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What makes something go viral? It’s content marketing’s eternal question, more elusive than “How many emojis is too many?”1 and “Is brandscaping as painful as it sounds?”2 While we all have intuition into what’s good, bad, and just downright clickbait, new research will help us think of viral content as more of a science than an art.

This month, content marketing platform BuzzSumo and inbound marketing software developer Moz released the results of an extensive joint study on the correlation between content, shares, and links. The researchers set out to uncover what type of content receives both—assessing a million posts in the process.

Let’s take a look at five major takeaways from the report and how brands can apply these findings to their own marketing strategies.

(All charts via Moz and BuzzSumo.)

1. The majority of posts receive very few shares and links

It might be hard to believe when you’re looking at that BuzzFeed article with 10,000 shares, but most content just doesn’t get shared or linked to much, if at all. After looking at sample of 100,000 posts, BuzzSumo and Moz found that more than half had two or fewer Facebook interactions and Twitter shares, one or zero Google+ shares, and no LinkedIn shares.

A larger sample of over 750,000 posts that received numerous shares was discovered to have very few links. In fact, more than 50 percent of these had no linkbacks at all.

From this data, we can extrapolate two things: Most digital content has no impact, and marketers may not be paying enough attention to distribution to increase the exposure of their content. BuzzSumo’s Steve Rayson writes:

What we found is that the majority of content published on the internet is simply ignored when it comes to shares and links. The data suggests most content is simply not worthy of sharing or linking, and also that people are very poor at amplifying content. It may sound harsh but it seems most people are wasting their time either producing poor content or failing to amplify it.

2. Content with research and strong opinions drive more shares and links

We might assume an article with a lot of shares will also generate a lot of external links, but that isn’t the case. While some sites do see a high correlation of shares and links—The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and The Atlantic among them—this overlap was not visible with content from the majority of sites analyzed (which include 600,000 other domains).

Why do some sites fare better than others in this respect? The study concludes that the sites with higher correlations tend to be “respected sites that produce regular content about the latest developments in their areas.” See the chart below for a few more examples of sites that had strong correlations between shares and links.

The takeaway here is that people link to content backed by research and reporting, as well as opinion content that’s respected for its distinct point of view. Here’s another way of looking at it: Audiences may feel more compelled to share and link to content that has gained their trust. Rayson writes:

Whilst almost everyone can share content, often through the click of a button, not everyone can easily link to content. The fact that sites such as Five Thirty Eight and Pew Research achieve over 18 referring domain links on average is a testament to the power of research content.

3. Certain formats—listicles and videos—get more shares

To determine which content formats perform best, BuzzSumo and Moz analyzed list posts, quizzes, “why” posts, “how to” posts, infographics, and videos.

List posts, “why” posts, and videos were found to have a higher correlation between sharing and linking.

Interestingly, not all videos have the same ability to acquire links. The study found that Vine videos received many shares but hardly any external or referring domain links. “Six-second content is likely to be entertaining rather than informative and helpful,” Rayson explained. YouTube videos and quizzes also got many shares but no links.

The bottom line: Strive for a balanced publishing output if you’re aiming for both shares and links.

4. The length of your text content matters

Last year we learned that, contrary to popular belief, longform stories have a better chance of going viral than short posts, with the optimal length being upwards of 2,000 words. After studying close to 490,000 text-based articles, BuzzSumo and Moz found that 80 percent of content contains fewer than 1,000 words, while only 2.5 percent surpasses 3,000 words. Once again, though, longer content was found to produce more shares and links.

In fact, the average number of shares of stories between 3,000 and 10,000 words had more than double the average number of shares and triple the number of links than articles under 1,000 words.

With so much evidence pointing to the benefits of longform content, it’s time for brands to commit to high-quality, in-depth storytelling. Snackable content isn’t filling readers up these days.

5. People share content that’s personal, but link to content that’s useful

Why consumers share and link is still a bit of a mystery, but BuzzSumo and Moz have some solid theories. Based on their research, they believe these behaviors have become very personal acts—we do it to reveal our passions or show support for colleagues and friends. Because clicking a share button requires minimal effort, the majority of content will always receive more shares than links—particularly if it’s entertaining.

Since getting some to link to your work takes more effort, authoritative content that delivers value and is backed by sound research is your best bet, which also explains why insightful longform articles from respected publications have performed well on this front.

Hopefully this analysis will take out some of the guesswork moving forward, but remember that going viral is never a sure thing, not even if you use the perfect number of emojis.

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