How To Go Viral: 2 Step-by-Step Case Studies

David McSweeney
David is the owner of Top5SEO and a white hat SEO evangelist. SEO case studies make him a lot happier than they should, and he has a tendency to overuse ellipses...

Article stats

  • Referring domains 42
Data: Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    Ever seen a site going viral and wished your content could do the same?

    But figured there must be some secret trick to unlocking all that traffic and buzz?

    Well, if there is a secret it’s this…

    Going viral is easier than you might think.

    In these 2 case studies I’m going to walk you through:

    • The exact steps a small blog took to become (for 24 hours at least) the most popular site on the planet
    • How I leveraged their success to pull in over 100,000 visits and links from the press

    Here’s how to go viral!

    Viral Marketing Case Study: How A Small Blog Became The Most Talked About Site On The Internet

    Link building can often be a slow process:

    Pumping out content.

    Building connections.

    Reaching out in the hope of picking up links.

    But sometimes (when you get the formula just right) something magical happens. And it looks a little bit like this: -

    ref-domains2

    Yes, that’s a website going from ZERO to HUNDREDS of referring domains in just a few days.

    And these are not just any old links.

    referring-domains

    As you can see, these are needle moving links from sites with HUGE authority.

    Want to know what happened?

    Well, it all starts with a can of Coke.

    The Secret Formula for Going Viral

    Legend has it that Coca-Cola’s formula is a closely guarded secret.

    Indeed it has been claimed that only 2 employees know the exact formula at any given time.

    Fortunately, when it comes to SEO, successful formulas are not so easy to hide. We can use Ahrefs Site Explorer to reverse engineer this particular viral marketing success story.

    And as it happens, the ingredients are actually quite simple.

    Here they are: -

    1. A decent quality infographic
    2. A share in the right place
    3. An emotive topic
    4. A dash of controversy
    5. Actually, this last one is super secret, but read on and we’ll reveal it!

    Now, let’s look at each of these ingredients in a little more detail.

    Secret Ingredient #1: A Decent Quality Infographic

    Time to reveal the content that was responsible for this sudden burst of links.

    On the 3rd of May 2015, Niraj, from a website called ‘The Renegade Pharmacist’, posted an article titled:

    What Happens One Hour After Drinking A Can Of Coke’

    (you can find it here)

    The information and claims for the article appear to have been taken from a piece written by someone called Wade Meredith (way back in 2006).

    original article

    According to Wade, drinking Coca-Cola is bad news for your body. Like, seriously bad.

    Niraj used Wade’s claims to create a shiny new infographic for his own post.

    viral marketing with an infographic

    And for the next 2 months…

    …nothing happened.

    Until he (or someone else) added ingredient number 2.

    Secret Ingredient #2: A Share In The Right Place

    Before continuing, I should caveat the following by saying that I cannot be 100% sure on the sequence. But using Ahrefs allows me to make a pretty confident assessment of what took place.

    So, caveat in place, let’s proceed.

    We will use the ‘New’ report under ‘Referring Domains’ to take a look at how the links started to roll in.

    Site Explorer > Enter domain > Explore > Backlink profile > Referring domains > New

    Running the report for the domain shows us that on the 29th of July there were 21 new referring domains.

    date-range

    And here they are…

    referring-domains1

    Does one stick out?

    Yep, it’s Reddit.

    The post was shared in the subreddit r/interestingasfuck a very popular and active sub with over 750K subscribers.

    subreddit

    If a link is popular in there, you will get TON of traffic to your site.

    Here’s an example of referrals to a site I launched back in March last year.

    link-explosion9

    That’s well over 3,000 visits in 24 hours for a brand new site.

    Unfortunately the original share on Reddit for the Coke graphic seems to have been removed.

    But we can assume that while it was live it: -

    • a) did well
    • b) was seen by a lot of people
    • c) at least one of those people had some major clout

    Because what happened next is the post started to pick up some serious viral traction.

    Running the URL through Ahrefs Site Explorer we can see that the page has been shared 44,000 times on Facebook alone.

    facebook-shares

    And when something starts to go viral, the really cool stuff happens.

    The infographic was picked up by some major news sites.

    Like Yahoo

    link-explosion11

    And The Huffington Post

    link-explosion12

    So, why did they pick it up?

    What made this simple infographic so special?

    Well, that brings us on to ingredient number 3.

    Secret Ingredient #3: An emotive (and current) topic

    Want your content to go viral? Then ingredient number 3 is a big part of the formula.

    Tapping into a subject that generates a strong emotional response in readers is one of the key ingredients for a viral take off.

    Niraj’s post ticked all the right boxes:-

    • It’s about health (that’s a pretty personal thing right there)
    • Specifically, it’s about sugar (we all know sugar is evil right?)
    • It’s about a big brand (sugar + negative effect on our health + big brand = ultimate evil)

    Additionally, since science decided that it was sugar, not fat that was causing us all to die young and obese, it has never been out of the news.

    So an infographic on just how nasty Coke really is, was a good choice for both:-

    • a) going viral (generating a lot of shares)
    • b) being of interest to the media.

    And it certainly seemed to work.

    But, here’s when things get really interesting.

    Secret Ingredient #4: A dash of controversy

    By the 30th July, the infographic was showing up everywhere. There were links from The Telegraph, Cosmopolitan… even Playboy.

    Most of these outlets were reprinting the infographic as fact. But some started to question the validity of the information.

    Sites such as viral media giant Buzzfeed.

    link-explosion13

    And, it turns out that coke may not be quite so evil after all.

    Buzzfeed claim to have spoken to leading scientists in the fields of nutritional biology (regarding the sugar) and addictive disorders (regarding the caffeine).

    The experts advised that the claims made in the infographic were either false, or at the very least, a little overstated.

    You can read Buzzfeed’s rebuttal here.

    Still, whatever, that’s a nice juicy link right there.

    link-explosion14

    And once Buzzfeed starts talking about your site…

    …the whole internet is talking about your site.

    By the end of the day, the site had picked up another 118 referring domains.

    Sweet!

    Which brings us to the final ingredient in our viral success formula.

    Secret Ingredient #5: Incurring the wrath of a big brand

    Here is a link to Buzzfeed’s Facebook share of their post (link).

    Browsing the comments, there is a common theme.

    link-explosion17

    link-explosion16

    link-explosion15

    Now, I will leave it up to you to form your own opinion.

    But it is certainly conceivable that a brand the size of Coca-Cola would be willing to spend a few thousand dollars on some ‘advertorial’ type content to mitigate bad press.

    I’m not saying that’s definitely what happened here.

    But hypothetically speaking…

    Incurring the wrath of a big brand (with mountains of money to spend on PR) might pick you up some juicy links.

    Just don’t do anything that is liable to get you sued!

    So What Did All This Buzz Do For The Renegade Pharmacist?

    Well, it’s safe to say that they will have received a ridiculous amount of traffic during the viral phase.

    While we don’t have access to actual figures, we can take a look at some trends and statistics that would be indicative of a huge spike.

    Firstly, Ahrefs Site Explorer shows an organic traffic increase (more like a mountain) starting on the 31st July and peaking on the 1st August 2015.

    organic-traffic

    Secondly, Google Trends shows searches for ‘coca cola’ spiking on the 31st July. We can be pretty confident that those additional searches were due to the spread of the infographic.

    link-explosion19

    Finally, we have anecdotal evidence directly from The Renegade Pharmacist, who on the 30th July posted to their facebook page that traffic had ‘blown up’ their site.

    link-explosion20

    And with regards to the long term effects, we can see that there was an immediate jump in the number of keywords the site ranked for.

    keyword-rankings

    Which shows the importance of domain authority to search engine rankings.

    Viral Marketing: A Recipe For Success

    At the start of this first case study I mentioned that:

    when you get the formula right, something magical happens’

    But hopefully you will realise that, really, there’s nothing magical here.

    It’s all about selecting the right topic, creating great content, and getting it in front of the right eyeballs.

    And if you need more proof, let’s move on to the next case study…

    Viral Content Case Study: How One Infographic Generated Over 100K Visits & Links From The Press

    SEO theory is great, but there can be an element of:

    yeah, that’s cool an’ all, but it wouldn’t really work for me now, would it’

    In fact, there is a post right here on Ahrefs by Dale Cudmore, in which he pretty much expresses that very opinion (specifically on Brian Dean’s skysraper method).

    I get it.

    But I disagree.

    A good strategy is a good strategy. If it works for one site it can also work for you.

    To prove that, I’m going to walk through how I tapped into the slipstream of the Coke viral, to create my own content which: -

    • Brought in over 100,000 new visitors to my site within 48 hours of going live
    • Has been shared over 7,000 times on facebook (+ over 17,000 likes)
    • Brought in links from DA 87, DA 86, and DA 83 National Newspapers (UK).
    • Has been shared on hundreds of other sites around the web

    There was also $0 budget involved (save for 3–4 hours of my own time).

    Which means, this is totally something you can do too!

    It all starts with paying attention to the news.

    Step 1: Finding The Flavour Of The Month

    If you keep an eye on the media, you’ll notice that when something is ‘hot’ they tend to run with it for a while.

    For example, if a story about scary spiders goes big (which it normally does at this time of the year), you will see lots more articles popping up on that topic for at least a couple of weeks.

    Basically, journalists are hungry for more of the same.

    And talking of spiders, here is a screen shot from today’s Google news.

    spiders1

    There are spiders everywhere! And apparently they are getting bigger.

    Want to see something cool…?

    Well, here is a google news search for September 2015 on the same topic…

    spiders2

    Look familiar?

    Yep, basically, the media love to write about spiders around August/September time. It’s one of the flavours of the month.

    So what’s my point?

    Well, firstly, if you can create an awesome piece of content based around spiders at this time of year, there’s a pretty decent chance it will be picked up.

    But moving on from spiders (and as an arachnophobe I’m glad of that), the wider and more important point is that journalists like to write about what is trending. There is less ‘risk’ for them that way.

    Which is the crux of this strategy.

    Step 2: Tapping Into The Trend

    As the Coke infographic had just gone viral, I knew that there was a good chance both consumers (and the media) would be thirsty for more (pun intended).

    So I decided to put a satirical twist on it and create a graphic for Scotland’s ‘other national drink’ — Irn Bru.

    Armed with photoshop and a large latté, I got to work. Within a couple of hours, my Irn-Bru infographic was ready to publish.

    the viral content infographic

    You can see the original post here.

    If we refer back to the ingredients for the Coke graphic’s success, we can see that my new infographic ticked the boxes (we’ll exclude the share for now): -

    • A decent quality infographic: My photoshop skills are ok, but there is nothing hugely complicated here
    • An emotive topic: Scottish independence is about as emotive as it gets
    • Some controversy: While the infographic is clearly tongue in cheek, I guess it could cause a little bit of offence south of the border…
    • Incurring the wrath of a big brand: Well no, but what it does do is feature a much loved Scottish brand

    Additionally my infographic had the advantage of leveraging a currently trending topic (the Coke viral).

    So, with the post live, and ticking 4 out of the 5 boxes, it was on to the missing ingredient.

    Step 3: A Share In The Right Place

    Now, I will admit that we had a slight advantage here. Favrify’s Facebook page has reasonable reach and the site is in the ‘viral news’ space.

    But while the post started to get some initial traction from our Facebook share, it was not this that started the viral spread.

    I already stressed the importance of getting your content in front of the right eyeballs.

    The key is to share where your content will resonate with the audience. This increases the likelihood of further shares and getting that viral ball rolling.

    Here are some places you might want to share your content: -

    • Other facebook pages with bigger reach (either on timeline if allowed, or through a message)
    • Facebook Groups
    • Reddit (but don’t go crazy on self promotion)
    • Google+ groups
    • Niche specific forums (if so, best to be transparent)
    • Stumbleupon (but probably more of a slow burner)

    In this case, I started by sharing our post in a couple of ‘Scottish Independence’ Facebook groups.

    And then the cool stuff started to happen…

    Step 4: Going Viral

    Within a few hours of my initial shares, the post started to pick up some momentum.

    It was soon shared on Reddit, and by the end of the day had made its way to the top of the r/Scotland sub.

    reddit2

    The next morning the pace was building rapidly, and by the afternoon Facebook was sending thousands of visitors an hour.

    Real time analytics looked like this for most of the day…

    active9

    With traffic peaking between 9 and 10pm, when there were 4,609 sessions.

    analytics

    Things slowed down overnight, but soon picked up again the following afternoon.

    analytics2

    A little over 48 hours after going live, the post had been viewed over 100,000 times.

    pageviews

    With the majority of traffic coming from Facebook.

    Note however, the organic traffic as people began specifically searching for the infographic.

    referrals

    And with that many eyeballs and social shares, it wasn’t long before the infographic started to attract the attention of the media.

    Step 5: Getting Press

    Press enquiries started coming in the day after publication.

    By the end of the week, the infographic had been shared on major news sites including:

    • Metro (DA87)
    • The Daily Record (DA83)
    • The Scotsman (DA86).

    press

    All of which included high quality, branded links.

    link

    These links are white hat in the purest form.

    I had conducted no direct outreach, and all the requests to share had been inbound. Journalists had simply discovered the content through its viral spread.

    Links like that can make a huge difference to your site’s trust and rankings.

    And notwithstanding the link juice, (positive) press coverage is of course great for your brand.

    Step 6: Use Ahrefs To Supercharge The Strategy

    As I mentioned earlier, when a topic is trending, journalists often look for more of the same.

    If they’ve already written about that topic, even better.

    You’re breaking down that barrier to entry. Which is something Derek Halpern of Social Triggers explains well in this video outlining his ‘Drafting Technique’ for gaining press coverage.

    And if you’re riding along on the slipstream of someone else’s viral content, you can use Ahrefs Site Explorer to easily find journalists (and bloggers) who have done just that.

    Just run the ‘Referring domains’ report to find all sites linking to the page.

    Site Explorer > Enter URL > Explore > Backlink profile > Referring domains

    referring-domaijns

    Then click through to the referring pages and locate journalist’s contact information.

    screen5

    And send them an email with a link to your awesome content!

    screen6

    Tip
    To maximise response you’ll want to email the journalist, or blogger, directly whenever possible. Try and avoid filling in generic contact forms, or sending to ‘catch all’ email addresses.

    Are You Ready To Go Viral?

    This is a simple, but powerful strategy.

    There are no hidden tricks.

    Keep an eye on the news, the viral sites, and your Facebook feed, to see what is trending.

    You will soon find a topic that’s a fit for your business — although you may have to think a little outside the box.

    When you hit upon an idea, get in there fast, as: -

    • a) Tapping into a viral content slipstream is generally time sensitive (get in while it’s still news)
    • b) If you don’t do it, someone else will!

    It won’t work every time, but when it does, you’ll get the traffic, links and media mentions that will take your website to the next level!

    If you have any questions on the process, or comments, then please leave them below.

    David McSweeney
    David is the owner of Top5SEO and a white hat SEO evangelist. SEO case studies make him a lot happier than they should, and he has a tendency to overuse ellipses...

    Article stats

    • Referring domains 42
    Data: Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    Shows how many different websites are linking to this piece of content. As a general rule, the more websites link to you, the higher you rank in Google.

    Shows how many visits this piece of content is getting from search every month.

    Get notified of new articles

    47,548 marketers are already subscribed to Ahrefs blog. Leave your email to get our weekly newsletter.

    • Anon

      Great Post. Thank you.

    • Shahryaar Rehman

      Kudos! As always a great descriptive post has been published on ahrefs blog. Thanks for sharing, I got some best practices for my content marketing.

    • Ik Ga Skeeleren

      Great in depth post, cheers!

    • Nice one! Irn Bru being top of soft drinks sold in Scotland ahead of Coke as well no? FYI, it is “Parc des Princes”, not “Park de Princes”. Nice goal from McFadden though.

      • Thanks Anthony. Oh well, too late to change it now, the infographic has spread far and wide 🙁 Was a nice goal indeed — I was there to see it go in live 🙂

    • Bir çok detay gelmiş güzel oldu.

    • Great case study from start to finish. Cool to see that you recreated it as well. Essentially infographics are powerful if done right still.

    • Deyan

      Your link doesn’t work, could you prove what you said?

      • Charles Internet

        The link is working. That was a Facebook API call.

        Yeah. Maybe @davidmcsweeney:disqus could explain the rationale behind this?

        • Deyan

          Yes, We’re waiting your response @davidmcsweeney:disqus . Are you a scam like so many people? if it is so, i will do my best to badmouth you

        • switch from http to https. No fakery here!

    • umm… yes it did go viral and there’s no fakery here at all. I switched the site to https at the back end of last year, so that’s probably why the count was reset.

    • @disqus_QBoVEU17aG:disqus @disqus_WOMEYlPDha:disqus @CharlesInternet:disqus for the avoidance of doubt — here’s a screencast of Google Analytics:

      http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/cDXUYzQ6ZM

      Please refrain from posting comments with no basis in fact.

    • no problem Charles, sorry if I was a bit strong, but I didn’t appreciate the tone taken in the original comment (not yours)

      • Charles Internet

        Understandable. 🙂 I knew Ahrefs won’t just simply approve any post without some sort of quality checking. And I know you have written a number of posts. 

        That’s why I was looking for clarification as well as to learn why the FB API wasn’t working. 

        It seems that we all should start from https from the beginning, if we just start a new blog or so. 

        Thanks by the way, for this sharing. I think it’s a cool strategy to variate in our content strategies. 

        Keep up the great work!