If you talk to people in and around social media, it seems like there are two kinds of “experts” – those who rely heavily on best practices and those who honestly can’t tell you what works.
I have much respect for those in the first group, but that said, I live very much in the other world. We write a fresh new blog post each weekday, and I’m often at a loss to predict which ones you’ll like. Some posts inexplicably explode, while others just limp along. After nearly 12 years of this, you’d think I’d have the pattern of virality and sharing figured out.
But I don’t. Because I continue to be surprised by the posts that are shared, liked, and retweeted, as well as perplexed by the ones that never seem to inspire and connect.
So that’s why Social Media Today’s Andrew Hutchinson’s recent article – “The Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2016 (and What We Can Learn From Them)” – resonated for me. Using a list of these most shared stories compiled by BuzzSumo, Andrew did his own content analysis to ascertain what these immensely popular posts appear to have in common.
So first, here’s the list of the most viral stories and the number of times they’ve been shared:
- “New Alzheimer’s Treatment Fully Restores Memory Function” (5 million shares)
- “How Sensitive is Your OCD Radar?” (3.4m shares)
- “Science Says the First Born Child is the Most Intelligent” (2.8m shares)
- “An Open Letter to my Friends who Support Donald Trump” (2.2m shares)
- “Bald Men are Sexier, More Masculine, Scientific Study Says” (2.1m shares)
- “Biased Strangers Take DNA Test” (2.1m shares)
- “Intelligent People Tend to be More Messy” (2m shares)
- “Women Need More Sleep Because Their Brains Work Harder” (1.9m shares)
- “Here is the Powerful Letter the Stanford Victim Read Aloud to Her Attacker” (1.8m shares)
- “4 Year-Old at Grocery Store Calls Lonely Widower Old” (1.5m shares)
- “Scientists May Have Found a Root That Kills 98% of Cancer Cells” (1.4m shares)
- “Old Music is Outselling New Music for the First Time in History” (1.3m shares)
- “This Inflatable Irish Pub Turns Your Backyard into a Bar” (1.3m shares)
- “This Butter Pecan Cheesecake Will Make Your Thanksgiving More Exciting” (1.3m shares)
- “Penguin Swims 5,000 Miles Every Year for Reunion with Man Who Saved His Life” (889k shares)
So what qualities do these highly shared Facebook posts have in common? Andrew took a shot at it, and came up with these broad themes that appear to describe many of these popular stories:
Reinforcement of opinion
We know this is a big deal, especially in this political environment where everyone is seemingly on one side or another. Andrew references the stories about the first-born child being smarter, bald men perceived as sexier, and smart people who have pig sty offices as examples of this theme. He also notes these stories aren’t especially serious – something that perhaps connects with people at a time when so much of the news these days is intense and shocking.
Providing hope and inspiration
Here’s where Andrew talks about the determined penguin, the Stanford victim and her attacker, and the breakthrough new Alzheimer’s treatment as examples that bear out this theme. He suggests that marketers can take advantage of this idea in posts by demonstrating how their products improve people’s lives.
Andrew chooses two posts here – the blow-up Irish pub and the butter pecan cheesecake recipe – that help to define this last theme.
But given that social sharing is an inexact science, I saw these stories a little differently. While I like Andrew’s themes, I viewed the BuzzSumo list through a different lens – morning show and personality bits that resonate. In many ways, shareable social media content is what “water cooler talk” used to be – the stories that people share with others whether online or in person.
Seen through that perspective, the question I asked is how this list might better inform hosts and producers to make the best possible story selections. So here are my themes, with personality radio in mind:
Every morning guy will tell you that weird people in the news who do strange things always make great on-air fodder. That’s what’s kept Florida and Texas going strong. I fondly remember WLS Superjock Larry Lujack’s “Animal Stories” – one of the best examples from the past of weird tales. And today many shows rely on these wacked-out news stories, notably WMMR’s Preston & Steven’s “Bizarre Files.” And there so many others, thus proving the point. Several of these stories on this list qualify as bizarre, including the penguin, the 4 year-old, and the inflatable Irish pub.
This may be the most prevalent theme in this group of the most-shared 15 stories. From women needing more sleep, to messy/smart people, to old stuff outselling new music, many of these themes are prevalent on great personality shows because they defy convention and even logic. They start with a premise that seems contrary to what we believe, and then prove us wrong. These are true conversation starters because they generate great phones, and get listeners engaging, debating, and talking.
We all connect with people (or animals) that relentlessly pursue a goal or dream. Some of this may be aspirational, but it’s mostly inspirational. We connect with people, events, and causes that generate passion and emotion. It’s why “Christmas Wish” is an evergreen promotion this time of year. And whether it’s the swimming penguin, the Trump and Stanford letters, or even the Alzheimer’s treatment, great radio shows generate fear and hope when they turn the spotlight on passionate, emotional listeners as well as guests who truly believe in their causes.
And that’s the beauty of these lists. Morning shows often subjectively gauge their bits based on phone volume, hoping it all translates into meters and diaries. But in the world of Facebook, we have empirical evidence of that shows what is shared and enjoyed by hoards of people, allowing us to gain insights from the metrics.
Back when I worked for Frank Magid in audience research, we used to boil it down for TV news teams as stories about “health, heart, and pocketbook.” While those themes continue to be relevant in today’s world, social media has provided a more revealing emotional window into the stories, photos, and videos that emotionally connect with audiences. We should pay attention to what works on Facebook because it provides insights into what works on the air.
However you personally parse and categorize these stories, there’s a lot to be learned by what resonates in the social space.
As always, thanks for reading our blog. (Let’s see how often this post gets shared.)