Why Picture List Posts Are The Perfect Viral Content Formula

When we looked at 100m Facebook posts we found, not surprisingly, that posts with images got the twice the number of interactions as posts without. So yes, images work but you knew that already. We have also found that list posts gain more shares on average. Again you knew that already. But did you know that one of the most shared forms of content was the picture list post?

The picture list post contains the promise of a list post, the value of curation and the speed of images.

It is like rolling three of your favorite superheros into one. They’re the ultimate in efficient, emotionally engaging content — snackable content, enriched with curation and structure.

In this post we take a look at why they work and how you can make them work for you.

What is a picture list post?

A picture list post is a series of curated images that can:

  • help tell a story
  • show the passing of time
  • show comparisons
  • explain a concept
  • demonstrate a process
  • form a curated list
picture posts

Why do they work?

People like to share content that is valuable. A New York Times and Latitude research study found five main motivations when it comes to sharing. The number one motivation for sharing was to bring valuable and entertaining content to others. 94% of the respondents said they carefully considered how the information they share will be useful to others.

Picture list posts work because they provide value through a combination of curation, lists and images. It’s a perfect content formula.


Let’s start with curation. Good curators help us by doing the heavy lifting. They research and filter content to provide the reader with just the relevant content though they will often include links for further reading. A good curator also adds value through commentary and context. Curated content is increasingly popular in a busy world, where we are overloaded with content.

Now let’s add images. The brain processes images much faster than text, studies have shown visuals are processed as much as 60,000 times faster in the brain than text. According to the Visual Teaching Alliance the brain can see images that last for just 13 millisecond and our eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour. Try reading that many tweets in the next 60 minutes and see how many you recall. This means we can get the sense of a visual scene in less than 1/10 of a second. This explains why a series of images works so well and why they are used in areas such as learning materials. They work faster than words.

Images have been found to improve learning by up to 400 percent. Stanford University’s Robert E. Horn, argues this is because “visual language has the potential for increasing ‘human bandwidth’ — the capacity to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of new information.”

Finally, let’s structure as a list. We know that people like list posts, particularly one which is well structured and instantly scannable. In creating a list post such as 7 steps to design a landing page the author adds value by breaking down a task into a series of clear steps. List posts are also tell the reader what to expect for example 5 pictures or 10 tips. There is an expectation that you will gain some valuable nuggets of information rather than a long form essay. This makes them an attractive form of content for the time pressed consumer.

The picture list post contains the promise of a list post, the value of curation and the speed of images.


Pictures that tell a Story

The New York Times ran a picture list post on the Women’s March on Washington (January 2017) to highlight the hundreds of marches that also took place across the world.


This picture list post was shared 430,000 times across all the social networks.

Fathers caring for their children on the refuge trail. This picture list was published by the Huffington Post and received over 90,000 shares.

refuge fathers

Stories and the Passing of Time

This picture post shows the photographs that a photographer recreated of his home town forty years after he took the original photographs. This article received over 450,000 shares and each picture comparison suggests a human story to be explored.


This next post 40 Portraits in 40 Years on the New York Times shows how four sisters took a picture of themselves every year over the last 40 years. This picture post was shared over 660,000 times.


Photographs by Nicholas Nixon

Picture Curations

Picture curations can take many forms and Pinterest boards are an obvious example. They also work well as viral posts, the curations can be of amazing images, cute images or amusing images.

The National Geographic are well known for the quality of their pictures and produce many viral picture list posts. Here is an example of cute pictures of rescued baby sloths. These posts appeal to the emotions and was shared over 600,000 times.

baby sloths

A similar post was National Geographic’s ’10 Most Stunning Wildlife Pictures of the Year‘ which received over 50,000 shares.

A very different form of curation was this picture list post of Overpopulation and Consumption on The Guardian. It is a series of curated images about the impact of overpopulation and was shared over 700,000 times.

guardian images

Photos by Zak Noyle and Daniel Dancer

A similar picture post is this ’10 pictures that show what pollution has done to Delhi‘ which was shared over 120,000 times.


Pictures can be used to show many different forms of comparison. Here are some examples.

This article by Bright Side uses NASA images to show how the world is changing over time.


This picture post was shared over 750,000 times on Facebook.

This next picture list compares school meals across the world. It was shared over 540,000 times.


Photos Sweetgreen

Tutorials and ‘How To’ Posts

A series of images is often key to a tutorial or a ‘how to’ post in order to take a learner through a process step by step. Here are some examples:

How to paint watercolours — this series of image tutorials was shared over 160,000 times.


How to dry nail polish quickly — This series of images was shared over 600,000 times.


Photos WikiHow

Another variation on a tutorial post is this post ’10 Must Take pictures on Baby’s First Day‘. This post received over 38,000 shares.


Most of the above are business to consumer examples (B2C) but tutorial picture list posts can work equally well in business to business posts. Here is an example from Social Media Examiner on ‘Four Steps To Get Your Business on Snapchat‘.


How Can You Use Picture List Posts?

Believer? Great. So now what? Picture list posts are a key content format which have the potential to go viral. Here are some initial questions to help you think about where they may work best in your content strategy.

  • What types of images currently work best in your industry? Are they product pictures, emotional images or process pictures?
  • What images can you use to tell a story? For example, how would one of your successful projects or case studies look like as a series of images?
  • If you make something, can you show where the raw materials come from, how it gets made, who makes it? Brands like Guinness are increasingly using imagery to tell the story of their product and process.
  • Can you introduce some humour? Product ideas you’ve rejected?
  • What comparisons can you make with images? For example, how have products in your area changed over time?
  • Can you associate your brand positively with different uses / settings through time or around the world?
  • What ‘before and after’ images might work in your industry?
  • What concepts can you explain through a series of images?
  • If you have You Tube videos showing how to use your products or services, could you turn them into picture list how to posts?
  • What ‘how to’ picture posts might work in your area? Processes and structured steps can often work well as a series of screenshots.
  • Could you show a different angle or viewpoint through a series of pictures? What it looks like from your CEO’s desk, from your CMO’s desk, from the front window?
  • How could you surprise people with a series of images?
  • Could you encourage your audience to help curate the images for you? Have a look at 3 UK, Mobile phone company’s HolidaySpam campaign, which gets their customer base showing and sharing what you can do with free data when you travel. Ok, so it’s more of a picture massacre than a list, but still, top marks for getting customers to create content.

The post Why Picture List Posts Are The Perfect Viral Content Formula appeared first on BuzzSumo.


Proud to be a Donkey: BuzzSumo Reflections on Growing a $5m SaaS Business

In January 2016 I looked back at the first 16 months of growing BuzzSumo. I thought now, 16 months later, it was probably time to provide a further update on our progress and my reflections on running a bootstrapped SaaS business.

I want to use this opportunity to challenge what I call the Unicorn orthodoxy. I have seen far too many people damaged by the stresses and strains of trying to be a unicorn. I want to set out the case for being a bootstrapped donkey and examine the pros and cons.

Unicorns and donkeys

When you launch a SaaS business, if you are a sad person like me, you will devour articles on growing a SaaS business from pricing to marketing to strategy. Such reading can be helpful as it helps you reflect on your own business. However, in my experience much of the advice is based on what I call the unicorn orthodoxy.

The unicorn orthodoxy is focused on growth and scalability rather than profitability, particularly in the early years. A recent Saastr article for example pointed out that VCs are not interested in companies with less than $10m annual revenues who are not doubling every year. The implication being that unless you are doubling every year you are a donkey rather than a unicorn.


Doubling each year typically means you lose money in the short term as you have to invest very heavily to achieve such growth. This approach requires VC or other sources of funding, to support the company through the loss making early years, typically in the form of seed rounds to series A and B funding rounds.

The aim of this approach is to create a unicorn, not necessarily a billion dollar company, but a dominant market player with the aim of floating the company on the market or selling it.

This high growth approach is rational, particularly for VCs but the downside is that it creates a highly pressurised work environment for those working in the business. You need to hit growth targets, often very unrealistic targets, and being in a loss making business is very stressful as you are burning cash or running out of runway as a VC might say. The consequences can be felt in very human and personal terms.

It is also not uncommon for aspiring unicorns to overstaff in the expectation of hitting unrealistic growth targets and then make redundancies if the growth doesn’t occur and they pivot or look at other options.

Stretch targets can also have the unintended consequence of making successful growing businesses feel depressed and unsuccessful if they miss these targets, and cause high levels of personal stress for staff and their families.

Blinded by Unicorns

I took the title for this section from one of the discarded titles for Rand Fishkin’s upcoming book. This resonated with me because Unicorns by their nature are outliers. It is very hard to draw lessons from outliers. However, sales of books on celebrity unicorns such as Uber, Apple, Snap and Facebook all do very well as people are desperately seeking to understand their secrets.

Some of the most shared content in the business world is about these celebrity unicorns. If you want to write a well shared post on Inc or your own blog, create an article along the lines of Five Key Lessons From Uber. Below are some example articles taken from BuzzSumo, along with their social shares.


However, not everyone can be a unicorn anymore than we can all be in the top quartile of company performers or even an above average performer. There is a danger that every SaaS company feels they have to be a high growth unicorn.

Most Aspiring Unicorns Die

Investors are realistic and they expect a high percentage of companies to fail, hence they spread their risk. Dave McClure of 500 StartUps argues that VCs investing in early stage startups should have a portfolio of at least 100 to 200 companies. The reason is simple. In his view only 1–2% of companies become unicorns. Matt Lerner, a partner at 500 Startups, has recently said that 50–80% of startups will fail, despite VC support or being in a program such as 500 Startups. Hence, the need for VCs to invest in a large portfolio of companies to spread their risk and increase their chances of finding a unicorn.

This makes sense for an investor but the management team of a company are all in and committed to their startup. Not for them the luxury of a portfolio that spreads the risk. Their jobs, mortgages and family finances depend on the success of the business. This can create a high degree of stress and anxiety.

This is not to say there are no stresses in building a bootstrapped business. In the early days the owners take all of the financial risk but they can adopt strategies to get to profitability quickly by controlling costs.

The BuzzSumo Donkey

At BuzzSumo we are not a unicorn. We didn’t raise, and are not looking to raise, external funding. We bootstrapped our growth and development, I put in some seed capital along with Stephen Walsh and along with Henley and James we put in time and effort to get things off the ground. Our approach was to quickly build a profitable and cash positive business that would allow us to reinvest and grow organically.

This was also partly about being our own boss and not having to report to anyone but also based on avoiding unicorn burnout and stress. To be clear we work hard but we set our own targets. And they’re realistic targets.

We have no illusions about turning BuzzSumo into a Unicorn. BuzzSumo will never be a billion dollar business. This does not mean we are not successful, just that we have different objectives and ambitions. We are a donkey and proud of it.

So far we have a built a profitable business which allows us to reinvest, pay ourselves from profits, and grow the business steadily. However, we are a relatively small business. Our annual revenue run rate is only $5m currently. Our growth has been solid but not spectacular, we are not doubling our revenues each year but this year we may do 40%.

Maintaining growth is hard as a donkey

In your first year, your monthly MRR growth rates look great as you are starting from a low base. The same is true of year two. However, as your revenues increase it becomes increasingly hard to maintain the same growth rates as this means consistently adding higher and higher levels of revenue each month.

For many SaaS businesses you get an ‘S” shape curve where your MRR growth starts up steeply and then begins to flatten out. You can see this in our monthly MRR from subscriptions over the last 32 months, as shown below.


Blue is existing customers, green new customers and red, the dreaded churn. We are a research tool and we do get people subscribe to undertake projects and then leave. We also have some customers where we are not a good fit for their needs.

My advice is don’t panic if growth slows this is a natural part of the process, particularly if you are investing little in sales and marketing. Better questions to focus on are:

  • Are you retaining customers and controlling churn — do you have product fit?
  • Are you generating a profit? — Call me old fashioned but as a general rule I don’t think you have a business until you are generating profits. Ok, I know Jeff Bezos might disagree.

Growth is hard work

In my experience there are few overnight successes. Most businesses grow on the back of consistent hard work. The same is true of your web traffic. Below is our web traffic since launch. There is no sudden spike, just a slow upward trend over time. Building an audience takes time and commitment.


Ramping up sales and marketing

Logic suggests that once you have a good product fit, and happy paying customers, you should ramp up your sales and marketing investment. This is particularly so if the cost of your customer acquisition is less than the lifetime value of each customer. The unicorn model is designed to accelerate this process, with a focus on sales and marketing investment to drive growth rather than profitability.

As a bootstrapped donkey, focused on profitability, you will have to accept lower growth as you will simply have less cash to invest in sales and marketing.

Our approach was to adopt a simple ‘try and buy’ low touch sales model. In essence users get a free trial of the product and can then buy at the end of the period or fall back to the freemium version. In our model there is very little human intervention, which means a low cost of sale which helps our profitability but arguably at the cost of a lower conversion rate.

We have been particularly slow at BuzzSumo to invest in sales and marketing, we have had no sales staff until this month, and this has probably led our growth rate to flatten more than it needed to. We were fortunate that our self-serve, low touch approach generated reasonable growth each year. Thus we felt no immediate pressure to invest in sales and marketing.

We have probably missed an opportunity to increase our conversion rate and our growth. We set very modest growth targets, for example just 16% this year. This allows us to manage our cash flow and feel good about overachieving our targets but it doesn’t put pressure on us to invest in sales. In a VC backed company it would have been a very different story. We would be under external pressure to grow faster, hire more sales people, and burn through money even if it meant being unprofitable. We have chosen to have complete control rather than the external funding approach.

Forecasts are worthless, be flexible

Ok, this may be a little controversial but don’t take my word for it. NY Fed research recently found that “small business expectations are mostly worthless”. They say people who risk growing a business, when so many fail, are “prone to unreasonable levels of optimism.” This leads to small businesses typically underperforming against expectations. In a VC backed company it is arguable that targets are stretched not just by owner optimism but by the desire of investors to push the management team.

I think there is a collective collusion about the ability of companies to forecast revenues, particularly growth companies. It is like the emperor’s new clothes, everyone colludes and admires the fine detail of a company’s financial forecasts and their growth plan. The reality is none of us know the future.

Mike Tyson may not have been a financial forecaster but he was onto something when he said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Plans are great until they come up against reality. What matters more I think is the ability to be flexible and minimise the downside risk. Often aspiring unicorns do the reverse and double down on their bet, spend more on sales and marketing, and increase their losses. It is high risk, which VCs mitigate by investing in many companies.

As I mentioned, at BuzzSumo we set minimal growth targets rather than stretch targets. We have no innate need to hit particular growth targets and we also find cash management and planning easier if we adopt more conservative expectations. We have obligations to our staff and do not want to recruit heavily in anticipation of growth that doesn’t materialise and then have to make redundancies. We also don’t want to feel stressed and unsuccessful because we ‘only’ grow by 20% and not 100%.

Reinvesting profits

It is ok not to reinvest all your profits in growth. Yes, it may mean you accept lower growth over time but there are other considerations. Your team may have financial commitments from buying homes to seeing their kids through college.

It would be anathema to many VCs but allowing the team to take some cash off the table is about balance and rewarding the initial risks and hours of work.

We pay a regular dividend at BuzzSumo. We may be sacrificing higher growth over the longer term. However, no one knows what the future will bring, maybe our business model will be fundamentally disrupted by economic or technology changes. Maybe a bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush as the old saying goes.

Focus on improving core product

I believe our success has come from helping people do a few tasks quickly and easily.

We have added features such as outreach lists, the audience builder and Facebook Analyzer but most users still focus on our core features such as most shared content, influencer searches, trending content and monitoring of brand mentions in content.

In retrospect I think we could have added less new features and focused more on improving the core features. Such improvements are less immediately noticeable to clients for example we have been improving our search results at BuzzSumo but to clients they do not see something as obvious as a new feature tab.

Don’t create additional brands

It is hard work to create a brand and it takes time.

We have developed a couple of separate free products such as Bloomberry, which will list real questions asked on the internet about any topic.

Separate from BuzzSumo, I have also been involved in developing Anders Pink. A news app for individuals and teams. This is a personal passion project as I believe there is so much content we all need a briefing every morning. The app allows you to create briefings on any topic and we will deliver the latest relevant articles that you can share and discuss with colleagues.


My advice, however, would be for bootstrapped businesses to focus on a single brand. Building brands is just such hard work and you will have limited time and cash to develop multiple brands. Sometimes though it is fun to develop something which is not core to your business.

The downsides of being a donkey

There are downsides to being a donkey. The lack of VC pressures and stretch targets can lead to a lack of focus. Lack of money can also mean missed opportunities to build a large business.

We are guilty of exploring new ideas because they intrigue us rather than because they will contribute to company growth. I admit we get bored easily and we like to explore new ideas. The ability to do this is both a good thing and a less good thing.

We take and invest profits based on a balance of our personal and business needs. Unicorn investors will be appalled that having achieved a product market fit we don’t reinvest all of our profits in growing the business. They will be further appalled that until this month we have employed no sales or marketing staff. But there’s a lot to be said for generating a profit every month.

The tax structure in the US and the UK favours capital gains over income. You pay much higher tax on salary and dividends than on a capital receipt for selling your business. Thus donkeys are taxed far more heavily than unicorns. Investors can also write off losses in failed unicorns against profits elsewhere. However, I am not Swedish but I don’t mind paying a fair level of tax. I live in the UK and I am proud of the tax we pay to have a free at the point of need health service. This is not to say there are not many ways we can improve it or spend our tax more efficiently.

The rise of the donkeys?

I may just be me but I am beginning to see more articles critical of the unicorn orthodoxy. Here is a recent example from the team at Basecamp, who have long advocated a different approach.

Exponential growth devours and corrupts

Maybe we will see a lot more donkeys and happier people in bootstrapped companies in the future.

The post Proud to be a Donkey: BuzzSumo Reflections on Growing a $5m SaaS Business appeared first on BuzzSumo.

How to Generate Content Ideas With These 3 Awesome Tools

Do you know which topic is the most discussed about your brand or your industry?

Maybe you have a general idea about what they are talking about. But I bet that you want to know more specifically what people talk about.

Because there are questions that you can answer and you can give the solution for a certain problem. But we, marketers, have a common problem: we talk too much instead of listening more.

And how do we know what people are talking about our brand if we don’t take the time to listen to them?

The industry says that social media’s purpose is not only to promote your brand but also to listen what people are talking about you, your industry and even your competitors.

Knowing exactly what are the most used questions can help you with your content marketing strategy. And the best pieces of content created out there are the ones that give solutions to different problems, right? But if you don’t know what the problem is, how can you give a solution?

And this is why I believe that knowing the questions that people ask on different social platforms, forums, and Google search can help you establish your next piece of content.

In this article, I want to give you 3 solutions that can help you find the questions people are talking about.

We used every one of these apps in our content creation strategy for Bannersnack and it helped us a lot, saving time, finding new ideas for new posts that are relevant for the industry and give the right solution for the right problem.

1. MOZ Key Explorer

There are many content marketers out there who are afraid of SEO and they believe that MOZ is only about SEO.

I found myself scared in front of these 3 words, SEO. But then I realized that I can use it for my content strategy. And I landed on MOZ’s tool called Keyword Explorer.

What is KWE (Keyword Explorer)

It’s a tool that can help you get keyword ideas, accurate monthly search volume, SEO competition metrics, SERP Feature data, and you can also save lists with the premium keyword research tool.

But I used KWE to find out what people were asking about my industry using a certain keyword.

Now let’s see how we can use this tool to see what are the questions that can help us with our content.

Go to https://moz.com/explorer and type your keyword in their search bar. Make sure that you have the right location selected. Then click on the search button.

Here are the results based on the keyword you are interested in.

Now click on the Keyword Suggestion, and in the “Display keyword suggestion” select the “are question” option:

Now you can see all the questions people are asking about your industry or your brand. If you want a more in-depth research you can also select the volume and relevance of those questions.

These are the questions that can help you write a piece of content for your blog or website. It can also help you with the text for your landing page. And if you click the “Search” button, this tool will give you other questions related to your question.

This way, you will know what people are interested in and how to create content in order to give them exactly what they need.

Let’s say that you want to create another category on your FAQ page answering the top 100 most asked question in the industry.

Think about KWE as an early research tool that can help you level up your FAQ page.

2. Answer The Public

Another tool that is worth mentioning that can also help you with your question research is called Answer The Public.

The funny thing is that when you go to their homepage you can be easily distracted by the bearded “seeker”.

How do you use Answer The Public?

Go to their homepage and as any keyword tool, write the topic you are interested in and use the drop-down menu to select the area from where you want to get the answers.

The most interesting thing is the visual part — the keyword you chose will be magically created in a “wheel” of questions related to your topic.

I used “social media marketing” and chose the UK location from where I want to get the results. Here are the results represented in an interesting visual graphic.

Their research is organized by common questions that begin with the words where, which, who, what, when, why, how, and are.

But if it’s hard for you to follow this “wheel” you can easily click on the “Data” option and the questions will be arranged on different boxes related to the basic questions.

Answer The Public is not only suggesting the questions provided by Google and Bing. They are also suggesting prepositions like without, with, versus, to, like, or for.

For example, if you are a small social media marketing agency and you want to write an article on your blog for different types of industries, this tool can be a blast for you.

In the preposition category, you will get results for social media marketing like social media marketing for nonprofits, social media marketing for musicians, social media marketing for libraries, social media marketing for healthcare and the list can go on.

And if you are having a hard time creating headlines for your articles, check out these 6 top tools that will save you time and energy.

Answer The Public can be your daily tool for content creation, even if we talk about articles on blogs, guest posts or other types of content.

3. BloomBerry

So far I presented you 2 tools that generate questions based on certain keywords. But what about the real questions that are already engaging? What about the topics that people already talk about on blogs, social platforms or forums?

Here comes BloomBerry, a great tool that is still in the beta version and it’s created by the team behind BuzzSumo.

I love this tool because it’s so simple to use and it gives me other kinds of results.

For example, I typed the word “blogging” and I got more than 40k questions in 352 topics. These results are sorted by their popularity.

Also, the results are grouped into different topics, such as blogger, blog posting, WordPress blogging and others.

And If I want to see where people are talking about this topic I only have to go on their results, click on them and the website will open.

As Steve Rayson said:

In simple terms, we think some of the best content is content that answers questions. It tends to be evergreen, gain links and can even feature in Google snippets if you are the best answer. Thus Bloomberry is designed to help people understand the questions people are asking on any topic.

If you are already familiar with BuzzSumo, this tool will help you find the exact topics you are interested in by using their filter options as Time Range, Excluded Sources, Included Sources and you can also filter the results by country.

You can also export the topics and questions in CSV or Excel format, so you can work on them even if you are not online.


So here you have the 3 tools that can be easily used by any marketer, PR or content creator who wants to write a blog post or create a piece of content that gives the right answer to the right question.

We are using these tools on a daily basis to create the content our audience wants to consume. This is why I believe that they are very helpful.

And to be honest with you, I even used them to write this article!

Now back to you, let me know in the comment section below what kind of tools you use to find the questions people ask in your industry?

The post How to Generate Content Ideas With These 3 Awesome Tools appeared first on BuzzSumo.