Editor's note: This is a guest post from Anna Guerrero, the Content Editor at Canva. Anna’s favorite part of her job is facilitating learning through storytelling.
One of the hardest things about starting a new blog is the torturous wait to see if people click on your content and read it. Let alone dreaming about going viral.
So how then, do random list-generating, meme-aggregating publications like BuzzFeed manage to do it every day?
The truth? It’s not luck. It’s strategy. Abhishek does a great job of breaking down BuzzFeed’s “magic formula.”
If you’re thinking: “I don’t want to be like BuzzFeed,” I get it. At Canva, neither did we. We wanted to give real value. But when we received more than 70k shares on our first viral Design School post we had a realization about what it and every other viral post had in common. It was the result of a highly customized content strategy.
To give you some context, 60 days ago we decided to change our strategy. Compared to the same time before, our traffic increased by 226%.
The orange line is before the change, and the blue line is after. That huge spike? That’s our viral post.
Like BuzzFeed, we didn’t rely on sheer luck to make a post go viral. We engineered a powerful content strategy that consistently generated more traffic across more than 20 posts. If I had to credit the growth to one single factor, I would say we did it by understanding our target audience. Truly understanding them.
And then we got lucky.
I’m going to walk you through the key changes we made to do it — and explain how you can too.
Step #1: Scratch your goal of making your posts go viral (and figure out how to give value)
Take your goal of going viral and write it down on a piece of paper.
Then, screw that piece of paper up and throw it in the trash. Because it’s time for you to shift your goal to adding value to your audience.
Let me explain: The Canva Design School blog launched with a vision: to teach and inspire people to learn design.
That in itself made the blog quite successful. In the first 60 days after we launched it, we achieved 269,714 sessions. And our traffic was already up in the six figures.
Not a bad effort for any newbie blog, right?
But none of our blog posts ever went viral, no matter how hard we tried. And believe me, we tried! So what was holding us back?
We had this vision that sounded great, but it wasn’t enough. We needed concrete, driven goals to get us there. So, first, we had to flesh out what exactly our main goal was. It was simple:
Create the best possible content to teach and inspire people about design.
What could we do to achieve that? Well we set ourselves three small, yet powerful, goals to take us closer:
- Understand more about our readers: Who they are, and what they want (more on that in the next section).
- Collect data to make informed decisions: So we didn’t have to rely on our gut, we could rely on the facts.
- Improve the content we create: Creating articles that align with what our readers need.
In the next steps of this article, you’re going to learn how we reached these goals, and how you can too.
Step #2: Reverse engineer your competitor’s content
To improve our content and add the most value, we needed to understand two important factors:
- Who they are
- What they want
How did we do that? Simple. By finding out what content they’re interested in, and why.
But first, just who are your competitors? Every blog has competition. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a worthwhile niche to write about, would it?
For us, our competitors split into two categories:
- Product competition
- Blogosphere competition
Depending on your niche, you’ll probably have a similar split. Our focus was on the blogosphere competition; those well-written blogs sharing the design space.
But for your own blog, you’re going to have to make your best judgment on that.
If you’re not sure who your competitors are – especially if you’re blogging for a company, like I am – it’s worth doing your research to find out who is successfully writing for the audience you want to reach.
Thankfully, all of that information is just a Google search away.
How to reverse engineer content (the easy way)
Have you heard of BuzzSumo? It’s a content creator’s best friend, and it’s been a key piece of the puzzle of how we create content.
You can search for any piece of content under any: site, niche, genre or topic for the past year, and see how it performed based on social shares.
To inform your new strategy, you’ll need to search a range of topics and keywords. To show you how how to do it, I’m going to run you through a topic close to the heart of our readers – creativity.
A quick search on BuzzSumo shows the most shared articles on the topic:
Now, what can we learn from the highest-shared articles about creativity?
- Articles focused on people doing well
- Readers are interested in the effects of creativity
With that information, we can take it one step further and get more specific about the topic. Let’s look at how well articles about creative people do:
Look carefully. There are two results there that stand out, and fit our audience perfectly:
From this I know a few things about these articles:
- They will fit my audience because they care about creativity
- The topics are highly engaging
- They fit our editorial research (more on that in Step #4)
That means that our interpretation of this article gets the green light for our blog:
When it went online as 10 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently, it got almost 5000 shares in a matter of days. This a great example of how competitor research can help you create powerful content.
What about original editorial direction?
If you’re worried that competitor research just means “copying other content,” don’t be.
If it were that easy, everybody would do it. To make your articles better quality, more interesting, and startlingly thought-provoking – that’s where your talented editor comes in. The topics you find from your research are just a start. The new direction the article needs to take is in their hands.
The other reason an editor is invaluable for your content strategy is to supplement your competitor research with original editorial ideas.
Now, some people might disagree with me, but this doesn’t mean brainstorming your ideas on a whiteboard. Drop your ego. Just because you think they’re good doesn’t mean your readers will too.
What do I do? I find out what my audience really wants to read about.
Quora is the perfect place to do that. By finding out which question threads are the most popular, you’ll be able to gauge which topics people are most interested in.
Following on from the previous example, let’s take a look at what the people on Quora think about Creative People:
Again, there are lots of people talking about creative people. But, how can that change our approach to the article?
See that little gray star next to the top result on that image – that means Quora has highlighted that thread as having high-quality results. Let’s have a click and see what they’re talking about:
Okay, so it’s not exactly the cheeriest list in the world about creative types – but it’s got a lot of good responses (upvotes and comments) from the Quora community.
But, mainly, it gives us a lot of scope for different slants on the topic. For example:
- 10 Things Only Highly Creative People Would Understand
- 12 Qualities Only Creative People Have
- 15 Problems Only Creative People Have To Live With
And for the editors out there that like to be really thorough add this step.
Triple-check that your topic is a winner by doing a Keyword Planner search for the search term. I’ve done this below for the term “creative people.” Not only can we see that it’s a topic with a large density of monthly searches – there’s another bonus. It has low competition, too.
By following these three steps, not only are you addressing a topic your audience is already talking about, but providing a fresh slant for your topic too. All while choosing your content from an educated place.
Step #3: Put yourself in your reader’s shoes
Have you ever pictured what you’re writing from your audience’s perspective?
Not through the worried gaze of a writer, or the laser-focused eyes of an editor. But, through the eyes of the person who’s going to trade five minutes of their time to read your blog post.
If not, it’s time to start. Because once you can see your blog from their side it’s much easier to create the content they want. The steps above are the foundations of achieving this, but I like to take it one step further.
Go ahead and ask them
It sounds simple when you say it, right? But it’s easy to forget that you can actually go out and ask your audience what they’d like to see.
When we started our new strategy, I started writing personal emails to everyone on our mailing list, asking them what they struggled with in their businesses, and what they wanted to read more about.
The response was phenomenal. Not only did people come back to me with the type of content they wanted, but they also came back with specific topics they were looking for, too.
What an amazing insight. In some cases (as seen here) your fans' responses can also reassure you that your content strategy is on the right track. Lucky for this reader, I could direct her to an article we wrote some months back: 12 Ways to Defeat Creative Block and Generate New Ideas.
Use BuzzSumo to find what else they’re reading
Your readers are pretty transparent about what they like. And if they’re sharing your articles, chances are they’re going to be sharing other people’s content too.
These sharing habits are the perfect window into the lives of your audience, and you can see exactly what kind of content they’re looking for and what else they like to read.
Let me walk you through it:
Let’s say I take the article I talked about in the last step, the one about creativity, and put it into BuzzSumo. It shows me all the stats of how and where it was shared. But, there’s a button here that’s easy to miss, but has a lot of power.
That’s the View Sharers button:
Simply click on this, and it will show you all the people who have shared your article on Twitter:
Then – and this is where the magic happens – you can find all the information about other articles they’ve shared by clicking the View Links Shared button:
Now, you not only know who is sharing your articles, but you know the types of content they’re interested in too!
The more you know about your readers, the more impact you can have with your content. And, you can even find some of the competitors you were searching for in step one too.
Step #4: Use data to inform your judgment
I was taught a lot about writing when I went to journalism school. How to write for an audience. What makes good writing? The power of editing.
All of which has, evidently, come in handy for me as the Editor of the Design School Blog. But I’ve learned two important lessons since November that no school could ever teach me:
- Content creation should be backed by data: No guesswork or hit-and-hope strategies. It’s more effective to make data-driven choices that you know are going to work.
- Content should come from a deep understanding of your audience: As you saw in the last section, the more you know about your readers, the better the content you can create.
So, how did we collect the data for our decisions at Canva? We did a lot of painstaking research – about 6 gallons of coffee worth – to find out everything we could about the content our audience wants.
Here’s what we managed to put together:
The big bonus to all of this? You can quiet the nagging little voice in your mind that says, “This isn’t going to work!”
By using the information from that checklist, we’ve been able to create more valuable and targeted content to great effect.
Step #5: Start experimenting with your headlines
Headlines are one of the most important parts of your article.
But it doesn’t matter how many books, articles, or webinars you find to learn about headlines; until you’ve tested them with your audience, you just don’t know what’s going to work.
Trust me, we learned this the hard way.
Take the article we wrote that actually went viral: Why Everyone From Beethoven, Goethe, Dickens, Darwin To Steve Jobs Took Long Walks and Why You Should Too.
The first time we posted it online, it didn’t really do, well…anything.
The first headline we wrote for it, “Why Steve Jobs Took Long Walks and Why You Should Too” just didn’t perform. Even though we followed all the headline ‘rules’ we thought we were supposed to.
Once we made the change, the article soared to over 70,000 shares.
Maybe our audience is all Windows users? Who knows. Actually, who cares? It’s beside the point.
The point is that it’s important to test – and retest – to get as much data as you can on the headlines that work for your audience. One small tweak, and you could unleash a viral article on the world!
Step #6: Use more images
There’s a lot to be said about using visual content in your articles. That’s because it’s a really powerful tool:
- They get 94% more views than those without
- Images can more than double your articles shares
- 104% more comments than the average post
Originally, we did what most bloggers do. Focus on creating an attractive banner image and hope to gain traction that way.
But when we started to do our research, we found that images only give all of these benefits if you understand the type of images your audience responds to.
Through looking at our competitors we found that they:
- Had eye-catching featured images
- Used multiple images throughout their posts
- Only used images that were relevant to the topic
- Frequently used images to back up their points
They were also getting far more shares on platforms – such as Pinterest – that we’d been neglecting. So, we decided to adopt their approach and add more relevant images to our articles. And, well, the results speak for themselves.
Firstly, the amount of traffic we got through our images alone began to increase. Check out this snapshot of the traffic from Pinterest in the same time periods:
Look what happens when you search for Design School on Pinterest. It’s flooded – not with featured images, but with graphics from our picture list posts.
Secondly, the number of social shares we got through Pinterest saw a big spike too. For example, this article about doodling has over 800 pins (and counting).
The lesson here is this:
Just having images in your post isn’t enough; they need to add value to what’s been written.
Step #7: Understanding your first viral hit
Here it is, the sixth and final step in our process. And, this is probably my favorite one. Why?
Because this is where you get to look back over all the hard work you’ve put in and see what worked, what didn’t and most importantly, enjoy the fruits of it all.
So what did we learn from this whole process, and what does that mean for you and your blog? Well, I’m glad you asked.
The art of going viral
The first lesson I’d have to say I’ve learned is this:
Never be afraid to make a change.
Sometimes editors get generalized as self-professed “big shots.” And maybe some do think that.
But not the good ones.
There is always a better way of doing things. You can always know more about your audience, create better content and become a better blogger. Admitting you need to make a change is one of the first steps in that process.
If we had been scared to make the change, we’d probably still be getting a lot of sessions in the Design School. But we wouldn’t have helped anywhere near the number of people we have to this date.
But, what did we learn as a blog?
- Do your research: Without it, you’re going in blind. With it, your results can be extraordinary.
- Be goal-oriented: Having a vision is great. Having goals in place to achieve it? That’s what takes your blog to the next level.
- Have a system: When you’ve devised your system, stick to it. If we’d kept changing our approach every two weeks, we’d never have found what worked and what didn’t.
- Understand why you do everything: For example, if you’re just putting images in your posts because you’re supposed to, you won’t get far. If you understand what makes them powerful, you’ll start to see a difference.
- If in doubt, run a test: You can never test too much. If you think you’re on to something, but you’re not sure, test it. And then test it again, just to be sure.
- It’s always about the reader: Going viral is a great feeling. But it shouldn’t be your end goal. Focus on the reader and the shares will come.
To get the clearest picture, we turned to our competitors to see what content had been the most effective for them. Why?
Because it can highlight some really valuable information for you:
- The topics your readers care about: So you always know you’re creating valuable, proven content.
- The style of posts that works well: List posts, tutorials, how-to, and checklists – you can begin to see what your target audience responds to.
- What makes a post epic to your reader: Do they respond well to stories, images, click-to-tweets, or calls to action?
When you’re armed with all of this, there’s no stopping you from creating the highest value content possible.