The challenges with contagious content is when the infection doesn't line up with the brand or editorial goals of a given website. LOLcats being contagious is AWESOME for the Cheezeburger folks — less awesome for someone trying to run a community dedicated to, say, ailurophobics.
Here are a few examples of contagious content challenges we deal with on the Empire, and how we deal with 'em:
Example 1: Let's commiserate!
Back when I was trying to edit Offbeat Mama myself (the dark days of early 2010), I ran a guestpost that was a bit reactionary: "YES, I do this — WHAT ABOUT IT!?" I gave this post the tag "dealing with judgement" and thought it'd be good for discussion. It was GREAT for discussion, and then for two months, almost every Offbeat Mama submission was "YES I do this other thing — WHAT ABOUT IT?!" The site took a turn for the angry — every other post was a defensive, reactionary screed written by mothers who felt judged for doing something. It got boring really quickly, but it took me months to turn the boat around. Once readers were triggered into considering "Yes, I feel judged too — I want to rant about it!" it took a long time to shift the content back toward constructive, non-reactionary writing.
How we deal: Only run posts that we WANT to be contagious. My general rule of thumb when reviewing post topics is "What will this incite in readers? Do I want to hear more about this?"
Example 2: Oh, I could have written that; maybe I will!
A few months ago on Offbeat Home, we ran a post featuring moving tips from a military family who had to relocate frequently. Within a week, we received two submissions of what was essentially the same post, written by different people. This same thing happens almost every time we run a "I had difficulty breastfeeding" story on Offbeat Mama — we'll immediately get several submissions of what's essentially the exact same article. It's challenging because of course sometimes the follow-up submissions are more solid than the original post, but we can't just run a re-written version of the same story a week later.
How we deal: Avoid posting content in clusters. Usually, we just hold onto duplicate post for a few months. Some topics are perennial, so it can work to run a very similar post a few months later.
Example 3: Off-topic rambling
On the Offbeat Bride Tribe, we have semi-annual plagues of surveys and non-wedding related content that sweep through the community. One member will post a wedding journal featuring questions from an email survey circa '99, and suddenly the entire Journal section (which is usually focused on wedding planning) gets taken over with members answering the surveys for themselves. Alternately, a member will decide that the Tribe is their new Facebook, and start posting pictures of their new puppy. Suddenly, the wedding journals aren't about weddings at all — they're Offbeat Cute Overload. We've gotten pretty good at catching these plagues before they spread — ultimately, the Tribe is for PLANNING YOUR WEDDING. It's not your personal blog. It's not facebook. It's not a general interest forum. We're all here to plan weddings, and if the site is overtaken by surveys and puppies, it's pretty dang hard to use it to plan your wedding. What's amazing to my mods is how it literally takes ONE MEMBER to derail the ENTIRE community. One survey post will spawn 100 more. One puppy post will trigger puppy posts for weeks.
How we deal: Nip it in the bud and explain it as an issue of scale. For instance, "We had to delete your puppy update because imagine what would happen if all 21,000 other Tribe members started posting about THEIR puppies? The community would become useless for those planning weddings — which is, of course, why we're all here."
Again: contagious content isn't bad! It's just when the viral idea is something that doesn't fit your brand or your business goals that you've got a problem. Ultimately, my content goal with the Empire is to evoke a feeling of confidence, curiosity, and up-beat optimism in my readers. Those are the feelings we want going viral, and knowing that ALL content can be contagious, I try to focus on content that brings up those feelings … because I'd love it if THAT was catching!