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Mudslinging, Money Quotes, and Magic Tricks: How to Make Your Content Go Viral

Couldn’t Make it to SXSW? Here are the 10 key takeaways from our panel

I haven’t been to a panel this well prepared in a really long time. I came in three minutes late and I really regret it.

Yes, that’s an actual quote from a SXSW panel attendee. The first day of SXSW ended on a high note with an informative panel hosted by Talia Stroud, Director of the Center of Media Engagement, which brought together unique perspectives that deal with social media and news day in and day out.

From a Politico Social Media Head to professors who study social news distribution to a business that deals with social media and publishing every day, panel attendees got a well-rounded presentation that brought key social insights and strategy to the table.

You can listen to the whole panel and the audience Q&A through the player below; for more context you can also download the panelist’s slidedeck by clicking here.

Panel Speakers

Here are the keys takeaways shared during the panel for creating engaging content across all verticals.

10 Strategies to Boost Engagement on Your Content

1. There is no shortcut to storytelling. Focus on storytelling first and foremost.

Since the beginning of time humans have been exchanging stories. Science has proven that storytelling promotes recall, trust, and empathy and has the power to convince and persuade.

The most engaging and resonant content still relies on the “Five Stages of Storytelling”. Take a look at one of the most popular super bowl commercials of 2017.


2. Tell stories on platforms; don’t just push out headlines or “content.”

When you’re relying 100% on the headline or thumbnail to drive engagement for your content, it will not make it far on social.

2016-2018 marked the rise and fall of clickbait and low effort content on social networks. Facebook started rolling out updates and punishments for pages that engaged in like/engagement baiting and clickbait titles. They started analyzing the landing pages of linked content to determine if they were too spammy. Twitter enhanced their anti-spam technology and vowed to monitor global conversations for potential manipulation. All social networks have action plans that lay the groundwork to destroy click-bait and misleading articles, while putting emphasis on genuine conversations and high quality content.

Put effort into your content and storytelling and don’t publish a piece just because you think people will click on it.

3. A common attribute of the best stories and most engaging content is that they elicit a reaction. They engage you, they draw you in, they mean something to you.

There are bad stories and good stories. Bad stories are disorganized, meandering, and are detached from the human experience.

Good stories deliver a message and make an individual feel something: outrage, sadness, joy, surprise, etc. You’ve heard the idiom “Action Creates Emotion,” but it works the other way too.

4. A quick trick doesn’t work if you use it as an overall technique.

There is no “one weird trick” that applies to every social situation online. As a publisher, social media manager, writer, or journalist, you’ll have to use your best judgement about curating your content’s social packaging and what will make it resonate further with your audience.

Publishers often rely on creating headlines by turning the headline into a question. The Center for Media Engagement found that across two seperate studies analyzing reader behavior, question headlines don’t perform well consistently.

Adopting a certain headline formula, type of thumbnail, post text sentence structure or posting content at a specific time of day will not be a cure-all for audience engagement.

5. Understand your audience. Even your audience on a single platform can be divided up into more specific targeting.

If you post a piece of content to your page, you’re using a “one size fits all” approach. Know your audience.

Find out why your audience doesn’t engage with an issue you consider important and repackage it. Oftentimes audiences aren’t engaged because of bland packaging. Make sure issue reporting has human interest, convey the negative impacts of an issue not having a policy resolution. Hypocrisy and broken systems always elicit outrage and calls for action.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your audiences are only separated by social platform. A single social platform’s audience contains numerous segments. Much like how a politician tailors their stump speech to different states and cities, you’ll benefit from tailoring your content to each of your audience segments.

To make sure that you’re tapping into your content’s maximum potential test different content packages across social platforms and audience segments. Promote the variation that’s performing best and learn general trends about what kind of content your audience likes to consume.

6. Think about how you can make the conversation more meaningful.

With Facebook’s announcement that it was going to show publishers less in the main newsfeed, making the conversation meaningful is more relevant than ever. Shares and Comments are now more highly valued than views or likes. Facebook’s metrics reflect that too. Think about what your piece of content is doing to further the conversation.

Neutral thumbnails and text copy aren’t bad, but they’re not going to give you spectacular performance.

The Center for Media Engagement ran a study during the 2016 Election analyzing whether positive or negative packaging impacted how readers engaged with social content. They found there was a marginal reader preference toward negative images and, interestingly, that the positivity or negativity of headlines did not have a consistent effect across tests. To verify their findings, their second test was run near the end of the election where they found articles with negative images did not perform better in engagement. Ultimately, this led researchers to the conclusion that tone was situational and impacted by current events.

To further corroborate these findings, Naytev and Politico both have experiences that lean towards situational emotion use. Naytev ran a study in partnership with Refinery29 that explored the relationship between user engagement and emotional headlines. The study determined that positive and negative headlines performed at the same engagement level depending on the situation, while neutral headlines had the worst engagement.

Politico has also found emotional images perform better than neutral images. Faces and motion are key elements that cause a reader to pause in the newsfeed. But you need to have your images match the headline in emotion and subject matter. If your image isn’t adding to your overall content packaging, you’re losing engagement.

8. Pick the “Money Quote.” Fact checking, Data and Answers Really Resonate with the Audience. Sometimes the quote itself is the story.

Repackaging your content doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to have meaningful differences. You don’t have to refactor the headline completely. Instead take a fact, figure or quote out of your article in order to share a different facet of your story.

9. What performs best on-site will not be the same thing that performs best on social. Focus on diversifying the packaging of storytelling.

Although you have full control over your website and the client experience, social media platforms are completely different. Make sure to test what packaging of your story has maximum shareability and drives the most engagement on the social network of your choice.

10. If you’re not iterating on how you’re targeting, you’re missing out.

Test, Tailor and No Tricks. That’s the entire panel summed up in five words.

The value of A/B Testing has been battle-tested by businesses, news organizations and, now, academia. If you’re posting your content without running iterative tests on your audience or your packaging you will not get the most out of your content.

In the quickly shifting world of social media, wayfinding and seeing what your audience reacts to best will move the needle in terms of engagement. Don’t rely on stale strategies. Social is always changing, so you need to be agile and keep on top of trends as well. Testing will help you do that.

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