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Is there a science to going viral?

A homepage of the website DOSE
Source: DOSE
A homepage of the website DOSE

You may not go to sites like OMG Facts, GivesMeHope and Dose every day, but you've definitely seen their articles on your social feeds. Their viral stories promising the "28 things that people who grew up in the 90s and 2000s can relate to easily" or "24 Pinterest projects you have no business trying to recreate because you have no skills" tend to make for highly sharable content, and gets 1.1 billion social media impressions each month.

Just don't call these articles "click-bait" — the term for headlines that are stylized to get readers to click on them but provide no substance — implores Emerson Spartz, CEO of Spartz Media, which owns the sites.

"Click-bait is the opposite of what we need to do to succeed in business," he said. "Our entire business model is predicated on creating content that is inspirational enough that somebody would be proud to share it. If the headline overpromises and content does not deliver, it creates a negative share response."

Spartz admits there's no way to guarantee virality, but the 28-year-old entrepreneur — whose first major media company success was the Harry Potter fansite Mugglenet — said he has formulas that can predict what people are going to want to read. And, he wants to sell that information to brands.

"Most content that goes viral is not new, and it's not news," he said. "It something that seems like it just happened, but there's a very good chance it didn't just happen. The original creator uploaded four or five years ago, and it has been going viral ever since."

He explained that by analyzing different pockets of niche web communities (think 4chan or Reddit), you can see the cycle of how content flows to the mainstream. If you know where to find good stories and when to post, you can give your story a good chance of going viral, he said.

"That is in essence the core of what the business really is: Our ability and our algorithms helps us find the content that has the highest potential," Spartz said. "A decade of research and finding out what those patterns are is making it increasingly possibly to predict the trend."


By no means is Spartz's company the only one to claim to have cracked the code to success. (Spartz Media has also been criticized in the past for trying to take credit for posts created by other people. Spartz said they actively try to attribute the right sources, but it is often hard to find the original poster — a problem that is prevalent throughout all of digital media, he noted. Despite the controversy, it still has tons of fans, pulling in 45 million unique readers and 13 million likes on Facebook.)

Vocativ, a media and technology company, has another viral solution. It developed technology that crawls the "deep Web," or content that isn't found by search engines online. It includes public databases, government sites, unstructured texts and posts on social media.

"We're looking for good stories.... Our technology provides us exclusive information that other people can't see yet," Vocativ chief content officer Gregory Gittrich said.

Gittrich said what results is exclusive stories, emerging trends and new writers. Based on its data, it also optimizes stories for a social media audience, who it found tends to be more open minded and drawn to visual stories. These readers also migrate towards content about technology, national security, science and gender, he said.

"These are topics that show how technology is changing the way we live, the way we interact and the way we experience the world," he said.

While it doesn't do advertising content for companies right now, it too has plans to launch a branded content division that will use its insights.

"We have a window into what we believe will go viral," Gittrich said.

Vox Media's proprietary publishing system, Chorus, has tools built in to help optimize stories for Web consumption, which it uses both for brand-driven and editorial content. It includes the ability to test different headlines at the same time to see which one gets more clicks. The company uses other tools such as Facebook's dashboard Signal and Crowdtangle to figure out what is trending and starting to buzz online.

But Allison Rockey, Vox.com engagement editor, added it's more than timing and trends. Part of trying to prime a story for viral success is knowing the audience of where you're posting your content. For example, YouTube videos tend to be viewed a lot when the entire clip is highly engaging, making it "harder to pull away." Content that creates a "strong emotional reaction" does well on Facebook.

"People really like to define themselves on social media," Rockey said. "Consciously or subconsciously the content they are sharing is part of their identity. … By sharing it, they are showing I agree with this or I'm outraged. We can find that kind of emotional response can always be evidenced in a viral post."

Positive content always does better, she said.

"People want to share something that is positive," Rockey said. "For example, that is really terrible what happened in Texas to (Ahmed Mohamed), but look the president is saying something we are supportive of or happy about. Compared to other countries, it seems like there is an American optimist spirit."

However, despite all her research, she insists there's no exact science to ensure a viral story.

"What percentage is sheer luck?" Rockey said. "Anyone that tries to say they have a guaranteed strategy to making something go viral, I'm quite skeptical over."

Note: CNBC parent company NBC Universal has invested in Vox Media. NBC Universal also has worked with Vocativ on MSNBC projects.