What makes a photo go viral–beyond the silly, the ridiculous and the tricky? We’re talking about a viral photo in the context of the hospitality and travel marketplace. Over the years, a few of our photos have done just that–but how did it happen? Let’s talk about a few social platforms other than Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter. Those big-name tools are important, but very often other niche sites provide better traction. Believe it or not, when we looked at our own web analytics, we discovered that almost all of the traffic to our blog and website comes from these viral photos! And, we learned that Pinterest sends us much more traffic than Facebook…wow. Here are a few tips and insights from our experiences:

Case One: Food

1) Great food photos and accompanying recipes get fantastic traction! 30% of the most pinned photos last year on pinterest were food photos. Be sure to get great, crisp photos of your top culinary creations, and then post those photos with the recipe on your blog. Also, think seasonal, colorful, simple to prepare and PHOTOGENIC. Get some in-process shots as well; oftentimes those are more interesting than the finished product. Keep the composition clean and simple, lots of open space. Keep in mind that many sites require a square crop of the image and this should be considered when composing the photo. foodgawker.com is the big player in this arena and you can get serious attention IF they accept your submission–their selections are highly-curated and it’s competitive, but the big boys of the internet and giant corporate bloggers cruise this site for content and re-post. It’s easier to get accepted to tastespotting.com–less traffic, but it can drive hoards of people to your blog.

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Swiss Woods’ tomato recipe–a viral phenomenon

The Parmesan Heirloom Tomato recipe from Swiss Woods Inn, which was posted on our blog about a year ago went crazy viral. It all started with our blog and the simple, totally seasonal recipe (it was August, peak tomato season). We posted it on foodgawker.com and it was then picked up by buzzfeed.com for a piece on seasonal September recipes. buzzfeed.com is a specialist viral web content site with over 100 million unique visitors a month!! foodgawker.com delivered 2000 views to our Swiss Woods blog post and the syndication to buzzfeed.com delivered another 15,ooo unique visits to that post within a year. The recipe also went nuts on pinterest with 1100 repins of the recipe. I talked to Swiss Woods’ owner Deb Mosimann shortly after the buzzfeed.com repost; she reported that she had a huge surge in Facebook likes on her page during this period. So cool!

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Display example from foodgawker.com with some Jumping Rocks submissions. Inn names are imbedded in the captions for maximum exposure

Case Two: Inn Travel

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Couple at The Swag Country Inn…one of our most re-pinned photos on pinterest

This photo is our second most re-pinned photo from pinterest at over 500 re-pins. It’s on dozens of “places I want to visit” pinterest boards. This one was not picked up from our blog or the Jumping Rocks pinterest board but pinned by someone from our website, from the “Our Clients” page. We had installed a pinterest button on the page and that’s where it all started. Why this photo?? One thing you see in viral travel photos is destinations of high drama or mood. The Swag fits this description perfectly, as they are located over 5000 feet up in The Smoky Mountains with world-class views, amenities and architecture. Also, the view and time of day are perfect, and including people helps viewers relate to the image and conjure up a personal fantasy. Note that the people are unidentifiable; this is important. It’s not about them, but about the experience. Aspirational images like this one make great viral photos. Other images that play very well on pinterest are the private outdoor showers of The Swag. Why?? These also are unusual amenities that take an ordinary vacation into the extraordinary. It’s a fantasy made real.

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Outdoor showers at The Swag are super popular re-pins on pinterest

Another place to post your photos to create viral traffic is dwellinggawker.com. dwellinggawker is a sister-site to foodgawker. dewellinggawker is like its sister site but focuses on architecture, homes and remarkable spaces and places. The same rules we mentioned above for foodgawker apply here as well. You’ll find less traffic on this site, but still good click-throughs. One of our more popular posts on this site was Iris Inn’s new cabins “Treehouses for Adults” . Why? For one thing, treehouse vacations are smoking-hot right now.  Also, the great mountain view in the photo makes this photo exotic and exciting. Finally, contemporary architecture is super-popular right now. This picture drove about 1000 visits to the blog post we wrote about the project. Heide and Dave called recently and said they have booked rooms directly as a result of this post! Hey–that’s the goal!

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Coolest accommodations at Iris Inn in Virginia. This photo was posted on dwellinggawker and drove direct reservations to the Inn as a result

Case Three: Special Event Travel Mary Jo Brink and Michael Salmon of the Hartstone Inn in Camden, Maine run a fabulous inn and recently started offering cooking classes and travel experiences in Italy, France and Spain. We were lucky enough to tag along and document their Tuscany trip a couple of years ago. They rent an entire villa for the event. When we arrived, we were taken by the amazing view from the room. We quickly set up some lights and shot an picture of the room with the view. A few months later, I posted this image on 500px.com, a very popular social media site for super high-quality imagery. Getting noticed on this site is very difficult. The picture I uploaded was picked up as an “Editors Choice” and quickly gathered 1000 “likes”. 2000 people started following us on the site and the picture has had over 10,000 views. Why? Are we seeing a theme?? VIEWS. The Tuscan vacation fantasy. This photo is loaded with emotion and mood. Also, it’s just an interesting photo; the room is out of focus and the view is sharp. A photographic treatment like this creates a dreamy, other-worldly feeling. This photo was also posted on Google Plus and played very well there as well. See more pictures from our shoot from the cooking school vacation. 

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Shot from Hartstone Inn’s European Foodie Adventures’ accommodation in Tuscany. This photo went viral on 500px.com

Summing it up… to create viral photo content in the hospitality and travel industry:

  • Photograph your seasonal, beautiful and SIMPLE recipes (the blogosphere is just like traditional press–they roll with the seasons!)


  • Get great photos. Hire a pro if you can. Come up with clear concepts for a viral photo and communicate those concepts to him/her


  • Understand the guidelines and preferences of sites that can help your photos go viral




  • VIEWS…It’s really about the view. Find a photographer who understands how to get a killer view shot. (We are damn good at that, BTW.)


  • Celebrate those unusual amenities such as outdoor showers, stargazer platforms, tree houses or noteworthy adventures  


  • Use people as props to help the viewer relate the photo and create scale


  • Employ unusual camera techniques such as super wide angle, or extreme vertical (great for pinterest), or selective focus seen in the Tuscany shot


  • Use your blog as starting point for spinning off your viral photos. Make that blog beautiful!

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