When looking to produce content that works (by this I mean driving engagements, conversation and shares) it’s often useful to review pieces performing well in a particular field and seeing what we can learn from them.
To show how this process can be useful – and explore recurring themes in successful content – I decided to review some highly shared articles around a popular topic, then compare the key elements which these contained.
But which topic to choose?
Image Credit – Gage Skidmore
Love him or hate him, Donald Trump’s big news. He’s been the subject of many thousands of stories over the past year, so where better to look for characteristics of effective content than in the pieces about him which have generated the most shares?
In order to carry out this review, I’ll use the amazing BuzzSumo to find and analyse the 50 most shared pieces of content about Donald Trump over the last 6 months.
I will not distinguish between news and marketing content for this review, and will look at features of the text alone, rather than the publication or likely budget of each piece, although of course these will have had some impact on how much posts were shared.
What I looked for
In their bestselling book “Made to Stick”, Chip and Dan Heath came up with 6 “SUCCESs” principles which sticky ideas (those which are memorable, meaningful and influential) have in common. The content reviewed in my analysis is likely to be sticky – evidenced by thousands of people going out of their way to share it – so I first decided to check each piece for the existence of these 6 elements.
According to the Heath Brothers, the features which the best ideas contain either all or some of are simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and the ability to tell a story. For what each of these exactly refers to, here it is in the authors’ own words.
As well as looking out for these aspects in each piece, I tallied up those which weren’t covered by Chip and Dan Heath’s list, but still seemed to come up frequently in high-performing content.
What I found:
First off, using the SUCCESs model, I was amazed to discover that every single piece of content contained at least two of the Heath Brothers’ 6 sticky principles. It seems they did their homework! The number of stories featuring each element can be seen in the graph below:
Pieces which can be described as telling a story were the most frequently found in my analysis. These ranged from tales of lifelong voters changing their mind, to open letters from vicars personally criticising Trump, and reviews of the rise of American authoritarianism.
The second most often found principle was simplicity. The majority of pieces had clear, easily digestible headlines, and the content which followed was presented in a simple manner too. Examples of where this worked well were in pieces like “We can’t have Donald Trump in the White House”, and another called “This isn’t funny anymore: why I’m voting against Donald Trump”.
Concreteness also showed up a lot in the analysis (content which had an unambiguous human meaning and tangibility). Two examples of this can be seen in a petition to block Donald Trump from UK entry, and an article called “How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable”, both of which paint a clear picture in the reader’s head.
Credibility in Donald Trump related content came from all kinds of people, from historians and pastors, to former campaign workers and celebrities. This element gave posts such as “A neuroscientist explains: Trump has a mental disorder…” and another written by an ex-strategist of his a clear foot up on less validated pieces.
Unexpectedness is something which goes hand in hand with Donald Trump’s rise to success, and many of the posts written about him held up to this trait too. Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone and not lose voters, a picture of him composed entirely of penises, and the surprise emptiness of a post named “10 Reasons Donald Trump Should Be Our Next President” show how reporting on (or creating) the unexpected can prove effective when looking to create shareable content.
Finally, emotion. Several of the articles studied pulled hard on the heartstrings, whilst others gave furious personal arguments against Trump. The story of a Muslim girl crying after seeing a trump rally, then being consoled by a soldier was one of these emotional pieces, as well as a personal plea from a Christian man not to vote “Godless Man” Donald Trump into power.
Elements Missing from SUCCESs
As for other notable features which did not show up in the “SUCCESs” model, below are the 5 that I most frequently discovered.
Long theorised to be a news value*, negativity was apparent in 17 of the 50 reviewed content pieces. The article “The rise of Donald Trump is a terrifying moment in American politics” from Vox.com is one example of this value in action, as is “This isn’t funny anymore, why I’m voting against Donald Trump”, a desperate argument written by a disillusioned priest.
*an attribute which means a story is more likely to be prioritised by news agencies
Presenting parties or forces in conflict has also been cited as a news value, and came up in 22 of the top 50 pieces. Three of the examples focusing on conflict were “Anonymous Just Declared War on Donald Trump”, “John Oliver Demolishes ‘serial liar’ Donald Trump” and “The moment of truth, we must stop Trump”.
Just over half of the content pieces reviewed either reported on – or created – controversy. An artwork of Donald Trump made up entirely of penises was one of the more blatant examples I came across, whilst the excellently written “Decency for president”, where a pastor claimed that if Donald Trump was his daughter’s date, he’d “send him away. I’d tell my daughter to stay home” was controversial in its personal criticism of a possible future American president.
Posts with a clear element of humour came up 15 times in the reviewed content. My personal favourites were Stephen Colbert’s “Trump v. Trump Debate” and a number of posts suggesting places to live if Donald Trump were to take office.
Often cited as a news value along with negativity and conflict, recency refers to how up-to-date and responsive to recent events content is. This was evident in 7 of the pieces analysed. “Last night, Donald Trump disqualified himself” and “Man Charged for Throwing Tomatoes at Donald Trump” are examples of these timely posts which proved highly shareable. The fact that writing on “fresh” topics is often rewarded by search engines supports the argument that these could be a good idea to capitalise on where possible.
Although limited to pieces created in a specific niche, and to my personal interpretation of content, this analysis has given some interesting insights into the sort of posts which are likely to be shared online.
Firstly, I’ve found plenty to suggest that Chip and Dan Heath’s SUCCESs model is a good one to follow when looking to create shearable content. Second, it seems from this research that (when appropriate within brand guidelines) creating content at opportune moments, which incorporates humour, controversy, conflict or negativity could give your content a leg up in terms of shareability too.
Finally, and most simply of all, I’ve found that BuzzSumo is great! It makes it easy to find high-performing pages relating to a topic, to analyse why these may be popular, and to find inspiration for elements which it could be worth adding to your own content.