Virality is often the holy grail for content marketers seeking top-of-the-funnel awareness and general link building.
Unfortunately, virality is incredibly difficult to predict.
We’re often left to our intuitions about what we think “has a shot” and what doesn’t.
Fortunately, new tools are enabling us to develop a deeper understanding of virality through bulk programmatic analysis.
So I decided to explore image virality by using Google’s Vision API to find hidden trends in provably viral images on Reddit (images that hit the first two pages of r/pics in roughly the last two years).
What Is Frequently Depicted in Viral Images on Reddit?
6,738 images came back from Google’s Vision API with labels.
The vast majority of these images had multiple labels associated with the image.
This stacked bar chart shows the overall frequency of detected labels.
Here are some quick observations I gleaned from the results:
- Outdoor/scenic shots seem significantly overrepresented, with categories like Sky, Tree, Plant, Water appearing inside the Top 10. “Natureporn” is a real thing.
- Photography should not be undervalued. People appreciate what is real and around them that is captured in a poignant, artistic, or resonating way.
- Text-based images make a solid showing in this breakdown.
- “Smile” and “fun” both appear, hinting at positive content being more popular.
But these observations aren’t enough.
We also have to understand how we can use them to optimize our image-based marketing.
What Does This Mean for Marketers?
While this is a top-level look at what a lot of these viral images have in common, I think there are a few primary insights all content marketers should take into consideration.
Insight 1: Show Rather Than Tell
It’s one of the first rules you learn about writing. Don’t write, “The boy is angry.” Write, “The boy pounded his fist on the table.” Show the reader what’s happening.
While excellent writing can certainly paint a vivid picture, sometimes there’s nothing better than a picture itself.
For example, you can try to describe the stunning beauty of the night sky — the countless stars and the shades of light and dark. You might even come close to evoking the image you want.
Or you can show them this.
Looking at this now, it’s still hard for me to figure out how I could describe this image with words. That’s when a photograph should absolutely be used.
But I’m sure some of you are thinking, yeah, stunning images will always look wonderful, but I work in an industry that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to aesthetics.
Viral photography isn’t always beautiful. Sometimes it tells a story or answers a question.
This is also an extremely popular photograph posted on Reddit, and you can see why. The title of the Reddit thread was “My entire life is a lie,” because the poster had no idea that stamped concrete was a thing.
The photo shows how structures like this can be created without using brick, which was surprising to thousands of people. There’s no complicated, step-by-step explanation. Just the interesting truth.
Consider how you can show people answers in your industry. Ask yourself: What are the interesting truths?
Insight 2: Think Positive When Deciding on Images
People want to consume content that makes them happy.
Yes, that might seem like the most obvious statement of the year, but oftentimes brands try to hone in on negative things to create buzz and stir up emotion.
That can be successful, but the appearance of both “Smile” and “Fun” in the viral image labels shows that positivity can be just as, if not more, effective.
This reinforces a study we did back in 2013 that showed positive emotions were the most prevalent emotions in that year’s most viral images.
Take this image, for example.
Just looking at this image evokes relief, accomplishment, and pride. It’s hard not to like photos like this that both tell a story and communicate positive emotions.
When you’re creating content, consider what emotions are contained in that content and how you can illustrate them through photography or images for a more impactful result.
Insight 3: Create Text-Based Images for Quick, Shareable Wins
This is going to sound a bit contradictory to Insight #1. But just like there are concepts that should be illustrated rather than spoken/written, there are concepts that make more sense in writing.
Sometimes people encounter a snippet of writing they love, and they want to share it with people. The easiest way to do that (and I’m about to get meta) is to take a picture of it.
Pictures of text are all over the Internet — little splashes of wisdom or humor that people want to share with everyone they know easily.
This type of image is particularly effective on social media. Even screenshots of tweets do pretty well as people try to spread messages across platforms.
The significance of this?
When creating content, pick out what you think are the most interesting snippets of text and create images out of them.
They can help amplify messages in a text-heavy piece of content, or they can help you circulate your message across other platforms, as well.
Many brands on a budget opt for stock photos or free images available online. And don’t get me wrong – sites like Unsplash are wonderful and do help people create aesthetically pleasing content for much cheaper.
But if you can, don’t miss the opportunity to create something original.
Not only does that give you a chance of ranking in Google Images, but it also opens up the opportunity for your photograph or illustration to be shared and appreciated by your audience while being sourced uniquely to you.
Screenshot taken by author, January 2020