A Writing for the Internet Strategy that Makes Content Viral

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Catherine Hughes

Director of the 8 Women Dream Project at 8 Women Dream
Catherine’s dream is to make 8 Women Dream the premier online publication for women looking to pursue their dreams. She is a published author, a freelance writer, and a guide for those who want their dreams to come true online. Catherine would someday like to be invited to speak at TED about her observations about her 8WD project inviting women to take a chance on their dreams. Wine was required... Catherine posts on Sunday evenings and fills in dream stories as needed. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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Writing for the Internet Strategy that Makes Content Viral

Are you confused as to how content ends up going viral on the Internet?

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about confusion.  It’s because I am helping care for a parent with Altzeimers disease. Never has it been so painful to me how confusion can mess with your reality and your ability to live a successful, independent life.

I see how confusion can prevent someone from making good choices.  I see where confusion can hold you back.

We assume that people understand the stories we tell, or the emails we send, or the conversational exchange we have with our co-workers, when most people are misinterpreting what we are trying to convey. The ability to understand someone can be marred by facial expressions, the way people dress, what is occupying the listener’s mind, simple distractions, and timing.

Corporate trainers learn this right away (I used to be one) on the job.  When teaching the first training class in a series, quite often the course-ware and the order of the training will need to be changed before the next training session.

Because assumptions that were made about how the students will understand the topic causes the training to be confusing to the students.  We sometimes create without the end-user in mind.  We do what WE like.

The same can be said for launching your dream online, be it a blog, business website, or an e-commerce site to sell shoes. The problem is that we think too small; focus on the wrong element, or we make decisions based on out-of-date facts.  We then scratch our heads when no one seems to be paying attention to our big dream.

Case in point: writers who blog to launch their dream.

When many of you were in school you were taught a style of writing that was intended for print publication, whether it was for research papers, historic novels, creative writing, or journalistic style. You may remember such phrases as “expository writing” or “narrative writing” along with “APA”, “MLA”, and “URM”. As you shudder at the thought of writing a research paper in MLA style, schools still teach these methods while ignoring the obvious: how to write for the Internet.

Because the Internet is a rather odd creature and it doesn’t follow many of the old English rules.

How people read online

People scan online more than they read. They get bored. They want information right now. Online readers are not like the person who has just purchased a book from the book store then races home to curl up in a corner and spend the afternoon digesting its contents.

Reading on a computer screen is hard on the eyes, so the content must draw the reader in from the start or they click away to another website.  Staring at a computer screen is tiring, so the content better suck the reader in, excite them, or make them laugh, or they’re gone.

You have about 4 seconds to enthrall them.

With so many choices on the Internet they move on to the next site and start over.  Haven’t you done the same?

A big part of the problem is that the search tool you were using to find a particular answer to your inquiry didn’t deliver what you expected to read.  And the perfect answer to your question, or solution to your problem, was somewhere on the Internet — except the person who wrote the solution you were looking for didn’t include the same search term in their content  that you used to search for the answer.


Just like the disconnect that appears for trainers on the first day of new training, the same thing happens with Internet content every single day because too many people don’t understand how to write for the Internet.  What they do adds to the confusion online.

I can hear all the writers (artists) groaning at the thought of this and  misunderstanding what “writing for the Internet” means.

Ever want to see how much your writing misses the mark? Take a two-word phrase that best describes something you’ve written about  and run it through Google Keyword Tools and see how many people also use that same term.  Try it.  You may discover that the term you use to describe your story isn’t a term people search for online… at all.  Or the term means something different in search.

And here’s where writer’s often say,

“But I like my phrase better!”

“My phrase is more clever.” (thus they think will attract attention when shared with friends on social media).

“Using the search engine phrase feels unnatural.”

The reason they say this is because they are stuck in what they learned in school for print media and they are also confused as to how the Internet works.  They believe a large viral reaction stems from when something clever is published and shared with family and friends.  It’s the way broadcast news would have you believe viral content works, but they’re wrong.

Creating titles and opening paragraphs like you learned in school leads to confusion for the person who is searching for specific content on the Internet.  It’s not print media.

How posting content works

When writing for the Internet and publishing content online, your content (once its published) has the life of about a day — the day you spend sharing it with family and friends.  Then it’s done.  For life.

This means that unless you’ve used a search term in your title and in a couple of places in your content which best describes your story so that it becomes found through search engines in the future, it will never have the chance of going viral.  It’s in the finding and sharing of your story by influencers in future searches that provides your content the opportunity to be seen by the masses.

This is just as true with online videos.

Viral videos on YouTube often are discovered by someone long after they were first posted. Often, this certain someone has a large, trusted following that when he or she shares interesting finds from YouTube, they go viral. Once they find and share your online content, your content tends to be viewed by more people exponentially.

Content doesn’t become viral because the person who created it publishes it and shares it with family and friends.

Content becomes viral when someone with influence finds it through search and decides to share it in their sphere of influence. And they wouldn’t have found that particular content if search hadn’t delivered something back relating to a specific search phrase.

It’s the search phrase that brings the influencer to your content for the first time.

To better illustrate what I am trying to explain, I’ll share Kevin Allocca’s (he’s YouTube’s trends manager in case you are wondering) brief video on the 4 reasons a video goes viral. The concept he shares applies to all web content.

Why videos go viral

Click here to view this video on TED.

You can see by the graph that Kevin Allocca provides during his viral video presentation that the sharing begins long after the content was first uploaded, when an influencer discovers it through search and decides to share it with their followers.

Which is why the wrong search phrase will never offer your content the chance to go viral.

Writing for the Internet: keyword confusion

As you can see by the image above, the term “keyword confusion” returns zero monthly searches.

Writing for the Internet: top keyword phrases

Whereas the term “writing for the Internet” returns 8,100 monthly searches.

Which phrase do you think would make this post have a better chance of being found by an influencer — if I start the title with “keyword confusion” or “writing for the Internet”?

Once the influencer arrives from search to view my content this had better be unique, unexpected, entertaining, or educational and what they expect to find (or all of the above) or he or she will click off this page just as fast as they arrived.

Now if you are already famous or have a huge marketing budget to buy your search placement then you can ignore how the Internet works.

But for the rest of us living our dreams online and hoping for viral content to get our dreams in front of the right people, we’ve got to publish with the Internet in mind.


  • Thad

    Think like Jonah Berger and Katy Milkman. Provide content that is positive because Positive content is more viral than negative content. Remember that content evoking high emotions (positive or negative) are more viral than content without an emotional trigger. Content that’s useful to your visitor’s life get’s shared. Be unique, unexpected and ask for participation from your visitors.

    • I think I pointed to that, but your thoughts are more concise. thank you Thad. And I agree with everything you write.

  • TC

    There are few that understand it like you. teach on.

  • This is such a painful lesson to learn. Not only for us dreamers out here daily looking to be found, but for clients that are convinced their “keywords” are more valid than the research shows.

    No matter how clever I think I am, I’m finally to the point that my first post preparation destination is the Google keyword tool.

    Great post Cath!

    • Ah clients… i remember the days of they know everything…