was. Trees, rivers and farmland destroyed to provide goods that we would only use during our short lifetimes, and then thrown away.
I decided there must be a better way.
So, I challenged myself to buy nothing new for 200 days. Other than groceries and basic necessities, I would only purchase secondhand, borrow or simply go without.
I shared my challenge only with friends and family through Facebook. It was a personal challenge, and I didn’t even have a blog yet.
Months after the challenge was finished, I started my green living blog, and I was putting a lot effort into guest posting to build my initial audience.
At one point, I considered writing about my 200 days of nothing new challenge, as it seemed like a good fit given that my blog was about personal sustainability.
Problem was, I really didn’t think my challenge story was a big deal. The challenge had become part of my everyday life.
It took a conversation with my fabulous coach, (that's Sarah if you haven't pieced it together), to convince me to go through with the idea.
I started on the long process of sharing my story.
Sharing My Small Story with Big News
I wanted my story to reach as many people as possible. If it reached as many people as possible, I thought others would join me in a Buy Nothing New challenge of their own, and we’d had a fighting chance to beat the damage over-consumption is doing.
But I knew my blog alone wouldn’t reach a broad enough audience. So I had to pull out the big guns:
Big news publications.
This means that I had to pound the pavement and share my story with as many big news publications as possible. And that wasn’t going to happen with just one angle, so…
I first brainstormed over 70 headlines for the story, touching on different angles. I then chose my top 21 choices, and categorized them:
I ended up picking my top 10 favourite headlines, one of which is highlighted above.
I then created a list of publications which talked about sustainability and had featured personal challenges (preferably both). I narrowed these down this list to 9 publications which accepted unsolicited guest post pitches:
HuffPost and Alternet only accepted full posts, so I wrote two full articles and sent them in. For the rest, I pitched three or four headlines which I thought worked best for their audience and style.
Here is the headline pitch template I used:
Here are the results:
A rejection email from Salon.com (stay tuned!)
No response from Huffington Post, Fast Company, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, Becoming Minimalist and Business Insider
Alternet.org accepted my long-form essay
Collective-evolution.com accepted my list post headline
Within two weeks, both Alternet and Collective Evolution had posted the two articles:
Both pieces got plenty of shares, comments and added quite a few subscribers to my mailing list. I congratulated myself on some articles well written.
And Then Things Blew Up
My article on Alternet became the fourth most popular piece on the site the week it was published. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken a screenshot, but I can guarantee that this is correct because within two days, Salon.com had republished the article:
That’s right! Salon.com which originally rejected my article ended up republishing it. I felt victorious.
And that’s when things really started getting crazy. I started getting emails and tweets from large publications requesting to republish my article.
Dawn.com and Qz. com reached out on Twitter, while Yahoo! Makers reached out via email to ask for permission to
republish the list post article:
Yes, you’re seeing that right…
Some non-english online magazines even translated my article and published it. For example, the spanish-language http://www.ecodesenvolvimento.org/, although they left out one of the items on my list:
What started as two articles on two different sites ballooned to being posted on a total of 14 different sites, which got me a huge amount of traffic.
How to Go Viral: 130,800 Social Shares
As outlined earlier, stories based on challenges provide the perfect formula for social shares. The emotional value plus unique angle immediately causes people to want to share it with others.
Out of the two articles which I had published, the list post performed the best. No surprise there; list posts are the quintessential viral article format.
Only considering the top four sites where my list post was published, the results are excellent:
From just these four publications, this one article received a total of 130,800 social shares at the time of this writing. My essay-format article also performed well on the two sites where it was published:
My essay article was better written, however it did not get the same amount of momentum as my list article.
Moral of the story: list posts work.
Find What Works. Do More of It.
Seeing that this story resonated with people, I created a few more pieces of content based on my 200 days of nothing new challenge.
I had covered the “what” angle with my two published articles, so I decided to cover the “why” and the “how” angles for my next pieces of content.
For my own blog, I wrote an article entitled “Why I Decided To Do A 200 Days Of Nothing New Challenge (And Why You Should Too)”. This article focused on the inner motivations behind why I did the challenge. It was picked up by rockstarfinance.com:
This was unexpected as I never considered my challenge to fit into the personal finance space. Then, Lifehacker.com agreed that it did, and picked up the article:
With all of the great traffic and views that my articles were getting, I had to make sure that I had a great way of capturing emails. For this, I created a “how-to” piece of content based on my challenge. People that appreciated my articles would surely like to understand how to do their own. I therefore created a seven day email course which took you through how to do your own buy nothing new challenge:
I used this challenge as the opt-in offer at the bottom of my articles. For example, here is the blurb at the end of my piece on Alternet.org:
The opt-in offer link took readers to a landing page:
This landing page yielded a 60% opt-in rate and I gained hundreds of subscribers.
I also used this email course as a basis off of which to write another post for Yahoo! Makers. As a result of this
article, another few hundred subscribers joined my email list.
I also used my email list as a channel to grow a Facebook group based around my brand and the challenge:
This group has been a great way to interact with my blog subscribers, answer questions and just see what people are thinking. It’s been a great way to enhance a sense of community and support around the challenge and around the blog.
The Gift That Keeps On Giving
As a result of this challenge, I’ve been invited for interviews on podcasts and radio shows, such as my recent appearance on WGN Radio:
I’ve also gotten noticed by some key influencers in the minimalism and green living space. Some examples that I’m particularly happy about include being linked to in a post by Joshua Becker from Becoming MInimalist.:
And being tweeted by Greenpeace, a huge leader in the sustainability space:
I’ve also been able to develop relationships with editors which enabled me to get paid writing work.
But the most valuable benefit are the relationships that I’ve developed. I’m very blessed to have received hundreds of emails from those who have read and been touched by the article.
Additionally, over 800 people have signed up for the Buy Nothing New Challenge and are actively doing the challenge. If those 800 just purchase 10 items preowned instead of new, that’s 8000 items diverted from the waste stream. That’s the resources, energy and transportation involved in creating 8000 items saved for future generations.
I got into the blogging business to have an impact – mission accomplished!
Viral Content Belongs With Those Who Hustle
As you can see from my case study, doing an extreme challenge works in creating viral content.
It’s been done many times before, and it will be done again. And you can do it too.
Doing a challenge takes more time and effort than your typical article or podcast episode. It also takes a sincere interest in the challenge and a good “why” behind it all.
And that’s exactly what will make it go viral.
People want content that connects with them emotionally. They want content that is sincere. They want content that tells them a story. If you want to create great content off of a personal experiment, here’s how you do it:
1. Pick a unique challenge.
The challenge you choose to do needs to be different enough to catch people’s attention. However, it does not have to never have been done before.
The challenge which I had undertaken was not new by any means. Google “buy nothing new challenge” and there are plenty of blogs and newspapers covering a similar story.
Why was my challenge able to break through?
It offered a new and compelling angle to the “why” of the challenge. Most of the buy nothing challenges out there have to do with personal finance or taking a break from consumerism. My challenge was as a visceral rejection of the status quo.
2. Having a compelling “why” behind the challenge
Doing a challenge because you want to create great content is certainly not a compelling “why” and won’t get you any online love.
Any good writing comes from a place of emotion. Choose something that you truly believe in, or something that you are sincerely interested in experiencing. Have a good “why”. This will shine through to editors and readers alike.
3. Get your challenge on a site with a large audience
This shouldn’t be too hard as long as your challenge meets the first two criteria, but getting your story on larger sites is key. It doesn’t matter how compelling your story might be if no one reads your article.
There is a lot of room right now for great challenges in many spaces. Not only are challenges perfect for viral content, but they are also rewarding on a personal level to do. It’s the perfect time to jump in with your own.
Comment below with ideas of which challenge would fit in your space, and why they would create great content.
Assya is a content marketing ninja and Instagram guru. Sign up and get her free email course to convert your Instagram account into an insane list-building machine.