A Formula for Going Viral

Every marketer dreams about their post taking off like wildfire. While there are no guarantees in social, Upworthy’s Sara Critchfield explains a few simple ways to maximize your content’s popularity online.

November 13, 2014

When Sara Critchfield set out in March 2012 to help create Upworthy, a content aggregation site that aimed to make socially conscious stories go viral online, there was a set of assumptions about social media that seemed to point to the website’s eventual failure.

“The top people in the media told us, ‘That is so sweet,’” Critchfield remembered. “They believed that unless you have celebrity photos and cat videos, you are not going to have a mass audience.”

Now that Upworthy is classified as one of the fastest growing sites of all time, Critchfield is happy to have proven them wrong. But the experience also helped her understand something vital about content marketing. Sharing her insights in an Entrepreneurial Excellence Series session at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo this month, Critchfield boiled it down to an actual formula: “Clickability x sharability x distribution = virality.”

She explained the distinctions between each element using what she called “the grocery store principle.” Clickability helps determine whether or not the consumer wants to take a new box of cereal they’ve never tried off the shelf and put it in their cart. Sharability is about the quality of the cereal; once they’ve tried it, does the shopper want to recommend it to friends and family? Distribution is about how many eyes are on the product. If only a couple rural stores carry the cereal, it’s probably not going to reach as many people, regardless of the packaging or quality.

“You can yank hard on any of these three levers and you’re going to increase virality,” Critchfield said. “However, it’s really hard to do all three for each piece of content every single time.”

So how can a real estate professional yank these levers on their social posts? Critchfield said that a big part of it is relying on the skills that come naturally for many in the industry.

“Real estate folks are the best community organizers in the world,” Critchfield said. “You guys already know how to do social. It plays on your strengths.”

Critchfield said the key to wrapping one’s content to thrive in the social universe is seeing the social part as the more important element of “social media.” Real estate pros should try first and foremost to “meet people’s most basic needs. I’m a first-time home owner, and I’m scared. How can you market content to meet those people’s needs?”

Critchfield said there are a lot of misconceptions about what “works” online, but cat videos, top ten lists, and funny videos don’t go viral because of their content type.

“If you have a list that also connects with somebody’s heart, that’s what goes viral,” she said. “There are plenty of cat videos that just sit there.”

Analytics are important, but Critchfield cautioned against using any single measure to determine the success of any particular piece of content. Upworthy research shows that some posts are popular in terms of individual content consumption, but people aren’t inclined to share them because a share is often construed as an attempt to define yourself. Critchfield used a post about the legalization of marijuana as an example: “Your little sister is on Facebook, and you don’t want her to know you’re reading the marijuana article.”

Critchfield suggested reaching out to a variety of sources for help with your social strategy. If you’re ready to spend real money on a social media solution, Critchfield recommended NationBuilder, a company that will help you forge connections between your social contacts and your CRM system for less than $50 a month. Critchfield also mentioned local students as an underutilized source of help.

“Hire a college kid. They’re awesome,” she said, noting you can get a beautifully designed custom website for around $500. “Or hire a communications student and pay them 15 bucks an hour to make sure your social network is active. Film students too. It gives college kids a great professional mentor.”

Free help is available in your social circles, too. Critchfield said one of the main reasons people say they decided not to share content was that they were never explicitly asked to share.

“Ask! Put the ‘share ask’ in your share text,” she said. She suggested language asking people if they know someone who needs your services or could use the information you’re sharing. “At Upworthy, we saw our audience as our friends’ friends.”

Close friends can also be your confidants, giving you an insider look into what works and what doesn’t. “Ask your friends how they experience your Facebook page,” Critchfield said. Also, if you have a colleague whose social presence is something you’d aspire to recreate for yourself, reach out and ask them if you can get a glimpse of their data. “If you have a very small page, your analytics are virtually worthless. Ask to see someone else’s analytics to see what’s working for them.”

Finally, Critchfield cautioned against putting all your marketing eggs in one basket. Social networks are important, but ultimately they’re not within your control: “Social media is a very fickle mistress,” Critchfield said. “It’s really important to have a plan for e-mail [because] e-mail is the thing that you own, and no one can take that away.”

Meg White

Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.