Editorial director of BuzzFeed Jack Shepherd revealed his tips for making content people want to share during his keynote speech at the 11th news:rewired digital journalism conference yesterday (23 February).
Speaking at the event at MSN UK's offices in London, Shepherd said that creating shareable content was key to how BuzzFeed had grown from its humble beginnings in an office opposite a "gambling den" in 2006 to a site with more than 130 million global unique users a month in December 2013.
"When Facebook overtook Google as our top referrer in 2010 it was natural for us to refocus on social content," he added.
Here are Shepherd's five principles for journalists to make news content more shareable on social networks:
1. Everyone likes lists
Although Shepherd said he was not a fan of the word 'listicles,' it would be hard to argue that BuzzFeed hasn't made a name for itself through lists such as 109 cats in sweaters.
"Lists are easy to scan, you're not messing with people's expectations, people know exactly what they're going to get," he said.
"The internet is chaotic and frightening and there's something satisfying about having things organised for you."
However, he noted that a list itself is just "scaffolding for a story".A list is just scaffolding for a storyJack Shepherd, BuzzFeed
"Lists are a natural way for our brains to process information, but what matters is not the list itself, but that it has good stuff in it."
2. Appeal to emotion
Shepherd highlighted a 2010 study of the New York Times's most-emailed stories which showed that people liked content which fell into one of four distinct categories: awe-inspiring, emotional, positive and surprising.
"Emotional engagement is a powerful tool," he explained, adding that people are much more likely to share content that creates "a visceral response".
One way journalists can ensure they're on the right track is to do a "gut check" before sharing something.
"Did you just feel that prickling behind your eyelids that meant you were about to embarrass yourself in front of your co-workers by crying? Did it make you LOL?"
"If you don't feel it yourself, no one else is going to."
3. Extend content with community
Shepherd admitted there was "no easy trick" for shareability as every community is different, meaning there's no one-size-fits all approach to engagement.
However, he said one thing all shareable content had in common was "an emotional hook" that would generate discussion and response in a natural way.
"The real goal here is a meaningful conversation and not an interrogation," he said.
Shepherd referred to Young Me/Now Me, a project which encouraged users to re-create photos of their younger selves posing with siblings or in wedding shots.
Initially created by ZeFrank on Twitter, the emotional response generated by the project, which manged to balance both humour and nostalgia, meant it grew into a viral phenomenon.
4. Controversy works
Shepherd said that content was more likely to go viral if it generated a good response across what he called the "'Gets it / Likes it / Doesn't get it / Doesn't like it' quadrant".
Each of those four responses is an opportunity to share, he said.
As an example, he showed responses on Twitter to the internet hoax Bonsai Kitten – which people either loved or hated, or thought was a real example of animal cruelty.
5. Pair the right story with the right format
"The difference between telling a story that people want to hear and that people want to share is often a question of format," said Shepherd.
For example, he cited the story What City Should you actually live in? which was covered by a lot of other sites but which BuzzFeed opted to do as a quiz.
"If you do it as a quiz it totally changes the game," he said, adding that the piece had recieved close to 20 million visits, becoming BuzzFeed's second most popular piece of content of all time.
However, Shepherd said that sometimes the right format for a story is a 10,000-word piece, such as Gregory D. Johnsen's article 60 words and a war without end which recieved more than 250,000 unique visits, with 50 per cent coming from social media.
"It's totally a myth that nobody reads long or serious information on the internet," he said, adding that half the people who read the article also did so on their mobile.
If you missed news:rewired, you can see Jack Shepherd's speech and all the other sessions from the day with a digital pass available for £100 plus VAT.