All Articles Marketing Digital Technology Live from #SXSW: 7 principles of viral content from The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman

Live from #SXSW: 7 principles of viral content from The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman

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Digital Technology

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Matthew Inman built an online humor empire in less than two years with The Oatmeal — a collection of bizarre and profane stories, quizzes and comics that gets about 30 million views per month and was named one of the best blogs of 2010 by Time. Inman does the work himself — including promoting his content. At a panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Sunday, Inman discussed his approach to creating shareable content.

  • Keep it simple — but be specific. Viral content is often based on simple themes that have a wide appeal. Much of Inman’s humor is derived by everyday frustrations, such as obnoxious e-mail habits, pets or work problems. Inman tweaks these familiar themes by adding zombies, bears and scatological humor to the mix to make them specific and memorable. At their core, his most popular content comes from ideas that readers can recognize from their own lives.
  • Think visual. Inman says his most popular comics are shorter and have less text. Users like visual content that is easy to scan, with video being the highest expression of that. If your content is text-based, then look for ways to break up that text and keep it visually stimulating.
  • Respond in real time. Inman used Twitter to bolster his brand by firing off funny observations tied to current events. It’s a great asset to be nimble enough to create humor that responds to events that users already care about, he said.
  • Create a question. Users are more likely to click a link that either asks a question directly or prompts them to ask a question of their own. Much of Inman’s content carries a title that starts with a number, contain a question word, such as “how” or “why,” or otherwise leaves the reader wondering what “The Worst Thing About Valentine’s Day” might be.
  • Make room for the user. Inman says that his drawings are simple by design, so that readers will subconsciously project themselves onto his characters. Detailed drawings create space between the content and the user and make the content less likable, he argued. It’s technique that works in other mediums as well. For example, one of his comics pointed out that Twilight novelist Stephenie Meyer describes her heroine in only the vaguest terms, so that young women reading the books can easily project themselves into the story.
  • Be willing to iterate. Aiming for “viral content” means opening yourself up to failure. Inman said he often tweaks and revisits concepts from unsuccessful posts so that he can find what does work.
  • It’s not about you. If you’re creating viral content to promote another product or service, resist the urge to strongly brand the content right up front. Instead, think of your content as an investment. You are building an audience that you can tap into later.