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Want Engaging Social Media Content? Lessons From a Viral Smash


Graphic designer Chris Barker has twice won cover of the year at the British Society of Magazine Editors and recently won art director of the year. Yet he is probably best-known for an image he created for his own amusement at 2 a.m. one Nov. 9 while watching the rolling U.S. election coverage.

For Chris, the election result was more evidence that, in his words, things were going “a bit 2016.”

“I started thinking about the year as a whole and how unusual it had been,” he tells me. “At the time, it seemed like a big monumental shift. (Rank outsiders) Leicester City were running away with the English Premier League (football championship). Brexit had happened. I thought I needed to get my thoughts down on paper. It was a cathartic thing, really. It was for me. It wasn’t with any kind of shareability in mind.”

Being a graphic designer, Chris’ main tool of expression is Adobe Photoshop. By 3 a.m., he had finished the image and posted it on digital arts community B3ta as well as Twitter. He also uploaded it to Facebook as his profile image. “The response to it was surprisingly instant. There was an immediate flurry of “likes” and shares,” he says.

Chris’ cathartic “photoshoppery” resulted in an image eventually seen by millions of people around the world — an homage to the cover of the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, reinvented as a collage of the many celebrity deaths and other events that made an impact on him throughout the year.

But on that cold November morning in 2016 Chris was taken aback by the response. Within hours even his profile image was attracting a huge number of “likes” and shares. “I remember chatting to Rob Manuel of B3ta about it, saying, ‘Why are they sharing my profile picture? What’s going on?’ He said, ‘They like it and they want other people to know that they’ve seen it. They don’t care if it’s your personal image. They just want to share it.’”

Why people share on #social: 'They like it & want other people to know they’ve seen it.' @christhebarker Click To Tweet

I’m the first to argue that there is no formula to creating viral social media content. However, we can draw some lessons from Chris’ hugely successful image — and how he followed it up.

I read the news today, oh boy

Chris believes his image worked primarily on an emotional level, tapping into how many people felt about 2016. As he explains, “People were feeling slightly fragile and confused. They wanted to share something that expressed how they felt, but they didn’t particularly want to share something about what had happened. They wanted to share something that expressed the emotion.

“It’s like saying, ‘This badge represents how I feel about this situation. They’ve summed it up, so I don’t need to.’”

Plus, there’s an immediateness about an image — particularly in the rapid-fire world of social media — that can express complex emotions and ideas while being extremely shareable. “Once you’ve seen an image, you can’t unsee it. They’re so instant and they’re so memorable,” Chris says. “They linger a lot more than a great writer writing a fantastic think piece about the event.”

Images linger a lot more than a great writer writing a fantastic think piece, says @christhebarker. Click To Tweet

Lesson: Social media and visual content can help people express complex ideas or emotions in a concise, relatable, and shareable way.

We can work it out

Chris’ image isn’t only packed with emotion. Having captured attention, it rewards closer scrutiny. It is the ultimate Where’s Waldo, inviting people to seek and identify the various faces, with that little kick of satisfaction every time a piece of the puzzle is solved.

This deeper engagement with the image also fostered more interaction around it. If one person pleaded with Twitter to identify the bloke over Muhammad Ali’s left shoulder, someone else might respond with the answer. (It’s Frank Kelly, who played Father Jack Hackett in the British sitcom Father Ted.)

Lesson: Instead of treating your followers as passive consumers, use your content to invite more interaction or foster a more communal experience.

Don't treat #social followers as passive consumers. Use #content to foster a communal experience, says @kimota Click To Tweet

Send me a postcard, drop me a line

As more famous people died in the weeks that followed, Chris was inundated with requests for additions and found himself in debates about who should or shouldn’t be included.

Plus, not everyone responded to the image in the same way. He says, “I realized quite early on that there was going to be some negative reaction to it, particularly with having the contentious Brexit and Trump issues on there. Plus, the fact that it was about dead people, and is that insensitive?”

Chris found himself having to moderate threads and discussions that flared up. “If something got out of hand, I was moderating it in quite a personal way. I would step in politely and engage them, asking why they wanted this,” he says. “Saying sorry a lot helped, even though I didn’t really have anything to apologize for. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t include Juan Gabriel or Kimbo Slice.’ These names are burnt into my memory now.

“The trick was to have a look at the people commenting. Some of them you can’t speak to because they’re dyed-in-the-wool trolls. They’re just going to fight back. But if you have a quick look at their timelines, you can see the ones who can manage a bit of dialogue about the topic they have a beef with. I was picking and choosing one in 10 and engaging them. Then the other people could see that I was playing the game and wouldn’t give me such a hard time.”

Lesson: If your content attracts a large audience, your job isn’t done. The conversation that follows can be just as important as the content itself. 

If your content attracts a large audience, your job isn’t done, says @kimota. Click To Tweet

You say goodbye and I say hello, hello, hello

A single piece of content or image in a single tweet or update is incredibly ephemeral. The audience will quickly move on if you don’t keep coming back to capture their attention anew. However, regularly reposting the same thing over and over in the hope of kick-starting a snowball of engagement can look desperate, if not a bit spammy. Yet Chris had unwittingly created a content series as he began posting updated versions following each new celebrity death.

Regularly reposting the same thing over & over hoping to kick-start engagement can look desperate. @kimota Click To Tweet

The constant reinvention and reposting of the image meant it reached more people and gained more attention with each new version. Chris says, “When the media started talking about it, it blew up even more. It became self-perpetuating. Would it have been as big if I’d just done one and left it? I don’t think so.”

This rapid turnover of versions — and, sadly, major celebrities — did take its toll and mistakes could creep in. Chris explains, “I noticed I’d left a random bit of Photoshop on one version after it had been shared widely — an extra arm or something. I was desperate for someone else to die so I could correct it on the next version! Hence (BBC weatherman) Ian McCaskill getting an update so soon after he passed away!”

Even Chris isn’t certain how many versions he produced between Nov. 9 and the final (to include Debbie Reynolds) on Dec. 28. It’s also hard to say how many people saw or interacted with the image, with so many people sharing and reposting so many versions across so many channels. What isn’t in doubt is that whenever Chris posted a new update the numbers snowballed exponentially. Just after Christmas, Chris’ tweet containing the penultimate version (to include Carrie Fisher) attracted 5.5 million impressions alone.

“When Carrie Fisher died, I remember tweeting, ‘Is this actually happening?’ I honestly thought the queen was going to die. I had a plan for if the queen died.”

Lesson: Consider how you might build upon a content idea to justify multiple repostings  maybe with a themed series or through regular updates.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

Chris soon realized that meme culture threatened to seize control of his content once it entered the badlands of social media — something many brands also struggle with. It wasn’t long before other social media users began to create and share their own updates.

“There were a lot of Harambes (the gorilla shot by a Cincinnati Zoo worker in May 2016). That wasn’t really my thing. I wasn’t really aware of it as a phenomenon. My younger colleague was very aware of it and kept needling me to do it. I think that encouraged me not to do it even more,” he says.

Because he didn’t want others to “make a hash of it,” Chris committed himself to getting each update out quickly. “I felt that, to preserve the sanctity of it, I had to do the updates. As soon as someone died, I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this before somebody else does,’ which became a problem when I was away for a couple of days over Christmas. I said, ‘Right, I’m going to leave the laptop at home. No one important will die.’

“Well, we were with the family. We had two cottages next door to each other and my mother-in-law had just gone off to bed. Then she came back, knocking on the window, with a pale face like she’d seen a ghost. She just mouthed, ‘George Michael’s died.’ My mother said, ‘Oh, for ****’s sake.’”

Lesson: Social media audiences quickly take your content into their own hands if you don’t respond or adapt quickly enough.

#Socialmedia audiences take your #content into their own hands if you don’t respond quickly enough. @kimota Click To Tweet

We hope you have enjoyed the show

Chris did produce a 2017 edition, which also spawned multiple versions and attracted an impressive number of interactions. However, he hasn’t decided yet whether there will be a 2018 edition.

Despite the extremely public nature of the image, the Sgt. Pepper’s project remained personal. “I did include a French horn as a tribute to my friend Jim who died in 2016 and was a great French horn player. It was really nice to be able to include a little personal tribute in the middle of something that had become so public.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the August issue of  Chief Content Officer. Sign up today to receive your free subscription to CCO.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute