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You Are Now in the Viral Content Business: 5 Rules to Get Started

It wasn’t long ago that nobody used the phrase “content marketing.”

Nobody wrote about it.

Nobody searched for it (see above image).

Today, it’s everywhere. From the businesses springing up around the term to the pivots existing marketing agencies are making to offer this to their clients, you’d think this was a new method. Something you need a specialized consultant to help you sort out, no doubt.

But smart orgs have been using content marketing for more than 100 years.

Rendered animal parts + content marketing = massive success

Francis Woodward bought JELL-O from his neighbors, Pearle and May, for $450 in 1897. Pearle and May had worked to create new flavors, but they found no way to market the product. Turned out that a substance made from rendered animal parts didn’t quite sell itself.

Woodward himself struggled at first and found limited success running traditional advertisements.

Then he sent an army of salesmen out to distribute free recipe books.

Woodward’s company gave away more than 15 million of these free recipe books.

The strategy worked. JELL-O became a household name, and Woodward died a millionaire.

What’s the difference between this strategy and the one MailChimp is employing when they create email marketing guides like the one below?

The obvious difference is the distribution. You no longer need to send an army out on foot to get the content into the hands of consumers. The Internet made that part cheap and scalable.

The problem? The Internet made it cheap and scalable. With the business world turned on to this strategy, competition for audience attention is getting tougher by the minute. Only the absolute best content, with smart distribution, gets legs. If you’re eager to jump in, carefully consider the following before you put the geekery to work on this.

1. Content no longer has novelty (so build phenomenal stuff)

When JELL-O started distributing cookbooks, it was still interesting to people to receive a piece of media like that.

Today, we’re bombarded with content all day long, and a lot of it is good stuff. How do we decide what to pay attention to? We raise our standards. Once again, only the best content with the clearest value and most digestible format gets through.

Bottom line: If you aren’t creating content people can’t help but read and share, don’t bother.

2. Infographics are overused, but they work

Interest in infographics (data visualization) has also exploded in the last couple of years.

There’s even been some backlash on this tactic. It’s reached that level of popularity where even your cabbie is going to recommend it to you.

But it still works.

We’re all incredibly busy and inundated with content every day. Data visualization gives us less reading, makes complex concepts easy to grasp and overall makes for a more pleasurable learning experience. As a result, we share/link to this content more readily.

This excellent post from @mikecp at SEOmoz covers the topic well and provides some great examples of successful infographics.

3. Content doesn’t promote itself

You can craft the greatest content in the world, but without a strategy to spread it, it won’t get legs.

Ideally this means building connections with the people who influence a given audience, and who can bring reach to the equation. In the long term, it means becoming an influencer yourself.

You may not be there yet in terms of your own reach or connections with those who have it, in which case partnering with or hiring someone who brings that to the table is your best option. Social seeding services, StumbleUpon’s Paid Discovery, blog outreach specialists – more robust options for filling this need are showing up every day.

The takeaway is to have a plan—to remember that all digital media is curated, and unless people find your content compelling enough to spread, it’ll do nothing for you.

4. The form should match your production resources

This should be obvious, but don’t start a blog if nobody wants to write for it regularly. You can pin it on someone, add it to their job description, but if they don’t enjoy the process the output will suffer.

Blogging is a long-term game. It takes time to figure out who the players are, build an audience and make connections in your corner of the blogosphere (if you don’t have them already). A blog is a great way to go, since you end up owning your distribution channel instead of renting, but if you can’t get the publishing/promotional processes and resources in place in the near term, you need to look at other strategies.

Brief aside: There is no rule about blogging frequency. Many “experts” are ready to tell you to blog “once per week” minimum, but consider the case of OkCupid’s blog. They post around once per month, and each post has attracted links from 50+ websites. Nothing to sneeze at.

In other words, there is no golden rule for frequency, but there is a golden rule for quality: make the content as phenomenal as you can.

If a blog doesn’t fit considering your resources and the likelihood of frequent posts, articles and infographics can be featured on simple, static pages. “Sitting is Killing You,” a massively successful infographic from (it attracted links from ~750 websites), doesn’t publish infographics like this through a blog. They built a simplified version of their overall website template (removing the clutter so the content shines) and a basic index page to feature all infographics.

Blogs, with time stamps, bylines and RSS feeds, tend to set the expectation of frequently posted content. Stay realistic about how committed you are to meeting that expectation.

5. Your content and your products/services can target two different audiences

A lot of people get hung up on this one.

Web users often consume and share—shall we call it “irreverent content.” Sometimes a little off-color humor, or a concept that breaks the PG rules your internal censors have set for marketing materials, is just the flavor you need.

When linkbait works, you start getting more traffic for all of your target keywords. These are users who are searching to meet a need and finding your site. They have no concern with, or awareness of, how you built the link equity to get there.

Try to find the “Sitting is Killing You” infographic by navigating from the home page. I tried myself for 2-3 minutes and gave up.

The infographic built a ton of link equity, and it passes that equity back to the rest of the site through links back to the home page and a few other pages. Those links do not need to go both ways. The entire site ranks better, and the content can remain relatively hidden to the target visitor who comes in through search or another channel.

Additional Reading

Viral/linkbait/content marketing has a number of yields beyond simply “building links.” It has goals beyond SEO, and there are a lot of ways to approach the game.

Here are a few great resources to get started on brainstorming, crafting and promoting content – for links and other outcomes:

  • Distilled’s “SEO Guide to Creating Viral Linkbait and Infographics“—this is one of the most robust, helpful guides on this topic yet published. Bookmark this one.
  • Jon Cooper from Point Blank SEO posted “10 Extraordinary Examples of Effective Link Bait” at the Moz blog. This post covers some excellent examples of content pieces that have yielded a ton of link equity.
  • Copyblogger is a great resource overall—their content is always well-written, and they work hard to boil concepts down to straightforward and actionable advice. Their Content Marketing 101 series is a great primer on building a content strategy for your business.

Do you have additional resources/tips for crafting a content marketing/linkbait strategy? Please share them in the comments.



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