Want your work to be shared? Make readers feel something

Earlier this week, BuzzFeed posted a collection of "21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity," and ever since it has been reverberating around the Internet.


Facebook is driving the huge traffic to "21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity."

The page has 5.5 million total views as of Friday morning, almost 4 million of them coming from Facebook referrals thanks to 1.3 million shares or likes.

One of the other most-shared-on-Facebook BuzzFeed posts of all time is "13 simple steps to get you through a rough day," with 5.6 million views and more than 2.2 million Facebook referrals.

Perhaps it's not that surprising. After all, who doesn't want (and need) their faith in humanity restored these days?

But it also should make those of us in the publishing business think: What is it about these pieces that grab Facebook users so forcefully? Have we had so much bad news and conflict that we leap at the chance to be inspired and uplifted?

"I don't think it's an accident that right now the only reaction button that's available on Facebook is to 'like' things," BuzzFeed Managing Editor Scott Lamb told me. "That's how we operate as humans, and social media tends to mimic that."

Invite readers to tell stories

My friend Daniel Victor, a newly minted social media producer at The New York Times and formerly of ProPublica, stumbled across this phenomenon a few months ago when he spontaneously tweeted:

"I still ask it on my Facebook wall each Friday, and I've continued to get great response each time," Victor told me. "People tell me they look forward to it every week, especially when they have something ready to brag about. Even if they don't, people tell me they get a lift out of reading little bits of positivity, even if they're from total strangers."

After seeing the strong initial response and thinking about it a bit more, Victor wondered if this could be a new way for journalists to connect with their audience.

Some news organizations decided to do just that, Victor said, including NPR's "Fresh Air" program, where Associate Producer and Web guru Melody Joy Kramer poses the question on Tumblr each Friday (more than 100 responded last week) and uses the #bestthingallweek hashtag on Twitter.

I asked Kramer for her analysis of why this is so popular:

I think part of it is the constant inundation of bad news, and I think part of it is asking people to pick *one specific thing* out of their week. It's like curating your week, and putting the best thing forward. I think people appreciate that someone else has taken the time to reflect on their weeks, and share something that they may (or may not) have shared with people they already know.

And it's fun. I really enjoy reading the responses. I smile multiple times on Friday mornings from different messages -- and I like that people may be thinking about their week in a different (and more positive) way.

Lessons for news writing

At this point you might be thinking: It's fine to know that inspiring photos and personal stories are popular, but how does this apply to traditional news reporting?

Perhaps in some stories you can choose to find the triumph in a tragedy, but you can't make every news story a happy one.

That's OK. A sharable story doesn't have to be positive, it just has to be powerful. It has to create within the reader a deep, authentic human emotion -- joy, fear, irony, disgust, wonder.

That's supported by recent research that says Facebook posts with a positive sentiment tended to get more likes, while negative posts got more comments. But those at neither extreme were less engaging.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="No. 1 on BuzzFeed's most powerful images list was this father reflecting at the 9/11 Memorial."][/caption]

Back to BuzzFeed for an example: The site's most popular recent post was "The 45 most powerful images of 2011."

That post had 11.3 million views, more then 4.8 million from Facebook. And it included some distinctly not-happy photos: A father remembering his dead son at the 9/11 Memorial, or the devastation of the Japanese tsunami and the Joplin, Mo., tornado.

"That piece was really mixed emotions -- there were a lot of difficult photos in there. It wasn't all positive," Lamb said. "Any really stark emotion is something that people share."

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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