Using 2014 data, we take a look at the type of stories which go viral in the run-up to Christmas.
For many users, Christmas talk has been filling up social feeds for weeks now. Between major festive marketing campaigns and people beginning (or finishing up) their shopping, Christmas mentions are rife across social media. For publishers, the season can be a mixed bag. Topical content is easy to create, but holding user attention during a busy period can be challenging.
We took a look at what content is biggest on social during the most wonderful time of the year, to see what kind of stories perform best for publishers.
Pulling data for November and December 2014 (right up to the big day), here’s what we discovered.

O Christmas Tree

For Facebook users, the single biggest piece of content in the 2014 holiday period was the December 4th Christmas Tree lighting ceremony at the White House. Links to the livestream of the event generated almost 1 and a half million interactions. The vast majority of these engagements came from Facebook likes (1,011,593) though the link also prompted considerable chatter, with over 244,000 comments discussing the ceremony.
It’s easy to see why this event would generate such significant engagement. It’s an annual ceremony and marks the beginning of a season celebrated by huge numbers of people across the U.S. and internationally. Feelgood content tends to perform well on social, and this combined with the season’s prominence and sentimental ethos makes it an obvious choice for sharing.
Looking at other popular content on social last year, one thing worth noting is that a multitude of themes can be subsumed under the Christmas banner. Humorous articles and pieces are popular, but mixed in among them are topical news stories and marketing campaigns. Here are some of the most viral pieces from last year.

Don’t Call Them Listicles

List-oriented articles seemed to hit a peak around late November and December. In a season when many people are strapped for time, the simplicity and succinctness of the format seems to strike a chord. Nostalgic themes were very popular, speaking to the mood of many during the festive season.
[bctt tweet=”Nostalgic themes are very popular at Christmas, speaking to the mood of many during the festive season”]
BuzzFeed figured prominently among the list-oriented articles, though they’re far from the only publisher getting big numbers off this format. A piece entitled “35 Awesome Toys Every ‘80s Girl Wanted for Christmas” was the second biggest for this period, earning 845,805 interactions. A look at one woman’s unique take on family Christmas cards was also hugely successful, notching up over 565,000 engagements.
Listicles Christmas 2014
Further down the list, Metro UK, Elite Daily, and The Dodo also earned big numbers off list-oriented pieces. Metro took a similar approach to BuzzFeed, with pieces titled “23 Toys All Nineties Kids Desperately Wanted For Christmas” and “10 Reasons Christmas Was Better In the 70s and 80s”, among others. The Dodo, which focuses on animal-related content, tailored their coverage with an amusing piece on “11 Pieces of Christmas Advice – From Cats.”
Articles such as these have a near-universal appeal and easily encourage discussion and sharing. Readers of all ages can reminisce with friends and family, comparing the toys or experiences featured to their own. The Dodo’s piece, in particular, comes emblazoned with suitably eye-catching visuals which helps it stand out to audiences.

Aesthetics, or the Rise of the Beard Bauble

Content focusing on aesthetics and the home has a distinctive appeal at Christmas. With many decorating their homes for the holidays, articles setting out tips and ideas are always welcome. Popular stories on this theme in 2014 range from pieces inspired by books and literature to kookier displays of festive inspiration.
Once again, BuzzFeed’s reach in this area was vast. “43 Awesome Elf on the Shelf Ideas to Steal This Christmas” yielded 106,291 Facebook likes and just under 90,000 shares. The Huffington Post featured an ambitious Christmas light display inspired by the film Frozen. No doubt aided by the striking visuals and the pop culture ubiquity of the film, this generated 120,823 engagements on Facebook.

These pieces have a family-friendly feel which contributes to shareability, particularly for the prominent parenting demographic on Facebook.
Decorating tips weren’t merely restricted to the home, however. A seasonal fashion trend which saw men decorating their beards with Christmas baubles went viral on multiple sites.
Beard baubles
Visual flair is important across all walks of life at Christmas, after all. The company making the “beard baubles” donated sales proceeds to a charity seeking to raise awareness of skin cancer,  giving readers an extra reason to share. For all we know, Santa could be modernising his look with these baubles, and benefiting a worthy charity in the process.

Behind the Christmas Candelabra

Amidst stories on gifts and home, a number of publishers scored big hits from topical news pieces. On 19th December, the Guardian published an article looking at Santa’s “real” workshop – a town in China which makes 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations. The piece is timely but distinctive, using readers’ heightened attention to deliver a revealing story. It mixes weighty reporting with more light-hearted observations, fitting the jovial mood of the season.
This article earned over 259,000 engagements in just a few days. Its success suggests that users remain alert to news over the Christmas season (it helps if said news falls under the Christmas banner) and are willing to engage with well-reported stories.

Dwayne “the Gift You Didn’t Know You Needed” Johnson

Social’s ability to bring users closer to celebrities is never more evident than at Christmas. An Entertainment Weekly link to a video of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson singing in a Christmas onesie (aptly titled “the gift you didn’t know you needed”) was shared over 15,000 times and notched up 133,744 engagements in total. Johnson is something of a behemoth on social media, so the only surprising thing about this is that the link wasn’t posted to his own page.
[bctt tweet=”Dwayne Johnson in a Christmas onesie is the viral gift you didn’t know you needed”]
Yet, for all his following on social, stories on other public figures surpassed this story for engagement. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling released backstory for one of the book series’ most popular characters shortly before Christmas, with a Daily Dot piece covering the revelations notching up 177,902 interactions. The personal attachment many users feel towards Harry Potter enhances such a piece’s shareability, stirring affectionate remembrances in a particularly sentimental season..

Monty Versus Sainsbury’s

The run-up to Christmas is one of the busiest – if not the busiest – shopping periods of the year. A memorable Christmas advertising campaign can draw unmatched levels of attention to a brand or company, particularly if it inspires discussion on social. The John Lewis Christmas ad, for instance, has become something of an annual event. 2014’s ad campaign – named for the ad’s star, Monty the Penguin – was huge for the retailer. Shot more in the manner of a short film, the warm visuals and underlying message resonated hugely with many social users.

The video URL alone was shared more times than any actual feature on it, with 417,483 interactions in total in November and December. For comparison, this year’s campaign, “Man in the Moon”, had already earned 363,799 engagements by the end of November, suggesting the campaigns have earned the company some loyal followers.
[bctt tweet=”#MontythePenguin notched up 417,438 social engagements in November & December 2014″]
Sainsbury’s sought to rival John Lewis with their own Christmas advert in 2014. This ad recreated the historic 1914 Christmas truce on the front lines of World War I. While the video itself generated fewer engagements than John Lewis’ one, the Sainsbury’s ad did inspire masses of debate – both positive and negative. ITV.com and Metro UK reviewed it positively, with their features earning 150,339 and 128,421 interactions respectively. However, a highly negative piece in the Guardian took a different point of view, generating nearly 78,000 interactions.
These high engagement levels are indicative of the strong emotional connection many users have with Christmas-themed content, be it good or bad.

And Finally…

One of the more unique successes in the run-up to Christmas last year was a piece entitled “How To Make Your Last Name Plural This Christmas Season”. Originally published on the writer’s website, it was later reposted to Slate where it picked up some 253,000 interactions. The article was the ninth-biggest of the season and clearly struck a chord with its humorous take on poor spelling and grammar in Christmas cards.
Overall, it seems clear from the diversity of these pieces that there’s no one way to succeed with Christmas content. Audiences respond to humour and strong visuals, but are just as likely to seize upon a hard news piece if it seems topical and timely. While the majority of content takes a warmer, light-hearted tone, there is room for more serious features; suggesting that the best approach for publishers may be a broad one.
We’ll be taking a look at some lessons for publishers planning Christmas content in an upcoming blog.

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