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“Going viral” puts you on the map.

It gets you a flood of traffic, a ton of links and lots of attention on social media.

Plus, it’s cheaper than traditional advertising and you get to be the flavor of the moment.

The problem is, it’s difficult to do in the first place and even harder to repeat.

Unless you’re The Oatmeal.

Turning Viral Into a Science

The Oatmeal is one of the most popular humor sites on the internet, with 7 million unique visitors a month in 2013, according to The Economist.

Matthew Inman, the creator of the site has the rare ability to consistently create content that gets attention and goes viral.

Since 2009, The Oatmeal website has produced book deals for Inman, has been featured on TV, was named one of the best blogs of 2010 by Time Magazine, and helped save the Tesla Museum with a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Not bad for a bunch of drawings and quizzes.

But before you bust out your box of crayons for your next blog post, lets look at why The Oatmeal’s content is shared by millions online and how you can apply the same strategies to get more attention for your content and business.

1. Pick a Topic Everybody Loves to Hate

Let’s face it, talking about stuff we all love to hate is just, well…fun. We feel a connection from our common disdain for the same thing.

But from a marketing standpoint what’s important to notice is the psychological force at play which is empathy.

Whenever marketers start talking about connecting with customers and making sales, communicating empathy for your prospect is always high on the “must do” list.

Empathy establishes rapport with your audience and lets them know that you understand their problems and their pain. It also positions you as the solution to that pain.

But to use empathy as effectively as The Oatmeal, you need to make sure your content covers a topic that you don’t just love to hate, but that your audience really loves to hate as well.

A lot.

Even better is if it’s something people hate and it’s popular – like Twilight or Justin Bieber. In other words, it needs to resonate.

Inman calls this the common gripe.

Finding the “Why I Believe Printers Were Sent From Hell To Make Us Miserable” in your industry might just be what you need to generate a little buzz for your business.

2. Pick a Theme Everyone Can Relate to and Creatively Adapt it to Your Niche

Creating content around something everybody can relate to also establishes strong rapport with your audience and makes people pay attention.

The trick is creatively applying the subject matter to your niche and putting your own spin on it.

For The Oatmeal, it’s finding content people can relate to and adapting it to humorous comics. He targets cat lovers with How to Know if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, and anyone who uses Facebook with How To Suck At Facebook.

Animals, current events and pop culture references are great sources for material that resonates with people and is more likely to spread virally online.

Copyblogger has been producing popular content using this strategy for years with blog posts like The Inigo Montoya Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words and The Fight Club Guide to Successful Online Marketing.

We recently wrote the George Clooney Guide to Ecommerce About Pages.

Although these examples are more toned down then what goes on over at The Oatmeal, they still make the content substantially more interesting and package it in a way that makes it accessible for people.

3. Quizzes and Interactive Content

Some of the most popular content on The Oatmeal are the quizzes. Inman takes his formula for viral content and packages it into an interactive quiz form. Users take the quiz and are then presented with an option to share their (hilarious) results with their social networks or post a badge on their website.

And with quiz results that read “I Could Take on 30 Justin Biebers in a Fight – How Many Could You Take?” it’s almost impossible not to want to share.

And Inman is not alone. In 2013, the most viewed articles for the New York Times, TIME, and National Geographic were not articles, but pieces of interactive content.

So what about the rest of us?

If you’re shoe retailer you could create a quiz testing people’s knowledge of styles and brands. Or, if you sell pet accessories, perhaps a quiz on dog breeds.

It’s not as cool as fighting Justin Bieber but it will help you stand out in a crowded marketplace.

4. Something Everyone is Thinking but No One is Saying

Calling attention to something that everyone is thinking but no one is articulating is always an effective way to get attention. There’s only one problem.

It’s hard.

That’s because more often than not it involves being slightly controversial and putting yourself out there. And the last thing the lizard brain wants to do is stand out.

But for better or worse, edgy content gains traction online.

The Oatmeal creates both hugely popular non-controversial and controversial content using this tactic.

For example, hugs and annoying social media status updates.

But when it comes to using this approach in your business you’ll probably find that your honesty ends up calling some people out.

If you’re a new eyewear company, it could be a blog post calling out the designer sunglass industry for their exorbitant prices. Or, if you're a men's grooming company, it could be a video that calls out the razor monopoly and their sky-high prices.

This probably won’t get you on the front page of Reddit, but tapping into widespread sentiment being felt in your industry that hasn’t been highlighted yet can help get you noticed. It can also make you seem like a leader who’s honest and authentic.

5. Educational Content With a Twist

It’s no secret that educational content is popular online. And as a smart online marketer it should be the cornerstone of your content marketing strategy.

Creating tutorial style content that’s worthwhile on its own and lacks an immediate sales pitch demonstrates that you know what you’re talking about and creates goodwill and trust with your audience. It also sells the benefits of what you have to offer in an under the radar way.

But in order to make educational content go viral, it needs to have widespread appeal centered around something people can relate to (see point #2) and packaged in a fun format.

Inman has found success creating educational pieces that go viral about subjects like beer, coffee and common spelling mistakes.

He also has a knack for picking subjects that everyone can relate to but many people lack background or historical knowledge on. Of course what really makes his pieces hugely popular is the creative format he packages them in and the humor he injects to make learning about something like coffee entertaining.

But for everybody else whose middle name isn’t Picasso and isn’t a stand-up comedian, drawing funny cartoons may not be the best choice.

Instead, try shaking up your routine blog posts with infographics (which perform particularly well on social media), humorous photos that emphasize your points or videos that make your educational content more engaging.

6. Headlines that Get Clicks

While subject matter and format are critical for creating viral content, the most important ingredient for getting more eyeballs to your stuff is your headline.

As David Olgilvy famously said, "When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar."

In spaces like Twitter and Facebook, a headline is often all people will see so you need one that makes a great first impression and prompts action.

And at the heart of every good headline is the promise of a benefit to the reader.

For The Oatmeal’s “6 Reasons Bacon is Better than True Love” there are a few promises made to the reader that make this a compelling headline.

  • The first promise is that it will be entertaining. After all, we’re comparing bacon and true love here.
  • The second promise is that it will satisfy your curiosity as to how bacon can be better than true love.
  • The third promise is that the content will be a quick, entertaining snack wrapped up in 6 points. It won’t take all day to consume.

The better your headline, the better your chances of getting large amounts of traffic to your content.

7. Be Original and Do What You Love

None of the above strategies would matter if Inman wasn’t creating remarkable content. His comics are creative and original and they bring people a moment of joy to their day.

It’s clear The Oatmeal was a site put together by someone who’s doing what he loves and it comes through in Inman’s work. Don’t over look this element for creating content other people will find interesting which is what “going viral” is all about.


About the Author: Mark Macdonald is the Content Manager at Shopify. Get more from Mark on Twitter and Google+.