Storytelling to Make Content go Viral

Last updated on June 13th, 2023

Pardeep Kullar
Pardeep Kullar

You hear about story telling, you hear about viral content and then you end up just doing regular blog posts. This is an edited transcript of how Buzzfeed did viral story telling in a great talk by Jonathan Perelman. Considering Facebook’s recent announcement’s on more personal stories, the need to adapt content to something that resonates is becoming essential.

**Key points covered**

What works on Pinterest does not work on Facebook, learn what works.

Social is the starting point, not google.

Don’t market content to people who really don’t care about it.

Crack the code about creating content people want to consume.

We can all create genuine, authentic and meaningful stories now.

How Buzzfeed does it.

How you can do it.


The reality is that the media landscape has changed so much, so much of what Gary talked about being invited in how are we you know thinking about content for 24 months from now that’s the way that BuzzFeed thinks .

Telling stories that think about distribution for 200% yearly growth

Here’s just a lovely graph on our growth eighty-five million uniques last month, two hundred percent year-over-year, we are growing because we are telling stories in a new way.

Telling stories that thinks about distribution.

Content is king but distribution is queen

My thought is content is king but distribution is Queen and she wears the pants. You’ve got to understand great content is the base. That has to work but beyond that, understand the distribution channels. What works on Pinterest does not work on Facebook necessarily and it’s totally different on Twitter and we’ll get into it.

The digital world has moved from portal, to search, to social. Social is the starting point., I don’t think they get enough credit being a really powerful media company in the search age. You couldn’t do a search for anything on Google without an story coming up in the first page right? They figured out SEO, they figured out how to do it.

Google is not the starting point, social is

With social, google is not the starting point.

You’re checking your email, you’re checking out Twitter, what people do last night. I’m pinned on on tumblr. You’re looking at Pinterest.

This is what we’re doing this is the starting point online how are we getting our message across on these platforms.

We consume different kinds of content, one after the other

Look at your feed, your feeds gonna have pictures of your nieces of your nephews of your friends kids right?

You’re gonna have your political friend who’s talking about what’s new in politics.

Your friend that’s really concerned about Syria will be there.

You’re gonna have your friend that thinks that they’re funny telling a joke.

You’re gonna have someone else posting something else.

Never before have we consumed content of all different kinds right after each other right? Think about the newspaper. The newspaper says this is the front section, this is news. This is the business section, this is sports, this is Arts and Leisure. We don’t live in that world anymore, we live in a world where all different kinds of content is coming together at once in one feed.

Miley Cyrus and a fire in Syria

You as likely to see Miley Cyrus in your feed as you are to see a picture of fire in Syria.

It’s okay and normal because we are human beings as Gary pointed out, to like both, to be interested in both.

The reason this works is because publishing in content today is like a Paris cafe.

So let’s all get on a plane and go to Paris and we’re sitting at a cafe right?

We’re sitting down we’re having a glass of wine we’ve got Sartre, we’ve got our philosophy. We’ve got La monde, the news, we’re really serious right.

Someone sits down next to us. You tell a joke, you’re sort of making small talk, you bend down to pet their dog, cuz of course they’re gonna have a dog. You’ve turned your back on news and philosophy right but you’re not dumb you’re human.

We can care as much about news and philosophy as we can about the dog and it’s okay. You would never think to go to a cocktail party and say I’m just gonna talk about myself the whole time right and if you did you’d never be invited back. We are humans we are interested in a lot of different things.

Social, digital today, has allowed us to talk about all different kinds of things at once. We’ll talk about Miley Cyrus’s thing at the VMAs and we’ll talk about Syria and you know what, the same person will be interested in both.

You look at the 1960s and 70s when the New York Times circulation of the paper went up why did it go up did they start doing better reporting. No, they started with an Arts and Leisure section a dining out section, science times.

They started doing other things that people were interested in because it’s not just about news it’s also about being entertained.

Do you think 22 year olds give a shit about an $8,000 Safari?

Some of the more traditional publishers will ask well how do we get a younger audience you know our audience is getting really old?

You say, well your travel section in your publication it’s talking about an $8,000 Safari to Namibia.

You want to get 22 year olds who give a shit? You think they give a shit about this $10,000 trip?

No, it’s the most indebted generation in the history of America.

They don’t care about that, it doesn’t mean anything to him it doesn’t resonate with them at all.

DIY hacks about how to make your life, better talk to me about that, that’s something interesting. How am I being entertained by Beyonce’s incredible dance moves? Yeah.

Cracking the code about creating content people want to consume

At Buzzfeed we have a long read section, five or six thousand word stories. Things about like growing up in Juarez Mexico, the most dangerous city in the world. What’s that like? That’s important. So, we’ve been able to crack this code about how to create content that people want to consume but also want to share.

The reading of an article on BuzzFeed is just the first step. The most important step is going on to your favourite network and sharing it because the peer-to-peer influence and the recommendation is incredibly powerful.

We used to live in the broadcast model world, you get home 6:30 you watch the nightly news, now we live in this social web, you have these concentric nodes of people that are passing around information anybody with a Facebook account or a Twitter account as likely to get something seen across the web as the nightly news used.

It’s really really powerful. What this means is that we can do word-of-mouth from a marketing perspective, there’s never been a better tool. We can now do this at scale, at internet scale. Word-of-mouth marketing at internet scale is possible.


Did you wake up this morning and think “I want to see a pic of this dog!”

What is this? A fat dog. What kind of dog? A basset hound. What’s that basset hound doing? Running. Those are basset hounds running.

How many of you woke up this morning said, you know what I need to see in my day today? Gosh I really want to see some basset hounds running. If you did we, should talk, you probably need to be working at BuzzFeed.

Nobody thinks, oh gosh. look at that, that’s really amazing. I need to see 22 more pictures of this. But when you see this in your Facebook feed when your friend passes this to you, if you don’t laugh, if this doesn’t evoke some sort of emotion, you are the robot.

That pic of basset hounds running is content that can live forever

So let’s look at this piece of content. Basset hounds running, it is incredibly simple. This continues to drive traffic because this is the kind of content that can live forever right.

You’re having a really bad day, you can sort of remember you saw this and you will google it, gosh those basset hounds, what does that look like.

Your friend is having a bad day, you can pass him this piece of content. One another post we did was like, if you’re having a bad day, well, if Britney Spears can survive 2007, you can get through this day.

The science of it

The above is the art, now let’s look at the science.

A couple weeks after this launched three hundred eighty six thousand views of this piece of content.

Twelve thousand of those views came from people on

Three hundred seventy four thousand of those views came from social, came from someone saying oh my god this is too funny I have to share this.

That’s the number we care most, about that’s the social lift, how often is a piece of content reproduced across the social web? Thirty-three times more people came across this piece of content coming in through social than they did on BuzzFeed. Look where it came. The number one referral? Stumble upon. Stumble upon picked this up it went it went viral. Ninety five thousand people from Facebook. Fifty five hundred people, fifty five hundred out of three hundred seventy four thousand came in via Twitter.

Everybody thought long form journalism was dead

I talked about this, surviving Juarez. Five thousand word story on surviving Juarez growing up in Juarez Mexico. Look at this, shares differently right?

Everybody thought long form journalism was dead ,digital had killed it? No. 150,000 views in the first two weeks. I don’t think it’s dead.

Look, more people came to this from BuzzFeed than they were referred in by the social web, maybe not surprising but look where they came from. Direct. That’s dark social. That’s emails or third party widgets that you can’t track.

Surviving Juarez is twitter content. Basset hounds running is Facebook blogs picked this. Long form blogs picked this up. Twitter 5200. The last one had fifty five hundred thousand people come to a piece of content via Twitter that had almost three hundred ninety thousand people total. This is a lot lower number but almost the same exact from Twitter. This is Twitter content, basset hounds running is Facebook.

Social storytelling meets video now.

Anyone can be a be a producer. You can have something like a hundred hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. I mean it is absolutely insane. You can tell your story now in sight sound and motion and you have a distribution platform built in with hundreds of millions of eyeballs.

How to piss off every New Yorker in 36 seconds

Some of the stuff that BuzzFeed? How to piss off every New Yorker in 36 seconds. We do a true fact series true facts on the anglerfish, the most misunderstood fish in the sea. Twelve million views story about the angler fish. Its storytelling meets sight sound in motion with the ability of of social for content to spread. We’ve done partnerships with CNN BBC and CNBC because they have said ‘how do we do it?’, how do we create content.

Somebody asked this earlier about do you start with the long-form piece and then cut into short form, we take the other approach. We take a short form piece, cut it up, if you’re interested you can go and watch the two-hour documentary on animals on BBC.

Genuine, authentic and meaningful stories we can all do

Okay so if content is social, ads can be too right? We went from portal, to search, to social. It’s now banner paid search to social content when it comes to an ads perspective. You can tell a story, a brand can tell a story. It can be genuine, authentic and meaningful.

Gary talked about the stats clicking on banner ads. You’re more likely to summit Mount Everest then you are to click on a banner ad. It’s impossible to tell a story in that real estate.

How does Buzzfeed do it?

BuzzFeed does social content, we create content for brands, where we help tell their story. So how do we do it?

Tell the story of your brand in a way that resonates with humanity

Prius is a hybrid car right?

Hybrids weren’t seen as very cool when this first came out. So what about the 20 coolest hybrid animals?

How about telling the story about the 20 most scenic drives in America? You know what’s interesting about all those drives they’re a long way between gas stations. You know that means? You should have a hybrid car.

Think about telling the story of your brand in a different way, in a way that resonates with people, with humans.

Telling the story that GE has been timeless

GE is timeless technology. How many of you have ever bought an aircraft engine online? How about a locomotive? GE, most of their products you don’t even buy online right? but they are about timeless technology. So what did they? They took over BuzzFeed. We created pieces of content for them for every decade from 1890, when they were created. Actually all the way back to medieval times in prehistory. This is an example from the 1950s content like a man’s life in the 1950s was not easy. The ad unit here was their original ads from the 1950s. Right? It’s telling the story that GE has been timeless in efficiency since creation.

The only three photographs from 1890

My favorite one of these incidentally, which is still available if you go to the rewind section which is our nostalgia vertical all about growing up in the 80s and 90s, you can still play with this. The best three photographs from 1890, you click on it and says ‘the only three photographs from 1890’

How do you do it? What makes social content?

So now is the fun part. This is when I’ll tell you to take out your pencils. How do you do it? What makes social content? how do you do this for yourself for your brands for what you’re working on?

  1. Have a heart. Emotion is key and positive emotion is better than negative emotion have a heart
  2. Content is about identity. There are only right-handed desks in this picture. How many of you are left-handed? Four the last five US presidents have been left-handed, you can guess who wasn’t. This sucked. You go into college and there are only right-handed desks and you have to write like this, you have to sit like this. If you’re right-handed think about what it’s like trying to write left-handed in a three-ring binder. You lose about 3/4 of a page. It’s impossible. This is a piece of content we did ‘The 18 reasons it’s hard to be a lefty’. About a month ago it was international left-handers day, you righties wouldn’t know about it. This story that was two years old started to get traction again because it’s about identity. People passed it to me because they know I’m extremely intelligent and left-handed. I pass it to my father, my friends who are left-handed.
  3. Capture emotion. The moment anybody in the marketing world is going to talk about is Oreo and the Super Bowl right? You people know what I’m talking? The only reason Oreo could do that is, their 100th anniversary was that year. For 365 days they had created a new piece of content that was ‘on brand’ message capturing what was hot on the web at the time. The 370 second day of that campaign happened to be the Super Bowl. The lights happened to go out. It was muscle memory, the only way they were able to understand how to capture the moment, take advantage of what was happening, was because they were doing it the whole time. You have not heard of any of the 365 pieces of content they created, except the one that came on the 370 second day. Enough said.
  4. It’s actually vital to understand that animals, cats more than dogs, are vital to the social web. It’s not a joke. To understand how content spreads, look at cats specifically, less so than dogs. I happen to be a dog person.
  5. Humor works. I named this printer Bob Marley because it’s always jamming. Wish I had thought of that but it works right? It’s funny. You want to pass this along, you want to be the one on Facebook to show you’re funny, you don’t want to be the 5 millionth person to retweet something right?
  6. The platforms are different. If you look at how content spreads on platforms, breaking news works amazing on Twitter but Twitter lasts for about two or two and a half hours. Someone tweets, they’ve got a lot of followers, it gets retweeted it spikes. As quickly as it goes up, it comes back down because it’s in moment, it’s about timeliness. Facebook is more about emotion. Facebook could take two three four days for a piece of content to get picked up but as Gary says, he knows he’s gonna see it later. It could last for two weeks, three weeks, four weeks on Facebook. Pinterest could take six months to drive traffic to a particular piece of content it could last for two years. The platforms are different. Understand how content travels across.
  7. Nostalgia, people love being reminded of something from days of old. Saved by the Bell, in this example. Do this, close your eyes and think about play-doh the stuff you play with as a kid, not the Greek guy right? Think about the smell of it right? It brings you back to something hopefully they’re good memories, if not, you should talk to someone.
  8. Don’t ignore mobile. Over 50% of BuzzFeed’s traffic is mobile and growing. Don’t ignore mobile. For something to work across the social web, it has to work on mobile. It has to be a seamless experience right? That standing in line, think about the Bourdon line network. Hundreds of millions of people who are waiting in line at 8:30 in the morning at Starbucks. They want content to snack on while they’re waiting for their latte to be done.
  9. Make something you’d be proud to share. Ask the question ‘Would we want to share this with our friends?’. Don’t do things that are embarrassing. Scarlett Johansson photos were leaked on the web. I didn’t see anybody on Facebook say ‘hey there are leaked photos of Scarlett Johansson, I’ve got time this weekend can some send them to me?’ Nobody said that. They will Google the hell out of it but they will not share it because people can be embarrassed by it.

Okay so here’s what to remember. The starting point online is social, that’s what we’re doing, that’s where we’re starting. The feed has allowed us to consume what we want , when we want, all different kinds of content all at once mumbled together. Word of mouth marketing, word of mouth at internet scale is now possible. Content is king, distribution is Queen and she wears the pants. Understand each Network and why and how they’re different and with that if it doesn’t spread it’s dead.


Related: The one element all virality has in common

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Pardeep Kullar
Pardeep Kullar

Pardeep overlooks growth at Upscope and loves writing about SaaS companies, customer success and customer experience.