What Neil Patel, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Brian Dean Taught Me about Creating Viral Content

Getting your stuff to go viral is the holy grail of content marketing. And, just like the holy grail, it eludes most of us. Still, scientists research it, marketers analyze it, and the rest of us spend hours, weeks or even months fine-tuning our content so that it checks off all the virality boxes.

What makes content go viral? To answer this, I’ve brought in (figuratively) four guru-level content marketers to share their thoughts. At the end of the article, I’ll boil this all down into 5 easy-to-follow steps. Deal?

Neil Patel teaches that, in order to write viral content, begin with what’s currently trending. To do so, type in your niche’s keyword into Google Trends. Writing articles on trending topics, especially as the trend is just starting, is a good way to get more eyes on your content. 

Patel’s second suggestion is to mimic what’s already working, but deliver above and beyond. Go over to Buzzsumo.com (not a free option), and search articles in your niche. When I search for articles about content marketing on Buzzsumo.com, for example, I am given a list of the top 2029 articles written this year on content marketing, ranked by number of social media engagements. At the top of the list is Gary Vaynerchuk’s “How to Create 64 Pieces of Content in a Day.”

If Gary Vaynerchuk’s article is ranked high, then I should think about how I can write an even better article. What if I wrote an article on how to create 120 pieces of content in a day? According to Patel, you can write a better article by adding more details and word count. And of course, make it your own. Neither Patel nor I am in any way suggesting or condoning plagiarism. 

Finally, the last step of virality is getting it to viral. Few pieces of content go viral on their own. Instead, you must get your minions in line to share your article. For this, Patel advises to go back to Buzzsumo and reach out to the same people who shared Vaynerchuk’s article and ask them to share yours. Click on view sharers and then reach out to them via Twitter or use Google to find their emails.

Did someone mention Gary Vaynerchuk? Vaynerchuk is one of the greatest content marketers of all time. And when asked “What makes content go viral?” here’s his reply.



“Viral content by nature is viral and uncontrollable. I have a system to produce consistent content with the hope of it being viral. Everybody’s looking for this quick thing and that’s why people love viral. Everybody wants viral. But what actually works is consistent content.” 

Gary V puts out one piece of pillar content daily and breaks it down into 100 pieces of micro-content to share across social media. As such, Gary V chooses quantity over quality and lets his audience determine virality.  He even goes so far as to say that virality is overrated.  It may help you build your list in the short term, but its effects don’t linger.

Brian Dean of Backlinko produced the Definitive Guide to Viral Marketing. With such a title, he must know a thing or two about creating viral content. He and Buzzsumo.com (yes, the same Buzzsumo we met above) analyzed 912 million blog posts and found these four commonalities among posts that went viral:


  1. Longer articles get shared more than shorter articles.
  2. Longer headlines get shared more than shorter headlines.
  3. Sunday posts worked slightly better than on other days.
  4. People LOVE lists.

And the fourth expert I’m going to bring in to consult on virality is the company Fractl which wrote an article about their viral approach for the Harvard Business Review.

According to Fractl, virality can be engineered.  They cited results from research that found a connection between viral content and the emotions — or more specifically, where the emotions fell on the Valence-Arousal-Dominance (VAD) model — that the content triggered.  

Valence refers to whether the emotion is positive or negative. A positive valence refers to a positive emotion. A negative valence refers to a negative emotion.

Arousal ranges from excitement to relaxation. High-arousal is an excited emotion. Low-arousal is a relaxed emotion.  Anger is more high-arousal than sadness, for instance.

And Dominance refers to being at cause versus being at effect. Being at cause means you are taking ownership and responsibility. Being at effect means you are being controlled and/or triggered. Fear is a low-dominance emotion, whereas inspired is a high-dominance emotion.

The researchers found that social sharing was directly related to high-dominance emotions. People share content that is exciting and that elicits emotions, even negative ones.

The content team at Fractl added that, in their own research, a combination of positive valence, high-dominance, and high-arousal emotions satisfied the social sharing sweet spot. To that, they added an additional element - surprise.  

Positive, Excited, High Dominance Emotions + Surprise = Viral

As an example, in the AlwaysR #Like a Girl campaign, they turned the oft-demeaning “like a girl” idiom into an anthem of female empowerment. Empowerment is a positive, high-dominance “at cause,” and high-arousal emotion.  Turning the meaning of “like a girl” on its head provided the surprise element that made this campaign a Super Bowl hit.

To summarize, here’s what I learned about writing viral-worthy content from four top content marketers.

  1. Copy what works

Catch the wave of what’s currently trending and/or mimic articles that have had a lot of social engagement.

  1. Do the legwork of getting your content shared by top influencers
  2. Appeal to positive, excited, and high dominance emotions, with a surprise twist.
  3. List posts (aka listicles) work really well.
  4. Finally, according to Gary V, deliver consistent content. 

 The Guinness Book of World Records lists 5, Pablo Picasso as the most prolific artist to ever live. Over his 75-career, he created 13,500 paintings and designs, 100,000 prints and engravings, 34,000 book illustrations, and 300 sculptures and ceramics. 

 By being a prolific creator, you detach yourself from the reception to any one piece, because you’re always moving forward. Deliver consistent content and let the audience determine what goes viral.

 My method is to first research the topics and types of content that people are searching for and are already ranking very well. I like building on the success of others. And, I like to appeal to the reader’s emotions by usually beginning each article with a story.

 In the end, however, I tend to side with Gary Vaynerchuk and focus on delivering consistent content. 

 Whether or not an article goes viral depends on many factors, most of which are beyond my control, or at least beyond my desire to control. I’d rather just move on to the next post.  And the next.



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