ProtoViral: A Contagious WordPress Theme

Over the past year or so I’ve been doing research into the why and how of web content “going viral,” from my Link Attraction Factors report (with the accompanying tools, API, and plugin) to my Viral Content Sharing Survey report. I’ve also taken this behavioral data and distilled it into more actionable items like a viral marketing checklist, viral seeding requirements, and of course the 10 symptoms of highly viral WordPress themes.

Out of this research has grown my latest project, the ProtoViral WordPress theme. Built to be flexible design-wise, it allows you to customize it to match the look and feel you need, while including a wide range of flexible and powerful viral marketing features built right into the theme. I’ve rolled a bunch of functionality that previously existed only in plugins into widgets and ProtoViral’s configuration panel, making them easier to control and integrate into your design.

ProtoViral is still in development, but some of the features so far include:

  • Referrer-based Content Filters (show special content to visitors from specific sites)
  • Easy to turn-off Ad space
  • Customizable and Widgetized social voting buttons that can appear in a variety of places
  • A Tweet-this button that automatically creates shortened URLs when you publish posts
  • Pre- and post- entry call outs (invite readers to subscribe to your feed or follow you on Twitter
  • Funnel links (direct traffic from every page on your site to a specified post)

Here’s a screenshot of some of the functionality on the configuration panel:

And here’s the voting widget configuration:

I’ve been putting the theme through its paces on a new site I launched last week called GreenOverrun and so far it seems to be doing pretty well, with 13,153 visits to its 3 posts since it launched 10 days ago.

If you’d like to test it out or give me suggestions on additional functionality (I’ve been surprised the entire time by how much you can do with a WordPress theme and have a whole new appreciation for WP now, so don’t hold back on pipe-dream ideas), let me know in the comments below.

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The Importance of Social Proof for Contagious Blogging

In 2007 the Washington Post conducted an experiment. They had one of the best musicians in the world to play one of the most expensive instruments in the world (a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin) on a subway platform during morning rush hour. Most people simply ignored him, “the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.”

There were no tuxedos or playbills or expensive tickets. No sold out concert halls or rave reviews from jaded critics. Just some of the best music in the world, but without the social cues to the quality of the performance, nobody noticed.

So even if you’re the best writer in the world, writing on a world-class web platform, with a groundbreaking design, without social proof, you’ll be very lonely.

Social proof is the idea that people rely on the reaction of others to make decisions, and we assume that others (individuals and especially groups) know more about the choice than we do. When social proofs start to accumulate you have an informational cascade. In a post a while back, I explained Information Cascading as such:

Suppose there are two restaurants and a group of people on the street outside deciding which one to eat at. The most well-informed individuals (those with higher precision in making these types of decisions) will decide first and everyone will see some people start to line up outside of one restaurant. If the others know this person is of higher precision (and even if they don’t) a few people will follow their lead and join the line. Each new person who lines up outside of the restaurant sends a signal to the rest of the group (and in particular their friends and family) that this is the restaurant to pick. The more people who follow the signal, the stronger it gets and you have an Informational Cascade.

When I studied email chain letters I wrote that

Every time someone forwards one to his or her address book, another list of recipients and senders is attached to it, creating essentially a list of people who implicitly give authority to the message.

Even if you may think an email is a hoax, who are you to think that you know better than hundreds of your peers?

Examples of this effect are numerous, from voting to investing to fashion and music– we notice, trust, and share things more when we notice that others did before us.

When I asked on Twitter what factors influence perception of a blogs “authority.” The two overwhelmingly central answers were subscriber and comment counts. Social Proof.

When people first visit a blog these two details matter as much (if not more) than professional and clean looking design and good content, spelling and grammar in an evaluation of that blog’s authority. And I’ve found from my study of applied memetics, email chain letters, and viral seeding that authority and trust are crucial factors in deciding whether or not to pass on a piece of content. The bottom line is that you must leverage social proof to establish an air of authority if you want to “go viral.”

There are a number of ways to leverage your blog readers into greater social proof indicators:

  • Prominently display your Feedburner count.
  • Use the “Recent Comments” widget.
  • Display the number of comments for each post.

Of course for any of these tactics to work, you’ll need to have sufficiently impressive numbers, so work to increase those two metrics. Don’t forget to promote your RSS feed (I really like the WWSGD plugin for that) and end every post with a question or request for comments.

And of course to take my own advice, what do you guys think? Do subscriber and comment numbers matter to you? What is your favorite way of leveraging your visitors into social proof?

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10 Symptoms of Highly Viral WordPress Themes

Blogs are my favorite CMS for “going viral.” Cheap, easy, expandable, everything you could want. But when you’re launching a blog and your goal is going to be lots of social media and viral traffic, you’ll need to make sure you pick the right theme. Here are a list of 10 things your theme must have to “go viral.”

1. Social Buttons

Most blogs these days have the sociable plugin, so that there is a list of social sites at the bottom of every post that allow readers to submit and vote on the post. For real traction, you need to do better than these teeny little buttons. Put big, honkin’ voting buttons on every post on your site. For instance, I really like what Brent Csutoras does on his blog.

2. Images and Video

Experienced social media marketers will tell you that you should always add images and if you can, video to a post to help it do better on social voting sites. So you should make sure that your theme’s central content area is wide enough to handle high-quality images and embedded videos. I would typically recommend at least 500px wide.

3. Lightweight

If your post does start to go viral, you’ll be getting hit (hopefully) with a server-crushing load of traffic, often in a very short period of time. So beyond being on a good host and using a caching-system, you should also work to ensure that your entire theme is lightweight. Optimize and reduce your images, cut down on HTML bloat (no tables, please) and strip down your javascript. Not only will your server thank you, but your visitors (especially those from social news sites) will appreciate the faster, cleaner theme.

4. Low-Advertising

I would recommend ideally, not to put any advertising on your site if your goal is to go viral and do well in social media, but that’s not always feasible (or profitable). So if you absolutely must include ads, keep them away from the top of your content and ensure that they blend in well with your site and are, above all, relevant. A good blog theme should include advertising areas under each post and lower-down in the sidebar.

5. Urgency

My research has shown that timely content, like news, tends to get shared more frequently than humor, opinion and other non-timely categories. So your blog theme should emphasize the date and maybe even the time that you posted.

6. Authority

To go viral you’ll need for your content to be trusted on some level. So your theme should induce a feeling of authority. Don’t use extremely common (or default) themes as these will make your blog look fly-by-night. Make sure to include an about page, any awards or recognition the blog (or author) has received, and perhaps a photo of the author. Tell the visitor why he or she should invest them time in this blog and trust what it has to say.

7. Built-In Viral Calls-to-Action

The sociable plugin allows for a line of text, a viral call to action, generally something like: “if you like this, please share.” For real infectiousness, I say take it a step further and include a call to action in theme of your blog on every post page. Try hitting on some of the viral triggers my survey outlined and give readers easy suggestions on how (or who) to share the content.

8. Piggybacking & Funneling

The concept of piggybacking is something I think (and talk) about a lot. The idea is that if your content becomes popular with a group of savvy users on one site, you can often count on those users being members of other, similar sites. This way you can leverage one traffic stream into more streams. Funneling is something that I read about a little while back. The concepts are similar and can be exploited by a good blog theme. Make sure than posts link to other, similar posts. Your theme should include something like “if you liked this post, check out these too.”

9. Emphasize Comments

On a blog, in a viral context, comments function as social proof (making it obvious that other people are also interested in this post) and as an incitement to respond and keep the conversation going. So your theme should include an area to highlight recent comments in the sidebar, as well as the number of comments on each post. You may also want to look at improving your comment section, with gravatars or a reputation system for frequent commenters.

10. Stickiness

Those people who come to your site as a result of it “going viral” or becoming popular on a social news site, are the type or are most likely to be able to make it do that again. So keep them around. Your theme should highlight your feeds, subscriptions, Twitter account and your various social media profiles. You want these savvy and contagious users to become frequent users.

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9 Scientific Ways to Make Every Post More Contagious


I’ve spent the last year or so doing research into the history, sociology, statistics, psychology and mathematics of information sharing (many of the posts I’ve done about this stuff are over in my sidebar under “Protoviral”). I’ve found a number of reccuring elements across areas of study, so here are some of the bits I’ve learned that you can apply to almost any blog post to make it more viral.

1. Ask for the Share

This can kind of sound cheesy, but believe me it works. Respondents to my Sharing Survey reported a bunch of triggers you can pull to convince people to spread your content including utility (share this with your friends who might find it useful) and “they-might-miss-it” (show this to you friends who may not see it otherwise).

2. Fill an Information Vaccum

In my research on rumors, I found that scientists working on weaponizing rumors during WW2 noticed:

… that good rumors are “provoked by” and provide interpretation or elaboration on a current event, filling a “knowledge gap.” If the locals heard a big boom earlier in the day, a rumor could easily be constructed to explain it if the authorities did not.

3. Allow Remixing

Give your readers something to play with, remix or customize. The study of urban legends uncovers a concept called “communal recreation:

Historically urban legends were passed on from person to person in what amounted to a giant game of telephone with each person changing the story a little bit as they passed it on. Each person in this recreative chain attempts to fit the story into their existing mental frameworks and in doing so they apply a bit of themselves, of their own values and perspectives, altering the story and retelling their version. Often the first person in a new society to effect this change to an urban legend makes the legend more intuitive for the rest of the group because he or she has imposed their shared values on to it already.

4. Optimize for Social Media

Make sure that you have all the requisite buttons and widgets prominently available on your post. This is important for leveraging streams of traffic from one site into popularity on other sites. Lots of users of one social voting site are users of other sites, so if you start getting traffic from one, put a voting button under their mouse.

5. Provoke Discussion

You can be controversial, contrarian, outrageous, slightly disagreeable, or just a tad-too-opinionated. The point is to make people want to respond to you and to see how their friend’s respond. Respondents to my sharing survey said that they often shared content in both one-to-one and one-to-many ways because they wanted to start conversations and get feedback.

6. Teach

Utility was another common motivator I found in my survey. Make your content valuable so that when your readers share it, they’re engaging in a social exchange with their friends as happens with proverbs. A little while back I said this about the concept:

Its all about useful information, words you can use to do stuff. Like the old saying goes, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone can teach you to do something. Content is dead and resource is king.

7. Combine Relevances

Every individual has seemingly distinct interests. I’m into zombies and marketing, so if you wrote a blog post about marketing to zombies my friends would most likely send it to me. This tactic is a way to satiate the most common individual sharing motivation I found in my survey, “personal relevance”.

On the individual sharing side, the most common (40% of responses) motivation I identified was “personal relevance.” These answers typically said something like “I saw something and it made me think of one of my friends,” or “It seemed right up my friend’s alley.”

8. Seed it

Some of the people you know, or the communities you’re involved with will be more interested than others in your post for topical reasons. And a subset of these people are more prolific sharers than the rest (usually the most savvy early adopters). So make sure your content gets into a place where these people will see it as soon as you launch it. Twitter is a great place to do this.

9. Assist Organic Spread

Use a real-time analytics system (like Clicky’s Spy -aff link) to watch where traffic is coming to your post from. If you notice that a new social media site is driving traffic to your post, add that button to the top of it and maybe send the link out on Twitter.

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Viral Marketing Campaign Checklist

Once you’ve decided you’d like to create a viral marketing campaign, its easy to become too focused on the details, and miss the forest for the trees, but a good campaign is the integration of a lot of parts. Here’s a quick checklist to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

Goals Have you defined your campaign’s goals? Do you know what you’re trying to do (in an actionable and quantifiable way) and have you identified the metrics you will use to identify success? Keep in mind that certain, identifiable and targetable types of users tend to be more prolific in spreading content, be sure to target these people.

Vector Research Have you identified the demographic you’d like your campaign to “go viral” in and have you researched them to know what types of content they share and where they share it from?

Uniqueness & Novelty Is your campaign truly new? It can be a new take on an old idea, but there must be some kernel of novelty present because otherwise, who cares?

Utility Is your campaign useful, or will it improve user’s lives? If people believe they are helping someone by sending your content to them, it will dramatically increase your chance of going viral.

Incentive Have you provided some way for users to receive some kind of value by spreading your content? Freebies and product samples are an easy way to accomplish this.

Stickiness Have you included the ability for users who love your campaign to become engaged in a more long-term fashion with it? Email or Feed subscriptions are the obvious ways to do this.

Call to Actions Have you included viral calls-to-action that will trigger user’s desire to spread your content (which you should have identified in the research stage)?

Optimization Have you made sure that your content is easy to share? Is the URL short and permanent? Did you include tools for users to share it on social sites? If you’re using some form of video, can users embed the video on their own sites and profiles?

Remixing Have you made sure your content can be remixed by viewers? The process of communal recreation is important to “going viral” and you should make sure your campaign is a platform for users to express themselves with it. Think about things like personalization and customization.

Conversation Does your campaign have mechanisms in place to allow viewers to talk about it (both with you and with their friends)? Comments sections are the most common way to include this.

Seeding Once you’ve created your content, do you have a strategy for seeding it among users who are likely to share it? Don’t succumb to the “if you build it, they will come” trap, you need to place your campaign in the path of your target vectors.

Tracking & Analytics Do you have analytics systems in place so that you can track the spread and growth of your campaign as well as measure its performance against your goals?

Backup Plan Viral marketing success isn’t guaranteed, so typically I recommend clients plan to launch more than one campaign. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you have a plan if your first try doesn’t “go viral.” (Glen reminded me to add this in the comments, thanks!)

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Viral Content Sharing Survey Report


Finally, after sneak peeks and status updates, the report is done.

Its a study of why and how people share content online and it explores content type preferences, sharing methods, motivations, reach and frequency.

You can check out the table of contents here.

If you like the report, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

Here’s a few more sneak peek graphs from the report about the preferences of respondents who frequently read social news sites (like Digg):

And as always, I’d love to hear what you think.

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Working on Content Sharing Survey Results

My survey on web content sharing collected around 450 responses and now I’m working on the task of decoding the type-in answers and calculating the results.

I asked the question on twitter, but I’d also like to ask it here, what formats would everyone like to see the results in? I’ve already had suggestions of: spreadsheet and slideshare in addition to the normal graphs-in-a-blog-post format. Any other awesome ideas?

Update: Its also been suggested that I do a downloadable PDF version of the report, like I did with the Link Attraction Factors report.

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Link Attraction Factors: Report, Tools, API and Plugin

A few weeks ago I published my Link Attraction Factors report over on Read/WriteWeb and the response was awesome. I also made two tools: a keyword checking tool and a title checking tool.

The keyword checking tool
Enter a keyword and the tool will return data on popular stories on Digg that mentioned that keyword. The average story in my database got 299 links and this tool displays the difference between that average and the average number of links accumulated by stories using the word.

The title checking tool
Enter a title and the tool will breakdown the words and display the effect they had on the link accumulation of popular Digg stories. This tool is good for copywriters looking to find “words that word”. The scores are displayed in an easy to learn from way.

There have been a bunch of great blog posts about them, and some people have said some nice things:

I love it! Dan has developed a fascinating resource and I am sure it will only improve with time and tweaks.
Chris Garrett

I love to see people passionate about their craft who work hard to develop tools and products that help the community. Many people have created Digg tools and Dan has worked hard to create a new, unique tool of his own like his LAF tool. Simply plug-in your future Digg submission title, hit Calculate, and it will return the potential effectiveness of each word contained within your title. The keyword effectiveness is crosschecked with titles of past successful submissions. A fun tool that I’m sure many people will get a lot of use out of.
Brendan Picha

Great job, Dan! You’ve helped the industry take a huge leap towards quantifying the value of social media optimization.
-Hugo Guzman

Dan summarizes a large amount of Digg front page data to show us what categories typically get the greatest number of links. Interesting read, and I look forward to seeing other great studies from him in the future.
Nowsourcing

This is an amazing tool.
Troy Deck

This tool is great! Will try to write better titles using this tool in the future. Thanks for your great effort.
Robert de Bock

Never one to get complacent I’ve also developed an XML API version of the title checking tool and a WordPress Plugin version of the same tool.

LAF XML API
You can access the LAF (Link Attraction Factors) database via a new XML API by sending your title through a URL (GET) variable like this:

http://www.linkattraction.com/api.php?title=this+is+a+test+title

The API will return an XML document of your results that looks like this:

<titleresults>
	<title>this is a test title</title>
	<score>-6.96%</score>
	<word>
		<name>this</name>
		<score>-5.26%</score>
	</word>
	<word>
		<name>is</name>
		<score>-0.87%</score>
	</word>
	<word>
		<name>a</name>
		<score>-0.16%</score>
	</word>
	<word>
		<name>test</name>
		<score>2.29%</score>
	</word>
	<word>
		<name>title</name>
		<score>-30.79%</score>
	</word>
</titleresults>

The average number of links is ~299, and the scores are calculated by comparing the average number of links accumulated by stories using each keyword in their titles against the average. They’re displayed in percentage format.

WP-LAF
This is a plugin for the wordpress that checks a title against the LAF (Link Attraction Factors) database. The plugin will breakdown the words in your post title and display the effect they have on link accumulation.

A plugin version of the LAF Title Check tool, it uses the XML API LAF database interface. For more information about the LAF database, read the report.

Download the plugin now.

How to install WP-LAF

  1. 1. Extract the WP-LAF folder from the zip file
  2. 2. Upload the WP-LAF folder to your the plugins directory on your server
  3. 3. Click the ‘Activate’ link for WP-LAF on your Plugins page (in the WordPress admin interface)

So go, check them out and let me know what you think.

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