Understanding what makes content go viral is far from an exact science, but Josh Jones-Dilworth, co-founder of DailyDot, and William Leake, CEO of Apogee Results, helped shed light on the process at a SXSW core conversation entitled, “Can You Spread The Virus?”

For those looking solely for strategy, Jones-Dilworth set them straight at the onset: If you can manage to dissuade yourself of the idea that it’s the strategy that drives viral content, you’ll be in a better place. “We put 90% of our time and energy into the content,” he said.

“A lot of the content on the Web is empty calories these days,” Jones-Dilworth explained. Slowly but surely, things like great writing and great charisma are coming back in fashion. Don’t sacrifice the quality of your work; lowering your standards will not elevate your numbers. If someone asks you to make a viral video, don’t agree. Instead, tell them you’ll make a video that’s good quality.

But some areas of the viral content game are up for manipulation. The first is the headline, something often undervalued. Jones-Dilworth emphasized the value in differentiating headlines, even for a single piece of content. It’s all about your audience. Sometimes, you should have a headline for your users, another for Google, and one for YouTube. Make sure you understand the platform that you’re working with, especially when it comes to search results and keywords.

When it comes to headlines, Jones-Dilworth recommends that marketers follow general journalistic best practices. He notes that eight to 14 words is the headline sweet spot, and that as much as he hates to admit it, question marks, exclamation marks, colons and all-caps generate results.

The primary takeaway from the conversation was the idea of a virality coefficient. Every user creates more than zero other users, so you need to figure out how to maximize your virality coefficient to grow the audience you want. One way to do this is to follow the invite strategy. Dropbox gives users a limited amount of space, but when you run out, you’re incentivized to invite others to sign on with the reward of increased storage. Similarly, Venmo encourages users to invite their friends, rewarding $5 credits once your friend uses the app.

But if content is key, how do you differentiate it? Jones-Dilworth points to smarts and humor as the two distinguishers. Best of all, as he notes, they’re both free. According to Jones-Dilworth, very little of the content on the internet today comes from true, SAT-smarts intelligence. The internet simply isn’t the primary forum for that. So if your content is of intellectually high caliber yet still accessible, a little intelligent marketing should make it easy to go viral. For the humor, Jones-Dilworth suggests looking to aspiring comedians. Let them write your copy/script, as it will be mutually beneficial. For them, it’s the break they can only dream of, and for you, it’s the humor and wit that may not come naturally.

What can you do to up the quality or your content? Which demographic should you be targeting to let your virality coefficient thrive?

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