The Oatmeal Guide to Getting 5 Million Unique Visitors a Month

The Oatmeal

“Going viral” puts you on the map.

It gets you a flood of traffic, a ton of links and lots of attention on social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Plus it’s cheaper than traditional advertising and you get to be the flavor of the moment.

The problem is, it’s difficult to do in the first place and even harder to repeat.

Unless you’re The Oatmeal.

Turning viral into a science

The Oatmeal is my new favorite website.

What you quickly realize after spending a few minutes on Matthew Inman’s site is that he’s a master of getting attention and creating viral content.

The Oatmeal is barely a year old and it’s already getting over 5 million unique visitors a month, produced a book deal for Inman, has been featured on TV and was named one of the best blogs of 2010 by Time Magazine.

Not bad for a bunch of drawings and quizzes.

But before you bust out your box of crayons for your next blog post, lets look at why The Oatmeal’s content is shared by thousands online and how you can apply the same strategies to get more attention for your content and business.

1. Pick a topic everybody loves to hate

Let’s face it, talking about stuff we all love to hate is just, well…fun. We feel a connection from our common disdain for the same thing.

But from a marketing standpoint what’s important to notice is the psychological force at play which is empathy.

Whenever marketers start talking about connecting with customers or making sales, communicating empathy for your prospect is always high on the “must do” list.

Empathy establishes rapport with your audience and lets them know that you understand their problems and their pain. It also positions you as the solution to that pain.

But to use empathy as effectively as The Oatmeal, you need to make sure your content covers a topic that you don’t just love to hate, but that your audience really loves to hate as well.

A lot.

Even better is if it’s something people hate and it’s popular – like Twilight. In other words, it needs to resonate.

Inman calls this the common gripe.

Here’s a few examples of how you could translate The Oatmeal’s strategy to your own content:

  • Why I Believe Internet Marketers Were Sent From Hell To Tempt and Spam Us
  • Why I Believe The Food Network Was Sent From Hell To Make Us Hungry And Miserable
  • Why I Believe Dentists Were Sent From Hell To Torture Us

You could create tongue-in-cheek content for each of those examples and anyone would have a hard time not checking it out.

Finding the “Why I Believe Printers Were Sent From Hell To Make Us Miserable” in your industry might just be what you need to generate a little buzz for your business.

2. Pick a theme everyone can relate to and creatively adapt it to your niche

Creating content around something everybody can relate to also establishes strong rapport with your audience and makes people pay attention.

The trick is creatively applying the subject matter to your niche and putting your own spin on it.

For The Oatmeal, it’s finding content people can relate to and adapting it to humorous comics. He targets cat lovers with How to Know if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, and anyone who uses Facebook with How To Suck At Facebook.

Animals, current events and pop culture references are great sources for material that resonates with people and is more likely to spread virally online.

Copyblogger has been producing popular content using this strategy for years with blog posts like The Inigo Montoya Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words and The Fight Club Guide to Successful Online Marketing.

Stanford recently wrote a great article where he took Lady Gaga’s unprecedented success and marketing approach and applied it to blogging.

Although these examples are more toned down then what goes on over at The Oatmeal, they still make the content substantially more interesting and package it in a way that makes it accessible for people.

3. Quizzes (SEO tools and viral marketing in disguise)

Some of the most popular content on The Oatmeal are the quizzes. They’re interactive and hilarious all at the same time which makes you want to share them with everyone.

But what the average web user doesn’t realize (but savvy online marketers like yourself will) is that they’re actually an SEO play in disguise.

Inman takes his formula for viral content and packages it into quiz form. Users take the quiz and are then presented with an option to share their results with their social networks or post a badge on their website that links back to The Oatmeal.

And with quiz results that read “I Could Take on 30 Justin Biebers in a Fight – How Many Could You Take?” it’s almost impossible not to want to share.

It’s a powerful link building and social media marketing strategy especially when combined with Inman’s ability to create content that taps into internet culture.

So what about the rest of us?

If you’re a realtor you could create a real estate quiz for your city testing people’s knowledge of local trivia, neighborhoods and local attractions.

It’s not as cool as fighting Justin Bieber but it will help you stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Update: Matt Inman got in touch to say while he used to create quizzes for SEO purposes, his business model no longer requires it. Now they just exist for the amusement of his readers.

4. Something everyone is thinking but no one is saying

Calling attention to something that everyone is thinking but no one is articulating is always an effective way to get attention. There’s only one problem.

It’s hard.

That’s because more often than not it involves being slightly controversial and putting yourself out there. And the last thing the lizard brain wants to do is stand out.

But for better or worse, edgy content gains traction online.

The Oatmeal creates both hugely popular non-controversial and controversial content using this tactic.

For example, hugs and women with mustaches.

But when it comes to using this approach in your business you’ll probably find that your honesty ends up calling some people out.

If you’re a mortgage broker it could be a blog post about a mortgage product that’s available but that you don’t think anyone should get involved with no matter what their circumstances because it just plain stinks.

If you’re a blogger it could be a post about how the majority of blogs have way too much crap and clutter in their sidebars and it makes their content less appealing. Or how internet marketing “gurus” (even ones “approved” by A-list bloggers) think you won’t notice when they tell you their product is the last one you’ll ever need and then send you an affiliate offer for a similar product less than week after their launch.

These probably won’t get you on the front page of Reddit, but tapping into widespread sentiment being felt in your niche that hasn’t been highlighted yet can help get you noticed. It can also make you seem like a leader who’s honest and authentic.

5. Educational content with a twist

It’s no secret that educational content is popular online. And as a smart online marketer it should be the cornerstone of your content marketing approach.

Creating tutorial style content that’s worthwhile on its own and lacks an immediate sales pitch demonstrates that you know what you’re talking about and creates goodwill and trust with your audience. It also sells the benefits of what you have to offer in an under the radar way.

But in order to make educational content go viral, it needs to have widespread appeal centered around something people can relate to (see point #2) and packaged in a fun format.

Inman has found success creating educational pieces that go viral about subjects like beer, coffee and common spelling mistakes.

He also has a knack for picking subjects that everyone can relate to but many people lack background or historical knowledge on. Of course what really makes his pieces hugely popular is the creative format he packages them in and the humor he injects to make learning about something like coffee entertaining.

But for everybody else whose middle name isn’t Picaso and isn’t a stand-up comedian, drawing funny cartoons may not be the best choice.

Instead, try shaking up your routine blog posts with infographics (which perform particularly well on social sharing sites), humorous photos that emphasize your points or videos that make your educational content more engaging.

6. Headlines that get clicks

While subject matter and format are critical for creating viral content, the most important ingredient for getting more eyeballs to your stuff is your headline.

In spaces like Twitter and Facebook, a headline is often all people will see so you need one that makes a great first impression and prompts action.

And at the heart of every good headline is the promise of a benefit to the reader.

For The Oatmeal’s “6 Reasons Bacon is Better than True Love” there are a few promises made to the reader that make this a compelling headline.

  • The first promise is that it will be entertaining. I mean, we’re comparing bacon and true love here.
  • The second promise is that it will satisfy your curiosity as to how bacon can be better than true love.
  • The third promise is that the content will be a quick, entertaining snack wrapped up in 6 points. It won’t take all day to consume, no pun intended.

The better your headline, the better your chances of getting large amounts of traffic to your content.

7. Be original and do what you love

None of the above strategies would matter if Inman wasn’t creating remarkable content. His comics are creative and original and they bring people a moment of joy to their day.

It’s clear The Oatmeal was a site put together by someone who’s doing what he loves and it comes through in Inman’s work. Don’t over look this element for creating content other people will find interesting which is what “going viral” is all about.

All images (except main image) by The Oatmeal.

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Comments

  1. All simple ideas that Oatmeal has mastered.

  2. Solid! I love #3. Have to stew on that idea and figure out ways to create some great quizzes with awesome badges. Thanks for this post and the break down of The Oatmeal

  3. thanks for the ideas and suggestions..
    but having a blog in Malaysia is kinda hard to break thru in the US market am i right? =)

  4. Wow! What a great post, thanks a lot Mark. I think the Oatmeal has a powerful asset in how it operates online and you captured that in this post. Very interesting blog, I will be back to read again!

    Cheers,
    Jeph

  5. @alex, @Ian thanks for stopping by.

    The quizzes are a neat idea but based on some initial searches it doesn’t look like there’s an easy solution/plugin available to implement them.

    Could be an opportunity for someone.

  6. Hahaha, that was awesome. As always, thanks for sharing this with us.

  7. That was a really good artcile Mark. I am know trying to think of ways to impliment these stragegies with the mortgage industry.

  8. I’ve been a fan of The Oatmeal for a while (didn’t he originally start/found SEOmoz? Don’t quote me on that, could just be part of his lore).

    I like your post because it makes something very abstract extremely concrete. We can all stand back and applaud The Oatmeal for what he’s done, laugh a little bit, and go back to our own lives making content that can’t hold a candle to his. But, your guide puts more of a scientific backdrop to his art.

    This will most likely cause a surge of The Oatmeal wannabes, but I think the lessons can be taken and applied, albeit in a slightly nuanced way, for many readers of your blog.

    And on that note, you just got another one (reader of your blog). Great stuff, I look forward to subscribing.

  9. Man o’ Man you worked it hard in this post. Of course you rock and I’m going to use every fracking tip you mentioned now. 10 million visits ain’t that hard – right?

    Love #2 – keep ‘em coming ;)

  10. Mark this is a fantastic breakdown of a sites success. Kudos!

    From a marketing point of view, I think Matthew does a great job of something the famous copywriter Robert Collier called, ‘enter the conversation going on inside your prospects head’.

    He says the things we think… but than spins or twists it a bit. Consider this post bookmarked and reeeeee-tweeted :)

    - Todd

  11. Mark,

    Really good post, man. Thanks for posting this list of ideas “The Oatmeal” uses. I had never heard of it, but I love the site and think Matt’s a genius. I’m gonna ponder some ways I can apply his ideas!

  12. The Oatmeal sure does know viral marketing (inside and out). These tactics are great for link building and SEO but I wonder if any of them can be readily applied to B2B marketing campaigns for companies that have to rely on more than search traffic for making big sales…

    • I think getting more exposure for your business is a good thing no matter what business your in. Even if this content doesn’t do any direct selling it works as an attraction strategy that can get your customer in the door and move them along the path to conversion.

      You still have to sell though.

  13. To @Andrew’s point, yes, Mathew Innman was a co-founder of SEOmoz. You can read about it in one of his older blogs. Mathew was a web designer, did SEOMoz, and then launched Mingle2 – a dating site that was the birth of Oatmeal.

    It’s a great lesson on strengths-management. He realized that the selling point for Mingle2 was the comedy; comics, quizzes and sense of humor. He adjusted his strategy accordingly.

    @Jonathan asked if this is really applicable for B2B. Probably not. After all – theoatmeal.com is a free site. Number 5 and 6 probably work best, I’d think.

  14. Great post.. I really loved all the new ways to buzz the minds of reader and then divert them.

  15. When you read it here, it looks soooo simple, but the creation of viral content is real work.
    The 7 steps listed in Mark’s post are a very good guideline on how to add viral elements to your site or newsletter. I definitely got some good ideas and will implement them on my site soon.
    Thanks Mark, for posting this.

  16. You’re right. While it seems easy for The Oatmeal, there’s definitely real work involved.

  17. Very generous and useful content, Mark thanks.

    Much tastier than bacon and almost as wholesome as oatmeal! :-)

  18. I haven’t hear about The Oatmeal at all but it seems like a great site. It’s no surprise that they are getting so much traffic. Thanks for this great article :)

  19. Thanks for this post, I wouldn’t of found Oatmeal without it. Great to stumble upon this post when researching about going viral.

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  1. [...] create cartoons that capture the attention, and funny bone, of thousands of readers. I was reading The Oatmeal Guide to Getting 5 Million Unique Visitors a Month, which discusses the technique behind The Oatmeal‘s succes, and started wondering if they [...]

  2. [...] The Oatmeal Guide to Getting 5 Million Unique Visitors a Month – a fan breaks down why Matthew Inman’s blog aka The Oatmeal gets so much attention [...]

  3. [...] The Oatmeal Guide to Getting 5 Million Unique Visitors a Month – OK, you probably don’t need 5 million visitors a month, but here are some suggestions to help your posts go viral [...]

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