At the International Newsroom Summit in Amsterdam today, a session looked to address exactly that issue.
But Liam Corcoran, social media editor at social network analysis and aggregation site NewsWhip, said "rather than talking broadly about 'going viral', ask how can I prime my content" to be shared on social media.
"A 'social lede' and presentation are two things which may be the easiest way to kick start that," he said.
Images are vital on social media, he said, so it is important to "understand what you can control" in terms of presenting a visual hook.
News organisations looking to have articles shared widely need to know the difference in image sizes for the different article types on Facebook, or the size of a picture as it displays on a Twitter timeline compared, to better present their work, he said.At Quartz, every story begins with a conversation about shareabilityMitra Kalita, Quartz
In terms of a 'social lede', many publishers think about their headline or intro to a story as being the elements that will gain the most attention.
On social media this is rarely the case, and the social lede "could be an interesting stat in the story, it could be an image or graph, or a brilliant quote from an interview", he said.
As an example, he spoke of a tweet by the Scientific American about Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt, whose prize caused him some problems at airport security.
They tweeted the story with just a link and a headline and it only had a few retweets, he said.
But when the Atlantic's tech editor Adrienne LaFrance tweeted the story with an added picture and a more conversational tone, it was retweeted many more times, despite LaFrance having a tiny fraction of the Scientific American's followers.
"By putting some time an effort into presenting your content you can really seed something to make it [be shared online]," he said.
The idea of how an article may be shared on social media is central at Quartz, said Mitra Kalita, ideas editor at the business and tech site, where they think about the headline from an early stage.
"At Quartz, every story begins with a conversation about shareability," Kalita told delegates, and a big part of that process is the headline.
Online, there's a more conversational tone, she said, so headlines need to be more accessible and authentic if they are going to be shared more.
One article that was "one of the most viral of all time" had the headline "12 things white people can do because Ferguson", she said.
The phrase "white people" was initially questioned but it stuck because that is how people talk, she said, and "because Ferguson" is a turn of phrase that was born of the web and people sharing online would recognise.Think of sharing from your readers' perspectiveLiam Corcoran, NewsWhip
"Part of the accessibility is to give people a sense of sameness," she said, "making people a part of the conversation."
The Ferguson headline also provided what has brought Upworthy such success and derision – the curiosity gap.
Leaving some information out that gives readers a reason to click or share helps articles to perform on social, she said, as with the Quartz piece "Scientists have discovered what's killing the bees and it's worse than you think".
Corcoran said there was no secret recipe for 'going viral' though, and it is not practical for publishers to think that way.
"Think of sharing from your readers' perspective," he said, as there is always potential for any story to be shared more with a little work.
Free daily newsletter
- Quartz AI Studio launches an open-source platform to help journalists use machine learning
- Tip: Check out these 10 steps to verify social videos
- 'It’s Gone Viral': can big publishers learn from an online video startup?
- ‘We have one thing that other publishers don’t have - time’: International investigative journalism at BuzzFeed
- Quartz's Davos Daily Brief is the latest in a series of pop-up newsletters