It seems a little like winning the lottery. Unless it features a cat playing the piano, few of us really understand what makes a piece of content go viral. (It was quite a surprise the one time it happened to me.)

But there really is a science to creating viral or near viral content, and you can use that science to your advantage. "Successful viral content must do two things," explains Kelsey Libert, VP of marketing at Fractl, which uses research like this to create content. First, she says, it must "draw in an audience quickly and make them understand what the content is about before they lose interest." Second, it must "engage them emotionally and give them a reason to share the content."

Put it that way and it sounds a little less like serendipity and a little more like thoughtful content planning and creation, combined with thorough research into what kind of content goes viral. Libert has done a lot of that research. The following tips are drawn from her findings:

1. Start with specific, measurable goals.

This is important advice for any marketing campaign, and creating content that you hope will be shared is no exception. "Failing to define goals and KPIs [key performance indicators] to measure success is one of the biggest mistakes small companies make," she says. "Are you looking to increase brand visibility? Build links for SEO? Increase social engagement? Present your company as a thought leader?"

While viral content can be amazingly effective marketing, "it's not a silver bullet," she says. So before you set out to create content that you hope will go viral, decide exactly what results you hope to see, so you can measure the actual results against those goals.

2. Take the time to really understand your target audience.

You have a target customer in mind (or at least you should) for all your other marketing efforts, and viral content should be no exception. It turns out, for instance, that men and women respond to content in slightly different ways: Men respond with more joy, women with more emotional complexity. And that's just scratching the surface.

"The key to successfully activating emotions in any particular audience starts with understanding what they care about, and what makes them feel," Libert says. "Properly defining the demographic and psychographics of your target audience is essential to being able to craft content that will activate their emotions and spur them to share."

3. Learn what makes people share content.

Fortunately, The New York Times has done a lot of research into what makes people share content, so the rest of us don't have to. According to the Times study, the biggest motivators for sharing are to bring valuable and entertaining content to others; define ourselves to others; grow and nourish our relationships; create self-fulfillment; or to get the word out about a cause or brand we care about.

4. Aim for content that makes people happy.

Not surprisingly, Libert's research shows that the content most likely to go viral is content that elicits a strong emotional reaction. But not all emotions are created equal. "High-arousal, positive emotions seem to be what make content most likely to go viral," she says. "These include surprise, excitement, elation, astonishment, and awe, among others."

Negative emotions tend not to do as well, so keep that in mind when creating content, and try to pick content and ideas that will fill the viewer or reader with happiness.

5. Test multiple ideas.

What should your content consist of? "Do a TON of ideation," Libert suggests. Then, she advises testing your idea with a number of different questions. Does this present new information? Or old information in a novel way? Will people quickly and easily figure out what it's about? Will it resonate with my target audience? And, perhaps most important: If it succeeds, will it accomplish the business goals I defined at the start?

6. Follow your passions.

"Writing about a topic you are passionate about is almost always a good idea," Libert says. "Not only will you probably know the topic better, but in these instances, you yourself are part of the target audience." This means you can use your own responses at every step in creating the content to gauge how your target audience might react.

Not only that, because you care so much about the topic, you're likely to put extra time and effort into creating the best content you possibly can. "The result of this extra effort can often make a big difference in the success of content," Libert says.

7. Make something that looks good.

"Visual content that is easy to consume, easy to understand, and quick to digest tends to be most likely to go viral," Libert says. To encourage sharing, content should be easy to share across all platforms, she adds, and this is why images have an advantage over long narratives or media that can't easily be embedded.

When it comes to video, she adds, there's a danger that viewers will get bored or distracted over time, so research shows video is most effective if it creates a roller-coaster ride of dramatic or surprising moments and moments of relative calm. For both still images and video, she adds, "Spend the money to create something that looks professional and visually appealing."

8. Pick a great title.

Your audience uses titles to decide which pieces of content to click on and which not to, so they are vitally important and deserve your close attention. Libert says the best titles create a "knowledge gap" that piques your audience's curiosity and makes them want to know more.

Incidentally, Fractl's title-testing software suggested that a better title for this column might have been: "Want to Go Viral? This Research Shows You How." What do you think?

9. Plan to spend money promoting your content.

Here's an unexpected fact: Very little content goes viral, at least as strictly defined. To be truly viral, Libert says, it must have a viral coefficient greater than 1. That means, if 100 people see your content, the total people they all share it with should be at least 101. "Achieving a viral coefficient greater than 1 is very difficult and quite rare," Libert says.

But even if, say, 100 people share it with 90 others, your content will get massive play, if you start with a large enough group. So it's smart to get your content in front of as many pairs of eyes as you possibly can. "Allocate at least a third of your total content budget to promotion," she says. And do some promotion of your own. "Find writers at major publications who have written about topics in the same category as your content," she says. "Pitch them."

That might be enough to create the desired effect--even if your viral coefficient is more like 0.9 or lower. "By giving your content a large initial audience, it can still enjoy massive sharing," she says.

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