A formula for going viral? – with Emilia Korczynska

Emilia Korczynska is a Marketing Strategist at postfity.com with some 6 years of content marketing experience. She recently garnered attention with a viral Facebook post about loneliness as a digital nomad, which received 300 likes and 50 comments in 24 hours. Impressive! I know many businesses who would be envious of numbers like that.

Emilia’s post shortly after publishing

I recently sat down with Emilia to find out why this post went viral and if other businesses could replicate her results.

What does it mean to “go viral?”

I began by challenging Emilia about what it means to go viral. Aren’t the consequences of “going viral” nothing more than the effect of good marketing? Increased brand exposure, more leads, being seen as a thought leader — these are all things that good marketing campaigns can (and should) accomplish.

So where does the distinction lie between successful marketing and going viral? Is there even a distinction at all, or are the two things synonymous with one another?

Emilia highlighted the following components of viral marketing:

  • Virality is distinguished from successful marketing by the number of shares. For a campaign or post to be deemed as “viral,” the content needs to be so valuable that lots of people need to want to pass the message on to their friends. For example, this article on LinkedIn marketing by Jake Jorgovan is something that I’ve seen lots of marketers pass on to one another in the last year.
  • The results from viral marketing should be organic. If all the engagement on a post is coming from paid marketing (eg Facebook ads, Google ads), then you have yourself a successful marketing campaign, but not a viral one. From an SEO perspective, this means that for a post to be deemed viral, any backlinks created should be earned on the merit of the content, not bought. (See this article for the distinction between the two if you don’t know what I mean.)
  • Viral marketing should generate substantial brand exposure relative to the size of the brand. For most small businesses, the 300 likes and 50 comments on Emilia’s post would constitute impressive results. For someone as successful as David Beckham, that’s the amount of engagement he gets every day in the time it takes to brush his teeth!

Emilia’s viral Facebook post

Emilia’s post ticks all 3 of the above boxes. It was shared a lot, relative to the size of her brand, and all those shares were organic. But how did she manage to go viral?

  • When she wrote the post, Emilia was bored waiting for a ferry on a tiny Cambodian island. She posted her thoughts authentically as they came to her and was genuinely surprised by the results. Although she does want to build her personal brand, she wasn’t trying to go viral in that moment; she was just being honest.
  • Emilia spent most of the last year travelling around SE Asia as a digital nomad, so she understands very well the struggles that community has with loneliness. She posted in a digital nomad Facebook group full of people with similar experiences. Virality is contingent upon a deep understanding of who is reading your content. That’s true of all successful marketing, in fact, which is why we place such an emphasis on the 2-month consulting phase of our engagements at Content Viking. You can’t produce good content by just starting to write, without first diving deep into the needs of the people you’re writing for.

A formula for viral content?

As someone whose business has created thousands of blog posts over the last few years, I was curious whether it’s possible to replicate Emilia’s content and create a formula for “going viral.”

Turns out things aren’t that simple. It’s impossible to guarantee virality by following a set formula, and even if it were, such a formula would become so popular so quickly that you’d get diminishing returns from using it. 

There are, however, some general principles that any business can bear in mind when creating content that will increase the odds of going viral. These are:

  • Emotionally stimulating
  • Social currency
  • Habit triggers
  • Storytelling

Emilia said that she learned these principles by reading the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger.

Emotionally stimulating

In order to go viral, the content has to trigger some kind of emotional response in the person reading it. In the example of Jake Jorgovan’s LinkedIn marketing system that I mentioned earlier, that could be something like excitement at the prospect of generating lots more leads.

But it could also be a negative emotion like anger. We’ve previously discussed on this blog the value of producing controversial content. Marketing guru Mark Ritson provoked a strong reaction from the business community in 2016 when he posted that marketers need to have some sort of qualification in order to be credible. At this year’s Marketing Week Live, Emilia heard that 56% of marketers have no formal qualifications in marketing — that’s a lot of people that would get defensive upon reading a post like Ritson’s.

Reading the comments under Emilia’s post after talking with her, it was clear that her writing touched a nerve with the digital nomad community. Many of them commented about their own experiences with loneliness as a nomad.

Social currency

One of the most interesting insights that came out of my conversation with Emilia is that people are more likely to share things if sharing makes them, the sharer, look good in their network. Looking good can be accomplished in any number of ways: looking intelligent, funny, original, physically attractive etc.

Emilia pointed out that this principle applies even to dry subjects like maths! When mathematician Ben Stephens shared a hack for doing percentages on Twitter, it was shared over 8000 times. Those sharing the tweet were motivated by the thought of appearing smart to their friends.

B2B companies can derive value from this principle by interviewing their best customers for case studies. If the case study makes the customer look good, the customer is more likely to share it with their audience, giving the content an initial social push.

As far as Emilia’s post is concerned, I think that digital nomads shared it out of a desire to be seen as empathetic — or as someone in tune with the feelings of the wider digital nomad community. It’s likely that this desire was subconscious in the majority of cases.

Habit triggers

Brands can increase the odds of a campaign going viral by building a connection between their product/ service and something that their target audience already use on a regular basis.

Why does this work? It’s the same psychology that applies when we form new habits. It’s much easier to build a new habit on top of another existing one, rather than build a new habit from scratch. For example, if you want to make a habit of making your bed in the morning, you’re more likely to be successful if you do it immediately before or after brushing your teeth, which (hopefully) is something that you do every morning.

This principle doesn’t apply so much to Emilia’s Facebook post, but she provided the example of a Kit Kat ad in the US that went viral after pairing Kit Kat with coffee and an annoying jingle. How many people buy a coffee every day in order to wake themselves up in the mornings? When those people bought their morning coffee, they were triggered to buy a Kit Kat at the same time.

Storytelling

Most of the people reading this blog will not be surprised to know that wrapping your content in an engaging story increases the chances of the content going viral. Emilia’s post about loneliness draws heavily on her own story as a digital nomad.

But what you may not know is that there was a time in 2009 when even mighty Google made use of this principle in order to market itself!

In this video, Google manages to tell a story of an American student meeting and marrying the love of his life in Paris exclusively through using Google search strings. It’s impressive how Google manages to turn search engines — a thoroughly unsexy topic — into a story that pulls at the heartstrings.

Thoughts on this article? My hope is that you come away with a greater understanding of what makes content go viral and can try out some of these principles in your own business.

If you want to learn more from Emilia, you can check out her ebook on content marketing here.