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Virality is not a KPI

January 17, 2019 - Marketing, Practitioner Marketing - ,
By: Chris Riley

Have you ever had a post go viral? It’s awesome. Especially when you publish your post in the evening, wake up to look at your web stats (you know you always do), and think, “How the hell did we hit that number?” I can’t argue with the excitement associated with viral blog posts. But viral blog posts are not how you measure a blog, and they should not be a stated goal.

Virality does not have a clear definition. The best angle I can come up with is to base virality on your average web traffic. If a post exceeds your average single-day visit for a post by 20x or more, that bad boy went viral. (You have to put virality in relative terms because some blogs are far too niche to compare their traffic to more general, high-traffic blogs.)

With that metric, I can say that for sites like ours (sweetcode.io), we can expect one post to go viral for every 100 we publish. So about one percent. This, on average, is pretty high. A typical blog will never get to experience virality. Yet many companies I’ve encountered will set virality as a goal, and compare their posts to that one article that went viral somewhere else. Or they’ll ask, “Okay, so how do we make viral blog posts?” That is a trap.

There is a system for giving your blog post the best chance of becoming viral — but if every post ever created went viral, then the term would not exist.

Here is why virality should not matter:

  1. Virality usually also implies short shelf life. Viral content will often be super timely, yet short-lived. To build your blog’s traffic, you need posts that have long tail interest. Practitioner blog posts are particularly good at this.
  2. Post success is not a blog’s success. One post may do well, but If the rest of your content is poor, then your blog will never be a destination. Think about the blog’s overall success, not an individual post.
  3. The post might win, but does it contribute to the bottom line? The most viral posts are often the most independent. Posts go viral because they appeal to their target audience in a way that is very personal. But that personal experience may have nothing to do with your product or brand.
  4. Sometimes a post goes viral for a bad reason. Reddit shares are famous for this — The reason the post went viral is because someone ripped it apart. (That is not necessarily a bad thing.) But viral does not equal positive.
  5. A one-hit wonder will make everything look bad in comparison. If virality becomes a stated goal, then all other posts will seem disappointing, even though your content quality remains consistent. If you have never witnessed a post going viral, and your reference point is someone else’s post, you can feel you’re falling behind.

Your blog’s overall success is key. How you leverage the content outside of your blog (for example, on social) and as a sales enablement tool will reap additional benefits for you.

It may feel like your company has arrived with a viral post. That is a great feeling, but it’s often misleading. Giving your blog posts the best chance for virality is important. That is just good blogging hygiene. Measuring your blog’s success on infrequent (usually never) viral posts is a bad way to quantify your content marketing efforts.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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