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Virality can occur somewhat by coincidence. Oftentimes, a piece of content strikes a chord with the masses and spreads like wildfire, without the creator being able to pinpoint exactly what made it so outrageously popular. The creator may have a general idea, but isn’t 100% sure, and how could they have been?

In the following weeks, the content creator puts out a similar piece that they are certain will take the Internet by storm, and it falls flat on its face. Why? Well, that really is the million-dollar question.

For every viral sensation, there are countless pieces of content that are created with the intent of going viral, but never make it. A large reason for this is because the content creators treat their content as a means to an end; too often the intent is to exploit the audience for their view, like, comment or share, without really giving anything back in return. And people wonder why corporations get a reputation for being soulless.

The why of content creation is just as important as the what. When creating a piece of content, if your solitary motive is to drive product sales, the chances are a) the audience will see straight through this, and b) it will not fulfill its potential. Human beings are emotional, and pre-programmed to share and collaborate. Give them the opportunity to do so — if not with your brand, then with each other.

Buzzfeed Co-Founder and CEO Jonah Peretti recently hosted a seminar at SXSW Interactive. He attributes a large portion of his company’s success in producing viral content to their core values; they want to have a positive emotional impact on the people who see their content. Their content is intended to cause a chain reaction that makes the experience of sharing between friends and family more than just the sharing of an article, video or quiz, but the sharing of emotions that the content piece provokes.

Peretti cited a prime example of this. After a series of school shootings in late 2012, morale was low, and many were dumbfounded over the recent atrocities. The population needed convincing that the evil featured so prominently in the media recently were the minority, and that the vast majority of society is well-intentioned. BuzzFeed stepped up to the plate, and delivered.

They noticed a trend; their audience was digging deep into the content archive to find uplifting pieces to share. After tapping into this insight, BuzzFeed curated an article comprising photos that would restore your faith in humanity. They posted the article front and center on their feed, with the intention of passing positivity onto their audience who would, in turn, pass it onto their own personal networks. And they did, more than 15 million times.

The net result was a well-timed, well-executed morale boost which falls among BuzzFeed’s most popular pieces of content. The intention was to have a positive impact on people’s lives; virality was merely a by-product of this.

BuzzFeed is the perfect company to do this, since their content does impact their bottom line every month. However, this can be applicable to all companies, and boils down to the principle of brand building vs. pushing product. Before planning, strategizing or creating a piece of content, ask yourself why you are doing it, and how it is going to have an impact on your audience. Remember, people want to be treated as people, and not single digits in the views, likes, comments or shares section.

There are many points of parity with viral content, such as a highly visual format, social media syndication, and mobile formatting. However, there are other, differentiating considerations that can help you eliminate the guesswork from your content’s prospects of virality. When planning, creating or publishing a piece of content, ask yourself the following 4 questions:

  1. What are your goals for the piece/series of content? If there are no goals centered around the audience, take another look at your goals, and work at redefining them.
  2. What is your content giving the audience? Virality is a quid-pro-quo agreement – don’t be selfish. Give the audience something meaningful on a consistent basis, and you will be justly rewarded, time after time.
  3. Is there a particular emotion that the audience will want to share with others after viewing or interacting with this piece of content? Present your audience with the opportunity to share experiences and emotions with the brand and/or each other.
  4. How subtle are you willing to be with your content’s branding? Over-branding a piece of content takes away from its innocence, and screams ulterior motive (think Sainsbury’s Christmas commercial 2014). If the content is effective, people will remember the brand anyway.