How to Write Longform Content That Goes Viral
On September 25, 2013 Alex Turnbull sat down at his computer and hit publish on a blog post that he’d been thinking about for a long time. For the last six months his company, GrooveHQ, had written content that Alex would have described as “B content.” It was a lot of “10 things about xyz”, “Great quotes to live by” and that jazz: the type of content that your marketer friend shares on Facebook because her company makes her do it.
When Alex hit publish he knew that he was doing something bold, something that would change the direction of his company. But he didn’t expect, in his wildest dreams that it’d receive the sort of attention that it did. That day he introduced a new GrooveHQ blog. He promised readers that he’d share every lesson he learned on his company’s journey to making $100,000 per month in revenue.
On November 25th, 2014 at 2:14pm EST — slightly more than one year after Alex hit publish and began sharing the details of his Journey to $100k — GrooveHQ reached its stated goal. Another two years later Alex reported that his company had reached a $5,000,000 annual recurring run rate (ARR).
Read enough of Alex’s blog posts and you’ll start to see a couple themes. The first theme you might notice is the occurrence of the word “value.” Alex is evangelical in his devotion to the startup philosophy that a company exists for one reason and one reason only: to create value for its customers. He gets on calls with all of his customers. He constantly asks for feedback. It’s evident that he goes to bed thinking about how to improve the lives of his customers, and wakes thinking about how he can help them achieve their goals. But that’s not necessarily unique in today’s world of tech.
What sets Alex apart from his founder peers is his devotion to transparency. The GrooveHQ blog didn’t invent “marketing by transparency” as a movement or tactic, but ask anyone in the industry and his blog is the one people point to as the best example of it.
In August of 2015 I decided to run a little experiment. I’d followed the success of the GrooveHQ blog and wondered if there was anything unique about Alex that made his blog posts such a success. Would it be possible to write my own story and get the sort of reception he’d received (or even a fraction of it).
A couple months prior I’d started a side project. I’d learned my fair share of business lessons. For example, technical chops aren’t a necessity to launch a company; and it’s possible to earn $5,000 per month without working long hours. With some of those lessons in mind, I decided to write a couple blog posts.
One Thursday I took my computer outside, where I didn’t have any Internet access, and started pounding away at my keyboard. I wrote everything I’d learned over the last few months. I tried to explain what experiments I’d run, and describe some of the emotions of running a company. Then I tried to weave it all into a story. The next day I posted my story and waited.
Within a couple hours I had 5,000 visitors to the site (more than 5 times the amount I’d received in the three months prior). By Saturday I had 15,000 visitors. My email inbox was filled with 200 free trial requests. That blog post, and the short series that followed it eventually earned my company about $25,000 in revenue. It was early traction that gave me the confidence to keep building. 18 months later, I sold that company, and those early blog posts were a big reason for my success.
When I launched a new company recently, I decided that I’d build it on the same content marketing acquisition strategy that I’d experimented with back in 2015. In the first few weeks I wrote three blog posts. They received a combined 30,000 unique visits, and all three hit the front page of HackerNews and Reddit /Entrepreneur. So in shameless Alex Turnbull fashion, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about writing content so far:
Tell human stories
Of the three blog posts that I’ve written, two have earned about 80% of the traffic. The other one received about 1/10th the traffic of those other two. And the reason seems pretty straightforward. While the top performing posts were stories about me — stories about my personal successes and failures — the other one was a story without a compelling narrative. It was too long to be useful (because it required 5 to 10 minutes of reading), and it was too short to engage readers in something of substance.
One of the things that Alex writes about so frequently at Groove is the importance that transparency has played in his success. His blog took off as soon as he started writing stories about the real trials and tribulations that come with starting a company. He achieved success as soon as he stopped writing like a company, and started writing like a human being. But this is hardly a new concept.
Every great story from the beginning of time has been a human story. From Homer’s Odyssey to Coelho's Alchemist, the narrative of every story is remarkably consistent: a human faces problems and solves them to achieve what they want. Sometimes the arc of a story is simple: the character faces one problem and solves it. Other times, the story unravels like a series of brackets opening in a math equation. Throughout the story, brackets are closed and new ones are opened. But regardless of style, every single story has this structure at its core.
Think about even the simplest of stories that we tell each other in the office:
This weekend I went up to the mountains because I’d heard the snow was good (character has indirectly stated that he/she wants to ski on good snow). But when I got up there the snow was awful and there were crowds all over the mountain (character has now directly stated the problem). So my buddy and I went to the backcountry and found powder below Lift 10 (character solves the problem).
Now that’s a bad story because it’s too simple. There’s no complexity of emotion expressed by the character, no unexpected surprise, or punchline. But it’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. And that is better than 90% of the corporate blogs out there.
For some reason when most marketers begin blogging they forget everything they know about storytelling. They post content like “The 10 things you didn’t know about XYZ” and stupid quotes that have already been written bazillions of times. Maybe it’s because they see the success of a Buzzfeed or Upworthy and don’t understand the intense engineering that goes into that stuff. Or maybe it’s because they’re lazy. But I will tell you from experience that posting content without story rarely works (more on the exception to this rule below).
The problem with a blog devoted to quotes and fun facts is that it doesn’t hook anyone. People don’t fall in love with quotes, they fall in love with the characters that wrote them. Hell, a blog post about Winston Churchill’s best vacation would be better than a quote featuring his writing.
As a general rule of thumb, your content will fall flat if it doesn’t have one or more of the following:
A character with complex emotions that other people can relate to
A character that has expressed their desires
A beginning, a middle and an end (chronological dates are a good starting point)
Write about other humans
One of the things that frustrated me so much when I first moved to Silicon Valley and began my career as a marketer was the fact that I hadn’t accomplished anything. If you’d told me that the key to marketing was telling great stories, it wouldn’t have helped. I didn’t have a story to tell. It was a loop that seemed impossible to break since everyone I asked told me that one way to achieve success was to write a blog like Alex’s. To that I replied, “Thanks for the idea, but I DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO WRITE ABOUT SINCE I’M 19 YEARS OLD.”
In hindsight this was a silly excuse. My mistake was thinking that in order to tell human stories I had to write about me. 4 years on, I understand that there are about 7 billion other humans that have interesting stories.
In doing research for my new company I stumbled across a blog called IndieHackers. If you’re reading this by way of HackerNews you’ve probably heard of it. If not, here’s the five second summary: A guy named Courtland interviews people that have started successful side projects and companies. He asks them what challenges they faced, and how they overcame them (sound familiar?). The thing that separates IndieHackers from the pack is the transparency that Courtland requires every interviewee to agree to. In each story he accompanies the lessons learned with analytics screenshots.
In just six months since started IndieHackers Courtland has interviewed an astonishing 75 entrepreneurs. As of December 2016, his site receives 200,000 unique visitors each month, which is pretty remarkable considering that most “professional marketers” (emphasis on the quotes there) aren’t able to achieve that sort of success.
IndieHackers succeeds because Courtland tells stories that are both inspirational and practical. Every entrepreneur can relate to the subjects of each profile. They describe similar problems, and explain how they went about solving those problems. Instead of writing fluff like “Be persistent and don’t give up,” Courtland digs deep and gets entrepreneurs to share their fears, hopes, and struggles. In doing so he evokes emotions that are core to the human experience.
Be different (but not that different)
Of course, it’s easy to think that the time has come and gone to write a Journey to $100k blog, or interview successful entrepreneurs. Maybe you’ve read a competitor’s blog and thought, “Shoot, they already beat us.” But this is silly. Most things in life have already been done. Yet every year new blogs with the same premise start and go viral. That’s because humans don’t really want to read anything that unique. They want to read something safely in between original and familiar.
When Matt Ogle and his team at Spotify launched Discover Weekly, the company’s amazing recommendation engine, they accidentally shipped a few bugs. As a result the algorithm suggested songs that users had already heard (at a rate of about 1 old song to 10 new ones). When his team removed the bug, they noticed that engagement dropped. In other words, Spotify users wanted a little bit of consistency mixed in with their new music.
As The Altantic’s Derek Thompson wrote recently, this was due to a psychology phenomenon called “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” The concept of MAYA was discovered by Raymond Loewy, an industrial designer in the mid 20th century, who designed cultural icons such as the Exxon logo, the Lucky Strike pack, and the Greyhound bus. As Thompson wrote:
Loewy had an uncanny sense of how to make things fashionable. He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—MAYA. He said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.
In other words, it should come as no surprise that IndieHackers — a blog doing what many blogs have done before — could achieve success. Sure, Alex wrote about GrooveHQ’s lessons learned. But had Courtland come to the conclusion that he had to create something 100% original he wouldn’t have told the story of 75 other entrepreneurs with interesting stories and complex lives.
Reverse engineer prior success
Understanding MAYA also enables marketers to take the guesswork out of the content creation process. One could theoretically analyze what is similar amongst the most successful stories online, and create something similar (but not too similar). HackerNews, Reddit, and Twitter make this “reverse engineering” incredibly easy:
For a list of “successful outcomes” (blog posts that get lots of traffic), we can sort by the Top content on Reddit’s /Startup subreddit
Unsurprisingly, successful content in this subreddit falls into two categories:
I made (or didn’t make money) and here is why
Here are resources that helped my business succeed
The first category proves that story is essential to success in this channel. But the second category raises a question. Does every single piece of content need to be story driven?
If I apply the same process of analysis to my Mom’s floral business, I notice that her audience isn’t always sharing stories about florists or brides-to-be. In fact, the most popular results for the search “wedding flower” don’t have a single story-driven post.
In looking at these results it's immediately clear that people searching for wedding flowers want to see images of beautiful bouquets, or they want to learn how to design their own. And that leads me to the exception to my story rule.
A couple years ago I attended Hubspot’s Inbound conference and saw Camille Ricketts speak on the topic of content marketing. At the time she ran First Round Capital’s blog, which was one of my favorite places on the Internet. In the talk she mentioned something that has stuck with me for the last three years.
She said that, in all the millions of data points they’d analyzed, they learned people really only share content for one of three reasons:
It evoked emotion (a laugh, cry, etc)
It taught something useful
It represented the reader's prior beliefs
Think about your own social media feeds. There are funny cat gifs and emotional stories about the trials of life (emotion). There are explainer videos and articles that distill the complex into something more comprehensible (useful). And there are tons and tons of politically driven posts (ideology). But is there really anything in between?
This helps to explain why Buzzfeed and Upworthy have amassed so many page views from articles with 100 words or less. Rather than take the story approach to their content, they try to reverse engineer the reasons why people share content. They do this by designing content that makes readers feel nostalgic (which Harry Potter house are you?) or by creating content that people can share to express their beliefs.
In my experience I’ve had success with two types of content: (1) data-driven articles, and (2) story-driven articles. As an example of a data focused piece of content look at this article I wrote in 2016. There is very little content. But the data and visuals tell a story that evokes emotion: surprise. It’s hard to look at those graphs and not think holy shit! This piece of content also taught people something that they only intuitively believed before. That is, it gave people data to prove that Bill Gates is doing amazing work. It even represented people’s beliefs a bit. Many of the people that shared this story (roughly 250 people shared it on Twitter in the first two weeks) were entrepreneurial and ethically-minded. Sharing this on their Twitter or Facebook was a statement. It said, “I care about philanthropy.”
The content that succeeded most on SimpleData’s website (my last company) was always story-driven. How I Built a $5k/mo Side Project in 5 Months was successful because it taught people how to start a business with real examples. I explained why I thought a growth experiment would work, and then shared the results. The people that viewed, upvoted, and then shared this content did so because they wanted to help their peers. It was a vote that said, “This will teach you something. It’s worth reading.”
While useful content, and ideology-focused articles work, I believe that they are the exception to the rule and rarely, if ever, succeed in a silo. When The Knot, a popular wedding blog, shares photos on Pinterest for inspiration, their goal is to bring people into a funnel. Ideally brides-to-be read and share the photos and then subscribe to the newsletter. Then TheKnot keeps their audience engaged with longer narrative-driven stories about brides and the process of getting married. The photos that get brides in the funnel are a small part of a larger brand narrative; they aren’t the be-all end-all.
I think one of the reasons that so many marketers write boring “10 things you didn’t know about XYZ” content is because they see the success of The Knot, or another blog like it and look only at a small part of the company’s content strategy. Then they copy a component, and not the entire system.
This past weekend I was introduced to the YouTube filmmaker Casey Neistat, and quickly became obsessed. In one of his videos, he addressed a frequent question: how do you make good movies? He answered by sharing a popular diagram in the film world. I think the same diagram applies to some extent to marketing (with a few swapped parts and pieces of course). There’s no which way around it, story is at the core of every marketing activity that a company does.