How To Create Viral (Indian News) Content

I have to admit that this blog has suffered considerably, but on the bright side — progress on The Citizen is to blame. We are currently in the process of overhauling and redeveloping the website (whoop!), and a majority of my day is spent studying different publishing platforms, softwares, design layouts, customer engagement tools, et al. The rest of the time is split between commissioning, writing and editing, and putting in place our offline marketing strategy, the first part of which is tie ups with media departments across universities and colleges in New Delhi. I am excited to announce that The Citizen is the official media partner of Spandan, the annual media festival of the Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies. There’s a lot in the pipeline for the festival taking place early next month, including a Media Panchayat curated by The Citizen… More on all that soon!

In addition to the above, there is another development regarding The Citizen that has kept me fairly occupied … and is the basis of this blog post. In the past month, we have seen a significant increase in our ‘base traffic’. The increase is the result of a deliberate strategy in content.

I should clarify that as a news website that is just over a year and a half old, we have regular viral content that sees a surge in traffic, and this type of spike is being seen more frequently with greater outreach each time. The fact that we are a newspaper with no corporate or political backing enables us to publish content that is not available in the mainstream media, and that is a key component of what makes a story go viral (news plug + unique information/shock factor). Let’s call these type of stories ‘unique breaking news.’

This post is going to concern itself with another type of story: daily news content (i.e, news on a lean day). Although our ‘base traffic’ (I am going to use this term to refer to traffic that doesn’t include the surge caused by ‘unique breaking news’) has gone up consistently, there has been a major spike on two occasions: one, after we listed with Google News a few months ago, and two, this last month — because of what we have been doing differently.

Now I am no expert in viral content, but this is what I have learnt so far. Stories go viral when they meet part of the following criteria:

  1. News plug
  2. Emotional plug
  3. Shock factor
  4. Unique analysis

Being a newspaper, criteria 1 is easy for us. Being an independent newspaper, criteria 4 is something that we are able to add to a fair few stories.

The stories that have done their best are stories that fulfil all four criteria — which, by the way, isn’t as easy as it seems (especially given the number of websites, newspapers and blogs that are churning out excellent content). As far as The Citizen is concerned, the majority of our viral content was thus far limited to criteria 1 and 4.  From our Top 10 stories in number of hits, examples of stories in The Citizen that fit criteria 1 and 4 (unique analysis) and have gone viral are:

Other times, stories that fit criteria 1 and criteria 3 (shock factor) have gone viral. From our Top 10 stories in number of hits, examples of stories in The Citizen that fit criteria 1 and 3 are:

Good enough but unique analysis and shock factor are criteria that are not readily available. These type of stories are difficult to commission and/or come across. They are not a daily ‘base traffic’ formula (especially if you want to maintain journalistic integrity and are not sensationalising every piece of news).

The key to daily ‘base traffic’ increase is criteria number 2: the emotional/personal connect. Any news story can be given a personal angle.

To understand how, it is important to understand the components of virality. Here, I will limit the points to viral content on Facebook (as I have still not fully grasped viral content on Twitter).

The key components in a story going viral, in order of importance are:

  1. Headline
  2. Picture
  3. Content
  4. Blurb

Note that content is not the most important criteria. A look at each criteria explains the hierarchy of importance:

  • The headline of an article is what motivates or lures a user into clicking on the article.
  • Headlines that have visual images are more likely to be clicked, but I will still list Pictures at number 2 because a visual picture without a catchy headline will have less chances of being clicked than a catchy headline with a not so visual image.
  • Once the user has clicked on the article, they will most likely skim through it. The crux of the article therefore should be evident in the first two paragraphs, and the conclusion should reiterate that crux.
    Content comes in at number 3 for two reasons:
    – Users have to click on the story to read it
    – Quite a few people share a story based on the headline and picture, without even reading it
  • The blurb that accompanies the article on Facebook is often overlooked, but plays a vital role in the utilisation of digital real estate: space. A catchy blurb can reinforce a catchy headline.

Now although all these components are vitally important in ensuring that ‘unique breaking news’ stories go viral, they are all the more important for stories that are relying on criteria 2.

Let’s use a recent example from The Citizen: I’m All For Digital India, But Here’s Why I Am Not Changing My Profile Photo On Facebook by Ayesha Sethi

The story centred on PM Modi’s trip to the US, where he and Mark Zuckerberg announced a commitment to #DigitalIndia. The result was a flurry of Facebook profile changes with the colours of the Indian flag superimposed on the image, and the message: “I support Digital India.”

Ayesha’s article fits criteria 1 of having a news plug (as an overwhelming majority of The Citizen’s articles do). Content wise, however, the article isn’t anything special. It offers no new information nor any shocking insight (there go criteria 3 and 4).

In fact, the article says what many on Facebook were already saying in their status updates (the opposite of criteria 3 and 4). In doing so, however, the article struck criteria 2: emotional/personal connect.

However, to be able to strike criteria 2, it relied on a catchy headline (in first person to capitalise on the emotional/personal connect) and a visual image (of a tricolour embossed photo of PM Modi).

Unlike articles that rely on a unique analysis or shocking piece of information, Ayesha’s article appealed to emotion, and it worked. Why this is significant is that while articles that rely on the former need a lot of work in terms of thought, research, and effort, and are hence, not a daily possibility for a newspaper with our limited resources, Ayesha’s article was quick and easy to do, and is a formula that can be replicated for almost any piece of news.

Take the incident of a mob beating to death a fifty-five year old man after a rumour spread that his family were consuming beef.

Here is how The Citizen covered the incident using criteria 1 and 4 (unique analysis): The RSS/BJP Message To Muslims In India Today by Seema Mustafa

In a hart hitting piece, our editor Seema Mustafa linked the killing of the man to organised communal violence and its role in alienating and other-ing the Muslim minority in India for electoral gains. This isn’t an easy piece to write. It requires someone of Seema’s expertise, with over 40 years of experience as a political journalist, to put together.

Now take how The Citizen covered the incident using criteria 1 and 2 (emotional/personal connect): Welcome To India: Where Cows Matter More Than Humans (But There Is Wifi In Railway Stations) by Shiv Naidu

Naidu’s article took him all of twenty minutes to write. He’s a young twenty-something starting out in the field, and he put down on paper (or rather Google Docs) what everyone was already saying on social media.

Both articles have received an equal number of hits, with Shiv’s even leading slightly.

The above examples are from the last two days, and elucidate the formula that has helped drive up our ‘base traffic’ in the last month. Every day, we try and do a story that adds criteria 2 to a news development.

The stories may not be The Citizen’s best showcase in terms of content, but they click, and perfectly complement the more serious stories that we remain committed to.

Now although it’s taken me some time to come to the realisation that the emotional connect is the driving force behind easy virality, it doesn’t surprise me given the story that has held the number one spot on our most read roster. Could You Please Stand Up by Rashmi Oberoi has outperformed every story ever published on The Citizen. What’s it on? It asks our politicians to stand up and pay their respects to ‘war widows.’ Published a day after Republic Day, the story met criteria 1, and used an image of PM Modi sitting sheltered by an umbrella while a ‘war widow’ stood drenched in the rain, which roundly drove home criteria number 2.

2 thoughts on “How To Create Viral (Indian News) Content

  1. Sounds like a perfect setting for a sentiment-analysis. You guys could try running a sentiment-analysis on the comments from readers (assuming a fair number of comments are posted). It will help pin-point the key drivers of readership…even to the extent of identifying what type of usages (phrases/idioms..etc) readers find interesting..etc #justsayin

  2. Interesting piece. Curious to understand your revenue model & your thoughts how digital news platforms will be funded in the future? (If you don’t mind my asking here – happy to continue this over email otherwise!)

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