This post is based on episode 201 of the ProBlogger podcast.
“How do you create content that goes viral?”
I remember getting this question from a new blogger. They wanted a post to go viral on their blog, thinking it would suddenly shoot their blog’s traffic and profit into the stratosphere.
And who knows? It may have done just that. Unfortunately, without having plenty of content in their archive there’s a good chance those numbers would have come crashing down pretty quickly.
So I told this particular blogger what they needed to hear rather than what they wanted to hear. And I thought it would be worth sharing what I said with you all this week.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing content that might be shared hundreds or even thousands of times. I often talk about how important it is to write sharable content. But ‘going viral’ won’t necessarily give you the sustained traffic you need to make it as a full-time blogger.
While some bloggers may have achieved overnight success on the back of a single post, in most cases it took months (if not years) for them to become full-time bloggers. I’ve met thousands of bloggers over the years, and the fastest any of them have reached the full-time level is four months. And that was certainly the exception to the rule.
Most people take a longer to reach full-time status. And they achieve it by taking one step at a time.
In the early days of Digital Photography School, I was obsessed with having my posts go viral.
And in January 2007 it finally happened.
The blog was about seven months old at the time, and I was averaging around 4,000 visitors a day. I certainly wasn’t complaining about the traffic I had, which came from a combination of:
- readers from my previous photography blog
- lots of evergreen content
- ranking relatively well in search.
But I’d been sitting on that number for a while, and I was no longer satisfied. I wanted more traffic, and I began to look at what other sites were doing.
I was particularly drawn to social bookmarking sites such as dig.com, which were huge at the time. I started analyzing the content being shared a lot on these sites. And I discovered certain characteristics they all shared.
I started writing similar content to those posts being shared over and over. It was quite different to the content I’d written so far. My posts became quite ‘fluffy’ – not very deep, and not very helpful either to be honest. They were written more to create controversy than to help anyone. And they all had titles that were practically clickbait.
And then I’d pitch them to sites by saying, “Here’s a post that might interest you and your readers”.
One of the sites I pitched my posts to was Lifehacker. And when they took the bait and linked to one of those posts, my traffic doubled overnight.
But that was just the beginning. The next day it was picked by digg.com, and I ended up with more than 100,000 visitors in a single day. I can still remember sitting at my computer, watching my stats climb every time I refreshed the page.
It was an incredible rush. And with it came the feeling that I’d finally be able to blog full-time.
But those incredible numbers didn’t last long, and the next day I had 4,100 visitors.
I was so disappointed.
I understand why so many people want their content to go viral. Getting that rush of traffic was amazing, and I doubt I’ll ever forget how I felt that morning. But despite trying to get all those new readers to read another post, sign up for my RSS feed and follow me on Twitter, I never got that traffic again.
For the next month my traffic was back to around 4,000 visitors a day. It started getting me down – I really wanted another rush of traffic. I wrote more posts like the first one, trying to recreate the scenario. But none of them took off. I pitched almost every post I wrote to Lifehacker, but they didn’t link to any of them. I even tried to game Digg and get my post voted up there, without success.
I was obsessed with going viral again. I desperately wanted a repeat of my earlier ‘success’. But all it did was encourage me to write more fluffy content designed to trigger shares rather than serve my readers. And while I did manage to get a few more posts to go viral, the spike in traffic lasted just as long.
My obsession with going viral continued for months. And then one day I realized what my 4,000-visitors-a-day figure really meant.
I had 4,000 people coming to my site every day. Out of all the web sites on the internet, they were making a conscious decision to spend some of their time on mine. And while I wasn’t getting 100,000 visitors a day, those numbers meant I was getting around 120,000 visitors a month.
Which was definitely worth celebrating.
But I also realized they were now getting short-changed. Because each time they visited they were getting formulaic headlines and fluffy content written specifically to be shared rather than to solve their problems.
And that had to change.
I changed not only what I wrote, but how I wrote. My new goal was to serve the readers I already had, and to grow my traffic slowly over time rather than in one big hit.
Of course, to serve my readers I had to know what they wanted. So I asked them by sending out surveys with questions such as:
- “Who are you?”
- “What problems are you having?”
- “What questions do you need answered?”
From those surveys I learned a lot about my readers, the problems they faced and what they wanted to know about. And I wrote content specifically to answer their question and try to solve their problems rather than to get clicks. And because I wasn’t continually refreshing my stats to see whether I’d managed to go viral again, I had a lot more time to write it.
Not only was I writing more useful content, I was also writing more of it. I quickly went from four posts a week to five, seven and eventually ten.
The human touch
Another bonus was I also had more time to interact with my readers. I started responding to comments more often, and we started a forum to try and build a community there.
I also started taking advantage of the traffic I was getting by encouraging those visitors to become subscribers. I focused more on building my email list and creating email content that would engage those readers and bring them back to the site again and again.
I still tried to write the occasional piece of shareable content. But rather than try to hit the ball out of the park with every post, I’d try it once in a dozen or so posts.
And as it turned out, whenever I did write sharable content my writers happily shared it for me because I was serving them better.
Again, they were just spikes rather than a massive growth for my blog. But they certainly helped in terms of social proof.
A month after deciding to focus on my readers rather than my traffic, I was getting 4,500 visitors a day. Three months later that figure had grown to 6,000 visitors a day. And a year later my blog was getting 9,000 visitors a day.
It still gets the occasional spike in traffic. But those spikes are just a bonus. My goal is to grow my traffic from day to day and have people stick around for the long term.
And now, getting 100,000 visitors a day is normal for us. But only because I stopped chasing viral traffic and started creating content to help my readers.
I honestly hope you get to experience that moment when one of your posts goes viral and your traffic goes through the roof. But don’t let it distract you from your long-term goals. Remember why you started blogging in the first place. And never take the fact people are choosing to visit your blog again and again for granted.
Look after them. And in the years to come, they will look after you.
Image credit: George Pagan III