How to balance virality and utility in content marketing

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How to balance virality and utility in content marketing

When people talk of the “quality” of a piece of content, they’re generally referring to its value in terms of captivating an audience or attracting attention to the brand. They might be referring to the depth of research, the style of the writing, or the overall appeal of the topic, but if you boil down the value of a piece to its capacity to engage an audience, you end up with two major factors: its virality and its utility. 

Virality is the potential for a piece of content to “go viral” or circulate amongst audience members and achieve more visibility. Viral pieces are important because they cause the piece to have a greater range of impact, and grant greater overall visibility for the brand. Utility is the overall usefulness of a piece of content for an individual reader. For example, a how-to article holds more utility for a reader than a piece about a company’s operational anniversary.

How to balance virality and utility in content marketing.

Too often, however, these two qualities are used interchangeably. To be sure, they can influence each other; a piece that is useful will have a higher propensity for social sharing, as readers encourage their friends to derive the same use, and a piece that has gone viral will attract more attention and more collective feedback, which makes the piece more useful to the people reading it. However, it’s important to distinguish these qualities as largely independent from each other; imagine a piece of content that goes viral based on the strength of its headline alone. People may not even read the piece, instead simply sharing the catchy title on its own virtue and eliminating the need for any grounding utility. Similarly, it’s possible to write an objectively useful piece, but have trouble getting it syndicated and shared across multiple platforms.

The secret to success in content marketing is not the pursuit of virality or utility independently, but rather striking an appropriate balance between the two of them.

Factors affecting virality

According to a study by the Wharton School of Business, there are hundreds of small factors that can influence the potential for a piece of content to go viral, ranging from stylistic choices to the positioning of the piece on a website’s homepage. Some of these are intuitive, some of these are strange, and some of these seem almost inconsequential. However, the most important findings were those related to the type and style of the content itself.

Three main factors emerged as influencing a piece’s propensity to go viral: first, the emotional power conveyed by the piece. Second, the positive element of the piece (versus a negative element). And third, perhaps unsurprisingly, the utility of a piece of content. In this way, utility is inherently tied to virality, but two other factors emerge as more important.

The emotional element extends in many different directions, and is the most important consideration for the virality of your content. For example, you could evoke anger by writing about some new outrage in your industry that needs to be addressed. You could also evoke mirth by writing pleasant news or making your headline humorous. The important thing is to evoke some kind of strong response from your audience.

Beyond that, in order to get your piece to go viral, you’ll need to give it some kind of jump start. People rarely venture out on their own to find new material—you have to make it easily available for them. You can start by sharing your content on your social media pages, and asking influencers in your industry to share it on theirs. The more people you have initially sharing your content, the further you’ll eventually be able to reach.

Other factors for virality, which are secondary to its emotional appeal, utility, and initial visibility include:

·         Whether or not it contains an image

·         How long the piece is (pieces with 3,000-10,000 words perform best)

·         Having a concise format, such as a list

·         Having a number in the title

·         A “trust” factor that shows your authority

Factors affecting utility

Compared to virality, utility is actually much simpler (though it is somewhat more subjective). While virality can be ascertained by the presence or absence of a number of “potential” factors, utility simply exists or doesn’t exist based on whether your audience finds your material useful.

Of course, what constitutes “useful” depends on your industry as well as your demographics. For example, one audience might find hands-on demonstrations, through videos and step-by-step instructions, to be the only type of truly valuable content. Other audiences may prefer objective data, statistics, and professional opinions to be more valuable, as ammunition to make a decision in their own lives.

To find out what is useful for your audience, you’ll have to get your hands dirty—there’s no single answer that applies to all companies or all industries. Conduct content research by looking at your competitors and influencers in the industry; see what topics they tend to cover, and which ones seem to please the greatest number of individual readers. Conduct market research by examining your target audience closely and conducting surveys that ask your users what they look for most in practical content. And finally, examine your own past efforts to determine what your followers have and have not found helpful.

Finding the Perfect Balance

In a way, utility is a measure of the true quality of your content, while virality is more about its presentation. If your content were a dish at a restaurant, the utility would be its taste and the virality would be its appearance. You’ll need both if you want to be successful, but your individual goals might demand that you spend more attention on one quality than the other.

If you’re looking to expand your audience quickly and earn a faster reputation for your brand, lean toward virality over utility. If you’re looking to strengthen your relationship with your existing followers, or if you’re a fan of the slower, yet more reliable path to brand development, focus on utility. Just don’t forget, you’ll need both to some extent if you want to achieve any kind of measurable growth.

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About the Author

Larry Alton
Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer and researcher who contributes to a number of reputable online media outlets and news sources. A graduate of Des Moines University, he still lives in Iowa as a full-time freelance writer and avid news hound. Currently, Larry writes for,,, and among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing.
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