How to Create Content that Gets Shared on Social

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

How do you create content that gets shared on social media? To answer this question I’ve had a chat with Steve Rayson, co-founder of Buzzsumo, a social search tool designed to support content marketers in finding great content and understanding influence or amplification. Have a listen to the podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud, or keep reading for a transcript of our conversation.

What’s the shift from search to social, “peak Google”?

There’s quite a lot of research done on this. And mostly Google’s still huge, but there’s a concept like peak oil or some maximum oil consumption. And, looking at some of the data, actually, I think it was last year for the first year, that actual numbers or volumes of Google searches actually just flattened or decreased slightly. There’s a lot of evidence and research from people like Shareaholic, who track about 350,000 sites, and they see where people visit the sites from. Traditionally, the majority of visits have come from search engines to the sites. Last year, for the first time, more people came from social networks than from search engines. And I think there’s an interesting concept: the way social’s becoming a content discovery layer.
I think it varies for all of us, but I know for me personally, I’m probably spending less time inputting terms into Google. I still do it, but I see lots of interesting articles and information come through my Twitter feed, LinkedIn, or Facebook, and I click on those articles, I have read them, etc. So content discovery, a lot of it’s happening through recommendations from friends on social. And so that’s not to say Google’s not necessary because if you’re trying to find something, you’re still going to search there, but as a content discovery layer, social’s really growing, and it’s driving a lot of referrals to sites. And I think we’ll continue to see that happen, really. So it depends on how we all do it, or how you do it, but I know for me, I find a lot of interesting articles that just appear in my feeds these days, and then I click through.
And, there was a good study last year that the New York Times did, which looked at traffic to their sites. And they found in the past that people came to the homepage and then they would browse, etc. And what they’re finding now is that people visit their content through what they called “social side doors,” which is people see somebody refer to an article, they click on it, they go across to the site, they read it, they go back to their feed. And so they never see the homepage, and so visitors to homepages of sites are actually declining quite markedly. And so there’s all this time spent on designing a perfect homepage, whereas actually, people are often going directly to an article and out again. So it’s pretty interesting just how people are browsing the web.

Which social network drives the most traffic to websites?

Yeah, it’s Facebook. Shareaholic probably have the best data, although if you look at most shared, it’s nearly always Facebook shares that dominate. It varies a little bit from topic to topic if you’re looking at leadership and things, LinkedIn’s actually very strong. But across all topics, it’s overwhelmingly Facebook. Interestingly, Facebook is still growing faster than Twitter, even though it’s much more significant, it’s still growing users faster. So yes, when you look at social sharing, Facebook is absolutely dominant.

Why is it essential to find and identify great content online?

I think I’ve got a couple of reasons, really. I mean, the first reason is to understand what’s great content, you have to define what you mean by that, but often we’re looking for content that resonates, that gets linked to, and that gets shared a lot. I think as much only as just to understand your audience because you need to understand what content resonates with your audience. If you’re writing content, what sort of content engages them, what content do they share? So one of the reasons I think people come to Buzzsumo initially and just do a search for the most shared content on a topic is just to see what type of content is resonating with their audience, and I think that’s one of the most critical elements of why you should try and find good content.
I think the other thing is just to keep up to date with your professional area. It’s a bit scary at the moment, we can all become sort of obsolete faster than we ever could before. The pace of knowledge and new things coming out means that we will go to bed and wake up sort of dumber than we went to bed as new things have been learned in that time period. So keeping pace is really hard. So the way I look for great content is I just search for what was the most shared content in a topic this week, just so I can make sure I’m keeping pace with it, or what’s trending in the last few days. So I think understanding what resonates with your audience and also keeping track of things are both reasons to be looking out for great content, really.

What’s a step-by-step approach to creating content that gets shared?

To me, I think, obviously, the heart of it is about the content itself, what’s the nature of the content? And there’s been a lot of research done on what’s the content that people share. People share things if it’s interesting to other people, if they think it’s helpful to other people, or if they think it really is genuinely entertaining, sort of amusing etc., or amazing. So we know a bit about why people share, and so successful content has to hit some of those buttons, really. For me, personally, if you’re in the business-to-business space, I think it’s got to be content with some form of value, which might come from research. It might come from insights into work that you’ve done.
But it’s really got to have intrinsic value to be shared. No one’s going to share marketing collateral, but people might share a case study about how somebody improved their performance by using a particular tool. I think it’s got to be informative, and add some real value there. I mean, on the consumer side, there’s no question, that content that is genuinely sort of entertaining or amazing, that sort of content gets shared really well. So I think the starting point for me is what’s the core of your content about, and does it hit those buttons, really?
I mean, once you focus on that content, then there are all the standard things about the style in which you write it, is it really easy to read, easy to scan? They’re much more conversational style these days. But things like formats really matter as well, whether you do that as an infographic whether you do it as a how-to post, or whether you do it as a list post or a video. Formats matter, and what we see is when we research different topics, in some topics, video works really well. In other topics it doesn’t work so well, and actually, a list post works much better. And so we find, from topic to topic, different formats. It actually makes quite a difference. Long-form content typically gets more shares and more links than shorter-form content. And we analyze hundreds of millions of articles to look at that, and on average, that is the case. There are exceptions, but on average, that’s the case. And then there are just simple things like headlines. Headlines really matter, in terms of driving people through to read content and things like that. So it’s worth spending time on, then crafting out your headlines.
All those things go into making a great piece of content, but a great piece of content on its own isn’t enough, really. There’s just so much content out there, that people are not going to find your content. It’s sad but true. People just won’t find your content, in my view, unless you actively promote it. And I think that’s the key mistake, often, people do make, which is, that you create a great piece of content, but you just don’t spend enough time promoting it. So you have to create content, but you have to get it promoted to get it out there and to get people to see it and share it.
I think you should spend at least the same amount of time on the promotion of your blog post or your article as you do creating it. And probably more, it’s probably more shifting towards the sixty to eighty percent on promotion. People do say, if you create good content, people will find it, but I just don’t think that’s true. I think there’s so much content you have to do quite a lot to get it actively pushed out to people. And then, if it’s good, people will share it. But you’ve got to get it in front of at least a certain number of people.

What mistakes do you see companies making in their content marketing efforts?

I think first that point about lack of promotion. I think some people write the content and don’t think about promotion. So you have to think about promotion before you even write the post. How are you going to promote it? Why is it going to be interesting? Which forums, which people would share it? So you have to think about promotion from the very first day, I think, and that’s a big mistake I think people make.
I think the other one is that content marketing, at one level, is very straightforward, but it’s also quite hard work. I mean, what seems to be the key to content marketing is you have to produce good content consistently, and so you have to produce a lot of content on a consistent basis. You can’t just do it for two or three months like a campaign and stop, because you’ll then see traffic drop and all those sorts of things. It has to be consistent. And the people who are good at it, the one thing they’re always good at is consistency. They’re always driving regular, good-quality content, often on a weekly or a daily basis. It seems to me that people underestimate how much content you need.
I was talking to somebody the other day who said, “On our content, we want to be like Harvard Business Review. It’s really good quality content, but you know, so it’s just, we don’t produce so much of it, but we want to be like Harvard Business Review.” And so I said, “Well, do you know how many articles a month Harvard Business Review publishes?” And they were saying, “Oh, 10, 20.” And I said, “No, actually, it’s 280, on average.” On average, they publish 280 good-quality articles. And obviously, big sites are posting even more than that. So you do need to publish consistently, but you also need to print a fair volume of content, I think, to build your brand for people to become familiar with it. And I think people often don’t realize that. On the good side, I don’t think it’s super complicated. I think if you just produce consistently good content on a regular basis, you will be able to build a brand, you will be able to build traction, and that will grow. And I think there’s loads of evidence for that. But it’s just hard work. It’s hard work in terms of consistently producing good content that people are interested in. So I’d say that’s another mistake, because people aren’t consistent enough, or they simply don’t produce good enough content or enough content. They might make it for a month or two months like a campaign, but you have to do more than that in my view. It’s a bit like podcasts and everything else. Once you do them on a consistent basis, people get into the swing with that. So yeah, I think that’s one of the mistakes people make, at least.

How can you write the perfect how-to post?

How-to posts, I think, had a lot of favor, there’s lots of different formats. But how-to posts are good because they, by their very nature, add value to people. So you know, how to do something on Google, how to use a particular piece of software or something. So a how-to post intrinsically has some value, so I think people like it. So we are, we pulled data from over a million posts recently and just looked at what makes a really good how-to post, and shared that. And I think there are a number of elements to it.
I mean, the first thing is it’s got to be a good how-to post, a how-to post is answering a question, how do I do something? So the starting point is simply what questions are people asking? So there’s no point writing a great how-to post if no one’s asking the question. And so you have to understand your audience, and you can do that in lots of ways. And I’ve worked in a number of companies where you can talk to sales teams, and see what questions people are asking the salespeople, or often the support teams, what questions are coming up in support teams, on ticketing desks, etc. But you can also use the web, I mean I quite like, it if you search Quora, or you can use Google or Buzzsumo to search Quora and see what questions are being asked. So you can literally do a site: on, space, whatever topic you want, and it will show you some of the recently asked questions. So I think understanding the questions that people are looking for answers to is a starting point.
And once you decide on the question you want to answer, my personal view on this is you have to be the best answer. I was talking to Lee Odden about this, and he was saying, “You have to be the best answer,” and I think he’s right on that. Because you don’t want 10 posts on how to do something, you want to find the best post. And so if you’re going to address that question, you know, how to use Google Adwords, how to do whatever it happens to be, you want to be the very best post in that space, because I think it is a bit of a winner-takes-all game. And there might be two or three good posts, but nobody wants another post on it, which is, just, no, it doesn’t add any value to somebody else. And I think Neil Patel does this well, in terms of, he tries to produce a comprehensive guide to a topic. So his posts, his how-to is really the one that covers everything. There’s nothing more frustrating to me than clicking on a headline, going through it, and seeing, well, this person hasn’t added any value to what I knew from other posts. So I think if you’re going to write how-to posts, you want to be the best possible answer, so it’s got to be very comprehensive.
And I think the other thing is to have a very clear structure that works for how-to posts. And there’s a whole industry on this called “eLearning,” where people are looking at on-screen instructional design, about how people learn and how you take people through stages. So you get their attention, you explain a concept, you exemplify that concept with an example, you find other examples, etc. Further information, you provide the next steps. There is a learning structure that we can learn from when we’re writing content, and so I think how-to posts, in particular, you can learn from instructional design principles that are set out in lots and lots of eLearning manuals. But I think if you get them right, they’re really good and add a lot of value, so I think that you get a lot of goodwill back if you write a good how-to post, there’s a lot of goodwill that comes back to you because you’re helping somebody to do something. You’re helping them develop a skill or improving their knowledge.

How do you create the perfect picture list post?

I’ve been trying to coin this phrase, “picture list posts.” I mean, everyone knows what a list post is, it’s something that begins with a number, and list posts are incredibly powerful. I mean, I would say I search lots and lots of different topics. I’d say, more often than not, list posts are the most shared content formula. People do seem to like sharing stuff that begins with a number. Interestingly, the most common number shared is 10, so no surprise there. It’s a bit of a dodo moment when the most common is 10. Although the second most shared number for list posts across the hundreds of millions of articles that we looked at is actually 23.
I can’t work out why 23. It might simply be self-fulfilling because sometimes Buzzfeed people use it, and other people copy it. It was the bowling lane in The Big Lebowski, that was the only lane they ever bowled in, was lane 23, so maybe it was that. The other thing that’s powerful is images, and we know people like images. And, the other thing that’s powerful is curation, and I think the reason that a picture list post is a sort of perfect piece of content, in a way, is it combines all three. If you do really good curation, so I don’t know, you could just be looking for, what are good examples of a small garden design? Or a homepage, or whatever it happens to be. You do good curation, you create it as a list post, and then you have a nice series of images. So 10 images of the best homepage designs or the best way of doing something. They work really well, and you see those consistently get viral shares.
In fact, I was looking the other day, at the most shared post on The Guardian, a UK newspaper that is now more global, the most shared post there was a post on over-consumption in pictures. And it was literally ten pictures about over-consumption in the world. And so they work really well because I think it is that combination of it’s a list post, it’s nicely curated, and it’s got images. And so the three together work really well. So I think there’s this scope for all of us, in all of our work, to think of where could we use picture list posts as they are inherently very shareable.

Why should you track competitors’ content, and how do you do it?

The first part of the answer is, it’s important to track what your competitors are doing. In any world, we don’t need to be paranoid about them, but we need to know what’s working for our competitors. Because we don’t know everything, we can learn from others. So I’d like to see what’s happening with competitors, what type of content’s working for them, what networks are they getting traction on, etc. So it is important to track your competitors, and I think most people do it.
In terms of how to do it, I think there are a number of things you can do. So I would start, obviously, I would probably start with Buzzsumo, but I would do a content analysis report. You can put a domain name into Buzzsumo, and we will show you how many posts they’ve published for any time period, and what their average shares are. So you can easily see, you do a domain comparison of you and them. So how many posts did they publish in the period, how many did you publish, what are their average shares, and what are your average shares? You will then also get a breakdown of their most popular content formats. We’ll show the average shares for list posts, how-to posts, why posts, videos, etc. So do an analysis of what type of posts they’re publishing, and which ones are working best for them.
You can also see which networks they’re getting the most traction on. Are they getting the most traction on Facebook, or is it on Twitter? And again, it varies hugely from organization to organization. Whilst we talk about Facebook being huge, if you look at somebody like Moz, most of their shares take place on Twitter. So it’s interesting to see where people are getting their traction. So I would start with a content analysis report, but I would also just go to Buzzsumo and put in their domain name. You can just get the most shared content for any domain if you just go to Buzzsumo, type in “,” or any domain you want, and we’ll simply show you the most shared content for that site. So it’s great, you can see the most shared content, you can filter it for the last week, the last month, whatever you want.
But it does more than that, it shows you the headlines, and then what’s even more important is it shows you how it got amplified. You can also see who linked to that content, and you can also see who shared it. And I think they’re two quite important things in terms of understanding who’s linking to and who’s sharing your competitor’s content because they’re effectively the people amplifying your competitor’s content. And are they sharing your content? If they’re not, I find them a really good list of people I want them to contact. So if there’s a close competitor, and I’ve got a list there which I can export of, say, 500 people who shared it, they might be people I want to target with a Twitter-tailored audience ad, or I might want to start building relationships with, because they shared something very relevant and I want to sort of engage them in my content.
But also set up content alerts. You can set up content alerts, again, within the tool, you can set up content alerts to see every time your competitor is mentioned. And so we scour the whole of the web. Our alerts tool is probably the best feature at Buzzsumo, in my view. So if you put Buzzsumo in as an alert, or Link Humans, we will alert you every time that’s mentioned in any blog post, or any piece of content on the web, typically within five or 10 minutes of it being published. We’re very fast on picking things up. And so you can see when your competitors are being mentioned, and whether you should be mentioned, but you can also set up an alert for your competitor’s domain, and so we can simply alert you every time they publish new content. Or we can alert you every time they publish new content that gets more than a certain number of shares. So every time they publish content that gets more than 100 shares, or 1000 shares, or 10,000 shares. So, as soon as they’ve got breakout content, we can alert you so you can see really quickly and then respond quickly to what they’re doing.
So in my view, they’re the sorts of things you should be doing so you can understand your competitors’ content marketing, and what’s working for your competitors’ content marketing. What are they publishing, what do they have with shares, what are the topics, the top authors? But more importantly, who’s amplifying it, and can you use those amplifiers to help amplify your own content? So that’s some of the things that I do all the time, looking at competitors.

Why do we need employee personalities in social marketing?

I suppose on social, and I may be atypical, I don’t know. But I typically only follow people back on Twitter or follow people on Twitter if they’ve got a face and they’re human. I like to interact with people, really, rather than brands. I mean, brands do publish stuff, and there are obviously people behind brands, but I think there’s a very personal side of social which is about human contact, and human interaction. So I think you do need to promote individuals. And I think sometimes those individuals can have as big of an impact, almost, as the brands themselves. And we talked about Moz, but we know someone like Rand Fishkin, for example, at Moz. He probably has as many followers as the Moz Twitter account, I suspect, I don’t know.
But those people are the personality. They come across as people you can engage with on a very human level. So I think sometimes you see people not making use of real people to advocate on behalf of the brand. Obviously, you need the brand to count, as well, but I personally think that people are just so important, really, and it’s often the people who are the real influencers, and the people that people connect with and understand. And I think that you like to see people share other content, don’t you? It’s not just sharing work content. Somebody to say, “I’m in San Francisco today, and the weather is X, etc.” It’s a very human sort of interaction, and I think that’s important on social.
What I don’t see often with brands is them engaging their staff in sharing and engaging on social media. And often I’ll see a brand, and I’ll look at something for somebody, and it’s had 100 shares or 50 shares, but often you think, “Well, you’ve got 1,000 employees.” I did some analysis for the last election, and there’s a party over in the UK here called the Liberal Democrat Party. And sometimes their post from their official site was only getting like 30 shares, and then I had a look at it, and virtually none of their own MPs were sharing the content. And you think, well, if your own staff and your own people aren’t sharing your content, is anybody else going to share it?
Interestingly, here in the UK, there’s another party called UKIP. They did incredibly well. Their content, average on their site, they were getting something like 20,000 shares for a piece of content, which was similar to The Guardian. And that was just from their own site. And so they were really engaging people and getting people to do it through social networks, and I think UKIP was quite interesting because they probably did that better than any other party, I think, in the UK general election. And obviously, they didn’t win lots of seats, but they won over four million votes. And this was really, I suppose, their first real election.
I think there’s huge potential to get staff engaged, and to share some of your content, and then expand your reach. I know there are difficulties sometimes with people engaging on social media and confidentiality and those things, but, as a general rule I think there’s huge scope to get staff engaged a lot more and to help promote content and engage with customers. So I think it’s just underused at the moment.
I see a number of the tools [Hootsuite, LinkedIn Elevate, Dynamic Signal] now allowing you to create almost, like, approved tweets. So you can create essentially an approved tweet library and then your staff select from those tweets. But they don’t have to publish each one, but they can select a tweet that they like, or add a little bit to it. And that makes a degree of sense, as well, I think, in terms of having some approved tweets if you’re in a sensitive area.

What companies are doing content marketing, right?

I Freaking Love Science, which is of course, something else, is a tremendous viral site. And they’ve published short-form content that goes viral, and I’m really interested because long-form content typically works better, but they’re the exception to the rule, really. But what they do is find amazing scientific facts, so they’ll choose something which is quite remarkable. The size of a comet compared to the size of Los Angeles, and they’ll compare the two. It’s just got one image with two paragraphs of text, but they just focus on a simple concept, and it’s really explained well in a photo or a video. And on average, last year, I was looking at their content, and they were getting 30,000 shares on average per post, so it’s enormous. I mean, that’s the equivalent of Buzzfeed, and even slightly higher, I think.
But what they’re doing is short-form viral content just by focusing on a single scientific concept, and then a single image of video. People love that sort of content, and you only have to see their Facebook page. It’s at twenty-one million likes, so those guys really got that right. And primarily, it’s not their content, primarily they’re curating content, you’ll see the videos come from National Geographic, or they come from YouTube or somewhere, or the image comes from somebody else that they credit. What they’re really good at is curating content that will be of interest to people, and it’s often about new scientific discoveries, or new kinds of treatments, whatever it happens to be, or something in astronomy. But they’re really good at curating content that people are going to be interested in. So it’s often interesting, amazing, etc. I’m really interested in what they’re doing because it’s short-form content, which is unusual in the way it works, but it works fantastically well, so I’m thinking of doing some of my own posts of short-form content like that and seeing whether I can get that to work myself.
I like the way Country Outfitter in the US use quizzes to engage their audience, and I think that’s really quite interesting. So quizzes get shared a lot, people like to find out what they know, or quizzes about themselves. So obviously, quizzes is a really viral form of content. And they’re using it really as a brand. So they’re basically saying we’re country people so that they might have a quiz on country music, or do you know this, do you know that, etc., about their particular state or locality. And they get huge numbers of shares on that. And it’s just interesting the way they use quizzes a lot to engage with their audience. I think a lot of brands don’t use that type of content. For me, that’s another interesting use in terms of different types of content.
People like PlayBuzz are doing well with quizzes, but they’ve also started to focus on interactive content. And we may see more interactive content in the future, so a big one they did recently was just flip cards. Literally, it’s an image of an actor from a film, you click on it, and it flips around and it shows you what they look like in real life, which is often radically different.
And I think we’re seeing more interactive content of that type, as well, so whether it’s quizzes or flip cards, etc. I think we’re gonna see more interactive content that people engage with as opposed to just sort of text format content. I mean, video to a degree, can be interactive, but I see a lot of people are doing interesting things, and the technology’s going to allow us to do more of that in the future. So, I suspect we’ll see more interactive content.

What will happen over the next three years in the world of content marketing?

God, three years, that’s a long time in this world, but I don’t see the social stuff slowing down. I think it’ll just become part of the norm that people use social. I do think we’ll see more about social as this, what I will call a content discovery layer. So yes, we’ll have search engines, but we’re already having very specific types of search engines. So I don’t know, you go to Airbnb for property or a different site for, you know, a property site, for searching for that. So we get different types of searches.
Facebook search is really interesting and growing, there’s a lot of power now in Facebook’s search, so you can search for stuff that’s being shared there. Interestingly, there was an article out a few weeks ago saying, “I think millennial kids these days get most of their news through Facebook rather than from other sources.”
And I think the way people almost, I mean, I suppose I consider, like, a personal learning network, really. I mean, I don’t about you, but I follow whole Twitter lists of people who I think share interesting stuff. And they almost act as my newspaper, my curators. I mean, obviously, The Guardian has editors, and they curate interesting content on science and technology. But I can create my own Twitter list, or my own other list of people, of 10 people I think are really interested in, I don’t know, growth hacking, or the sharing economy. And they really became my editors. They curate content for me, and I look at what they’re sharing, and I don’t think I’m unusual in that, in that people are starting to almost put together their own little groups of editors via social and then look at stuff that they’re sharing. None of us have the time to see everything, but if I follow 10 experts in growth hacking, they’ll probably re-share something if it’s important and I need to see it, so they almost act as my editors in a way.
I think this whole layer about social, how social networks work, I think we’re just seeing it develop. I’m not sure which direction it will go, but I do think we’ll see more content discovery via social, whether it’s through those peer networks or just through friends. Obviously, search will remain really important if I want to find a restaurant or anything, that’s great.
But there are some limitations to Google, dare I say, in the sense that Google is based on authority sites. So I don’t know, you type “eLearning” into Google, and number one will be Wikipedia, I can almost guarantee, although search results vary a little bit, I can almost guarantee Wikipedia is number one because it’s based on authority. I could click news, but I often get a lot of press rubbish in there. If I’m a professional in that space, I might say, “Well, what’s the most shared content? What are my peers sharing this week about eLearning?” Okay, it’s not necessarily authoritative content in the same sense that Google ranks it on authority, but it equally has value, I think, to see what my peers are sharing in this space this week or last week. So I think we’ll just find different forms of the way people discover content, I think it’s gonna be interesting over the next couple of years.

Connect with Steve on Twitter @SteveRayson.


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