In today's attention economy, one of the biggest questions in every marketer's mind is, "How can we create content that will go viral?"

You can't create viral content, in the sense that you ultimately don't have control over what goes viral and what doesn't. But you can increase the potential of your content to resonate with your audience and earn their attention.

It boils down to 3 things:

1. Speak to needs people strongly feel.

If you have an audience, say, of blog readers or social media followers, you may already have a good idea of what they're interested in. Nevertheless, you need to validate your observations. You can do this by:

  • Asking your audience, "What's your biggest challenge?"
  • Systematically mining their comments, emails, and other feedback for questions and other ways they may be expressing their needs
  • Taking note of which pieces of content get the most engagement

If you don't have your own audience, you can still find out what answers and solutions people are looking for. Go to the forums, blogs, and other online and offline places where your target audience converges. Eavesdrop on the discussion that's already taking place there, again, being alert to when they express needs, questions, or challenges. If you participate in these forums, you can go ahead and ask the other members about their challenges.

Finally, don't forget about keyword research. Use a keyword tool to find the words and phrases that are most commonly being searched about around your topics. Be especially mindful of phrases that show an intent to find a solution, such as: "how to ___," "what's the best ___," or "solutions for ___."

2. Deliver real insight and value.

Don't create "me too" content or content that doesn't offer anything new. This type of content has little viral potential.

In today's content-rich world, just creating good content is no longer enough to get and keep the attention of an audience. Your content needs to stand out, which means it has to offer something new or different from what's already out there.

This has spawned ideas like Brian Dean's Skyscraper Technique. It involves finding content that's already doing well (getting plenty of traffic, comments, and shares) and one-upping it by making your content longer, more updated, better designed, or more thorough.

While this can be something you can try once in a while, it's not a sustainable strategy. "It took 10 gallons of coffee and 20-hours of sitting in front of my laptop," Dean says about writing his very successful skyscraper post, "Google's 200 Ranking Factors: The Complete List."

If you have the time and energy, then go for it. Otherwise, the approach I recommend is to take a topic that's already popular and share your own unique insight or additional value to the discourse.

Look at what's already been published and popular and ask yourself:

  • "What's missing??"
  • "What questions could somebody still have after consuming this content?"
  • "What are the common pitfalls and mistakes?"

Answer those questions with your content, and you'll have potentially viral content.

3. Be open, honest, and vulnerable.

It's natural to want to always show your best and to conceal your flaws and blemishes. But if you want to create authentic relationships with your audience, you need to be honest about your imperfections. You need to be vulnerable.

But wouldn't your imperfections make you less credible?

In reality, by being vulnerable, you allow your audience to connect with you. When you're honest, people listen. When you're vulnerable, they lean in. Your weakness becomes your strength. Your audience will resonate with you, because they recognize that you've experienced the same hardships, made the same mistakes, and had the same struggles they have.

I've talked about massive failure, broken promises, exhaustion, and other unflattering stories about myself. Instead of hurting my business, exposing myself--imperfections and flaws and all--has strengthened the connection with my audience.

So don't pretend that you, your life, and your business are perfect. Own up to your failures and mistakes. Don't cover them up. Share what you learned from them so your audience doesn't have to learn the same lessons the hard way.

Having said all this, creating content that connects with your audience also depends on your personal style. Controversial content is great for stickiness and shareability, for example, but I can't do it. It just doesn't suit my thinking or personality.

Try the formula I shared in this article to see if it jives with the way you think and operate. Eventually, you'll bring your own style and come up with your own formula.