How Your Institution Can Create Awesome Viral Content

Cameron Pegg (@ghostwhowrites) is executive officer for the deputy vice chancellor (engagement) at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

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What would happen if you suggested that your institution’s homepage be taken over with kittens or an animated squirrel?

You wouldn’t get far. Or would you?

Oberlin College in Ohio devised a daring homepage heist in time for April Fools Day in 2012—it was so successful in driving traffic and social media interaction that they upped the ante last year (with added kitten cuteness).

Oberlin’s antics display a rare understanding of how our constituents behave online and what we can do to make them click.

In the February edition of CURRENTS, I explore how institutions can do a better job of developing and distributing “share worthy” content (see full article).

The Science of Sharing

Aim to create stronger emotional communion in the content you share

Aim to create stronger emotional communion in the content you share

In 2009, University of Pennsylvania researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman studied about 7,000 online New York Times articles to gauge which were shared most by email and why. (The authors established controls for factors including the story’s position on the website, the time of publication and the prominence of the author.)

Berger and Milkman’s findings provide good news for universities and colleges, given the primary predictor of content sharing was shown not to be amusement, but awe. Furthermore, people were more likely to share positive stories over negative ones, and were willing to engage with long, intellectually stimulating articles—a convenient finding for higher education institutions.

The authors also discussed the power of “emotional communion”—the shared experience that compelling digital content facilitates between users.

Lighten Up

While serious science can and does drive content sharing, it wouldn’t hurt if many institutions took themselves less seriously.

The Central Institute of Technology in Perth, Australia has clearly gotten the memo.

In 2012, two popular comedians who are also CIT alumni put together a fun advertisement for the institute, with the marketing manager’s full support.

In “It’s a Snap”, the duo click their fingers to teleport between different teaching spaces and the campus bar, before things go terribly wrong. The duo’s gross-out humor was an immediate hit on YouTube, and within a week had generated 1 million views and a record number of visits to CIT’s homepage.

Another great case study is the mysterious Indiana Jones-themed parcel that was sent to the University of Chicago by mistake. UC’s admissions team was quick to react, appealing on their Tumblr page for anyone with information to step forward. Thousands of interactions later, and the mischief was managed.

Rediscover the Power of News Values

In Journalism 101, we learn that to qualify as news, information must first pass the news value test. Maybe a story has conflict, a sense of the unusual, timeliness, proximity, prominence, currency or human interest—or better yet, all of the above!

Yet in the fields of advancement and alumni relations, our messages are often so finely tuned and massaged that they lack the cut through needed in today’s attention economy.

A good place to start is to explore the power of newsjacking. What type of branded content can you produce that will engage with the news cycle as it develops?

Oreo offered a master class in this technique for its Daily Twist campaign last year—creating clever, bite-sized images on social media to coincide with major events and trending topics.

A gold star also goes to the CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency), which secured international coverage for its robotics research program in 2013 by tying it to “May the 4th be with you,” the day of national observance for Stars Wars fans.

Explore Infographics

Mapping 1100 college sporting mascots made easy

Mapping 1100 college sporting mascots made easy

Your advancement and alumni relations teams already have talented writers and designers on board. Get them thinking about how they can present data to your alumni and donors in creative ways.

Yale helpfully showed us how much sugar is in popular beverages and gave us the low down on the Diamond Planet. But the award for the coolest college infographic might go to Pop Chart Lab, which recorded every mascot for collegiate sporting teams (that’s more than 1100 wolverines, Spartans and eagles).

Bringing It All Together

The good news is that your institution can start experimenting with viral content today.

Attention grabbing and engaging content are not one and the same. Graphic by Tina Reed

Attention-grabbing and engaging content are not one and the same. Graphic by Tina Reed

Universities and colleges are uniquely placed to create content that compels people to share it (just look at what happened when Cornell graduate students discussed astronomy for a recent reddit Ask Me Anything session).

Here are some tips to get started:

  • Collaborate—allow the entire team to contribute ideas for what is likely to go viral. Don’t silo this process to marketing and communications staff only.
  • Update your metrics—set “viral” key performance indicators and separate particularly successful content on media metrics reports sent to university administration to help develop viral literacy.
  • Expand your reach—target known social media influencers and include them in your media release distribution lists.
  • Think visually—infographics are a straightforward start.
  • Newsjack—encourage your team to keep track of what’s trending, and to turn around stories in a timely fashion.
  • Re-engineer your website—stop broadcasting and start engaging.

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