7 lessons from a viral news story

The perfect storm: How one story went viral with strategic social content planning

Check out the original story if the screenshots are just not enough.

The Depot Craft Brewery Distillery was the most anticipated restaurant project in Reno for 2014. The buzz surrounding it started in late 2013 and continued through 2015. I covered the building renovation in April and October 2014 specifically so that I could make this blog post after it opened in 2015. Each story has delivered more pageviews and engagement than any other story I’ve written. In three days, the last post broke all previous records, reaching more than 17,500 people on Facebook with 30 shares and 73 likes, bringing 1,400 page views (hey that’s a lot for a blog!), more than 800 video plays and averaging 2 minutes and 23 seconds spent on the page.

This was not random chance or luck. This was strategic and mindful content creation. Let’s break it down:

1. From the top

Feeling Accomplished

Feeling Accomplished

Note the use of Facebook’s new emoji (sentiments) option “feeling accomplished” and the location tag of Reno, Nevada. The body text is short and simple, it tags the business the story is about and speaks in second person. This is personal without being an individual “blogger” who lacks the credibility of a larger organization. The “part 2” is there because I teased this story for 4 days by dropping hints on Facebook about the story. A video of the business was “part 1.” People anticipated the arrival of part 2. I also posted it at 7:30 p.m. on Monday. I believe this peak reading hour (determined by FB insights) contributed greatly to the success of this story. Finally, I pinned this story to the top of the page timeline to indicate to Facebook and users that it was important.

2. The social preview

Numbers and GIFs! Tell me more!

Numbers and GIFs! Tell me more!

This headline is unique to the Facebook link preview and is nowhere in the actual story. Same with the Facebook description. These were customized for maximum social impact. A promise of SIX (not 5, not 10) GIFs. Who doesn’t love GIFs? And moreover, a before and after GIF! Man, sign me up for that! The description provides context to the headline. The image is also specifically chosen for setting place and being simple. This photo does not appear in the actual story and was shot specifically for Facebook.

3. Under promise, over deliver

Videos and a subhead. Click to view the video

Videos and a subhead. Click to view the video

The actual headline of this story is very boring (not pictured): “The Depot Reno makes beer, whiskey and gin.” This headline is for the sole purpose of capturing the keywords “The Depot Reno,” “The Depot whiskey,” “The Depot gin,” “Reno whiskey,” “Reno beer” etc. No frills, just pure Google fodder. The subhead for this story (pictured) is descriptive, but also sneaks the full business name, location and historical context into it while letting people know that I put the GIFs at the bottom so if they’re coming from Facebook they know where to go.  Readers will also find a video, giving them a choice to engage with up to 3 different story forms (video, words, GIFs) that tell different pieces of the larger narrative. Though each story form still makes sense separately, they are stronger together.

4. Visual narrative

Visual Storytelling

Visual Storytelling

Posting just the GIFs or just the video is not enough for several reasons. For one, stories with less than 300 words get dinged by Google as potential spam. Second, if someone came to this story from another source, they would lack context for what the GIFs are about. My audience has been following this story since April but new audiences have not.  More importantly, I use visual storytelling narratives to trick people into learning something. Isn’t that what we’re always saying, give people their vegetables and puppies at the same time? It’s possible. It’s all in the narrative.

5. Factboxes and maps


Every story I write relates to a business, so maps and factbox info make it easy to add simple value to the story. This is what will help this post remain relevant in the long term as people look for this basic info in the future, it’ll also raise my Google ranking when people search for “the depot hours.”

6. Finally, the GIFs


TheDepot-SideDoor1 TheDepot-LookingUp1

Here are just two of the GIFs in the story. These are news GIFs, not just puppies and kittens, they actually tell a story and provide value to the reader. I knew I wanted these GIFs back in April when I took the original photos, so I asked the business owners to pose in the same candid position for these before/after images. I deliberately put them at the bottom of the story so that readers would have to scroll past a video and narrative to their destination. But I told people where to find them if that’s all they wanted, giving readers a choice to enjoy the full package or just the GIFs.

7. Key takeaways

Not every story has the opportunity to make this much of a splash, but when the opportunity arises, take full advantage of it. Some stories are just not as visually rich while many others are. We complain about low resources, but I did this alone with no other staff in my off time. I’m not saying that it’s easy to produce this type of multimedia but it doesn’t require a whole team of people and 20 hours of work either.

There are things to learn from how BuzzFeed and the like organize, label and deliver content to their audiences. We can apply these lessons to news without falling into the “puppies and kittens” pit but without also classifying stories as “eating your vegetables” (since when has that ever gotten anyone excited?).

At the end of the day, this story is nothing more than a business story for a consumer audience wrapped in shiny foil and visual storytelling.

Drinker of the month: How to make an Italian Tiki

Drinker of the Month is an ongoing monthly series I publish on my news site, Drinkable Reno. It’s a fun, informative conversation story with a popular mover and shaker in the liquor business in Reno. More often than not, it’s a bartender. In November, I started adding video to the series and this is the first one.


How To Make an Italian Tiki with Annalisa from Michael Higdon on Vimeo.

Annalisa Suarez, 2014 secretary of United State Bartender’s Guild Reno Chapter and bartender at the Peppermill Reno Casino Terrace Lounge demonstrates how to make an excellent Galliano and tequila based cocktail.


  • 1 oz Galliano
  • 1 oz Lemon juice
  • .5 oz Agave Nectar
  • .5 oz Don Julio Reposado
  • Splash St. George Raspberry Liqueur
  • Angostura Bitters
  • Lemon to garnish


Combine lemon, agave, tequila and Galliano. Shake with crushed ice. Add splash of St. George to final glass. Double strain shaker into the glass. Add ice to the glass. Garnish with lemon. Add bitters. Enjoy!

News video, Great Basin Brewing Co. cans Icky IPA first time

The weird thing is, I teach video journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, but I don’t do a lot of my own video… until now. This was my first professional news video and it’s not bad. I continue to get better every time. Very standard, straight up stuff though. Great B-roll and interview. But my problem is, I always include too much.

Great Basin Brewing Company started canning Icky IPA on May 29, 2014. For the full story, visit or

Reno Mo-Men Public Service Announcement

In 2014, Josh Arias and I created the Reno Mo-Men, a Movember team in Reno, Nev. On Nov. 1, Josh set up his mobile barber station at Under the Rose Brewing Co. in partnership with Full Belly Deli to create a Shave the Date event. Afterward, I created this video to promote awareness for the team and help raise money. Also, it was an excuse to use my new camera.

Ultimately, by the end of Movember, the Reno Mo-Men had 46 members and raised $7,619!