Nine Tips for Hitting It Big On Buzzfeed (And Beyond)

Aaron Jaco (@aaron_jaco) is digital media specialist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Jaws dropped all over the Drake University campus last week as students and staff scrolled through their Facebook feeds and discovered that “I F—ing Love Science” had shared a poignant Drake moment with its 10 million fans.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Facebook

As seen on “I F—-ing Love Science.” Photo courtesy: Drake University.

The post featured a photo and quote from the Q&A portion of Cosmos star Neil deGrasse Tyson’s fall 2013 lecture at Drake University when he explained to a young girl that true scientists preserve their childlike sense of wonder. A hundred thousand “likes” and 20,000 shares later, we Drake folks felt like we’d just won the lottery.

With so much virtual noise, there is an element of chance to hitting it big online. However, after this recent pickup, two previous front-page Buzzfeed articles and some moments of traction on Reddit, I’m starting to detect a pattern—and a strategy—to increasing a university’s chances for hitting on content that resonates in the pop-culture mainstream.

Aim high, consider these tips and you might reach millions of people:

1. Immerse yourself in pop culture. This is your excuse to read about corgis on Buzzfeed during work hours. If you’re going to develop successful content, you need in-depth knowledge of an outlet and its audience, regardless of whether it’s The New York Times or /r/adviceanimals. Study the subject matter. Study the writing style. Understand what gains traction and what doesn’t.

2. Identify home run opportunities. Among the thousands of student events, guest lecturers, faculty research projects and other campus activities that come across your desk, there’s bound to be something truly worthy of global attention. Your task is to find the needle in the haystack. Be very selective and very specific—hone in on a single quote, a single fact or idea or an iconic image, and work from there. (For example, in Drake’s case, a prime image would be a bulldog in a tutu.)

Bulldog in a tutu

An internet sensation in the making. (Courtesy: Drake University)

3. Develop and communicate a plan. You can’t be sure you’ll get the content you need unless you plan meticulously. Decide where you’d like your content to appear: often the outlet will influence your content strategy. Visualize your final product and map out the necessary components. Pay special attention to cover images, thumbnail images and other types of required content per the outlet’s design template.

4. Communicate your plan. Be extremely, annoyingly clear with your teammates to ensure they get you what you need. Last year, Buzzfeed featured an article I submitted about “Drake Relays Pole Vault in the Mall,” an elite pole-vaulting competition held inside a local shopping center. I knew exceptional photos were going to tell the story, so my first step was to recruit our top photographers to shoot the event. The next step was to ensure they captured exactly the photos I needed. For example, I knew I needed a provocative cover image to capture eyes on Buzzfeed, so I specifically requested a horizontally framed photo with the sign for a nationally known retail store prominently plastered at an athlete’s eye-level. The photographer came through in spades—2012 Olympic silver medalist Bjorn Otto in front of the J. Crew. Ask and you shall (hopefully) receive.

Bjorn Otto in front of J. Crew

Bjorn Otto: Not a J. Crew model (that we know of).

5. Be (strategically) spontaneous. You know how sports photographers always seem to capture that one split-second, game-defining moment amid hours of unscripted competition? That success comes with a combination of experience, preparation and persistence. You need to demonstrate those same characteristics if you want to capitalize on moments of unexpected profundity. I snapped the now world-famous photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson with my iPhone at the spur of the moment. The primary difference between global reach and no reach at all may be whether you are ready to take notes or leap from your chair for a quick photo.

6. Be persistent. You can’t “win the Internet” on a daily basis. I bend over backward to capture all sorts of moments that turn out to be remarkably unremarkable. I take tons of photos that end up blurry and unusable. And for every successful post, I submit more flops than I’d like to admit. But when one of those posts gets your university’s name in front of millions of people—attached to content of your own design—it’s totally worth it.

7. Learn Reddit. You’d be surprised at the amount of viral content that originated, or at least took flight, on Reddit. It’s an amazing launch pad characterized by a population of highly educated, tech-savvy and influential 20-somethings. In fact, my photo of Dr. Tyson initially reached half a million people after I posted it to the /r/pics photo community—four months before it resurfaced last week.

8. Remember your strategic goals. Don’t submit to major outlets just because they’re major outlets. Keep your audience in mind and remember what you’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes it’s better to reach 100 prospective students within your recruiting area than 1,000 strangers who live all over the globe.

9. HAVE FUN—and may your efforts be more Good Guy Greg than Bad Luck Brian.

Have you reached the masses with great social content? What tips can you share from your success (or flops)?

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