One morning in 2002 I was eating breakfast with my laptop open on the table. I pulled up my email program, and the first few items that came in were auto-notices from my new website that alerted me that someone had used the built-in email feature to tell a friend about the site (every time the form was used I'd get my own email that said "Someone Told a Friend About Your Page," so that I could make sure everything was working). It was a brand new site, so I was delighted that people were finding it. Then a dozen more alert emails came in. And a dozen more. My inbox was filled with the bolded "Someone Told a Friend About Your Page" notices -- and my new mail was only 10% downloaded. I pulled up my stats, and my jaw dropped when I found that I'd had over 10,000 pageviews in the past 12 hours. The next day my web server was temporarily shut down due to too much traffic. By the end of the month the site had received around a million pageviews.
My first project had gone viral.
Over the next few years, my husband and I would get together with a group of friends occasionally and come up with ideas for funny and interesting stuff we could post on this website, all with the intention of getting each one to "go viral." We succeeded with a few of our projects, each of them getting into the million-pageview-per-month range, and sometimes even attracting media attention.
Though I no longer work on that site, my interest in what makes a project go viral has remained, and I've been studying the concept informally for over 10 years now. I've watched closely when I see a webpage, blog post, video, or book get huge buzz outside of the traditional media networks, often analyzing it with my husband to see why this particular item resonated so deeply with the public psyche (yes, we're nerds). Based on this research, as well as my own experience, here are my top six tips for getting your next project to go viral:
1. Don't analyze it
One of the fastest ways to kill the potential of your project is to start analyzing it. Very often, the most viral ideas are the simplest -- and if you thought about it too much, you'd talk yourself out of it. For example, one mom thought it would be funny to put a camera in her car to record the kids in her back seat lip syncing Gotye. It must have been tempting to tell herself that it wouldn't be worth the effort, that nobody would be interested in seeing two kids mouthing Somebody That I Used to Know -- especially when they didn't even know all the words! Yet the result was a surprisingly charming video that's now gotten almost 2.5 million views.
So if, say, you're an author who's thinking about doing a Youtube trailer to promote your book, and you come up with the idea to video your cat and splice in James Earl Jones' voice so that it seems the cat is talking about your book in Jones' tone, do it. Don't tell yourself that cat videos are played out, or that it would be too hard, or that nobody would think it was funny, or that it wouldn't capture the essence of your book. If it was enough to make you laugh when you thought about it, you very likely have a project with viral potential on your hands.
2. Stick with the energy
If your project is something that takes a while to create, such as a book or a technically complex video, it's easy to lose your energy. Similar to the above, it's tempting to start analyzing it, second-guessing your core idea, or watering it down based on lack of confidence or worries about what other people will think. As you're working on it, do an energy check: Ask yourself if what you're creating still has that red-hot essence that first excited you.
For example, one night when dad Adam Mansbach got fed up with yet another epic effort to get his two-year-old daughter to go to sleep, he posted a note on Facebook that said, "Look out for my forthcoming children’s book, Go the ____ to Sleep." The note got such a strong response that he decided to go ahead and make a real humorous book. It was undoubtedly a labor-intensive process, and would have been easy for him to lose the energy behind that original Facebook post and end up with a toned-down book that made some vague statements about the frustrations of parents of little ones. Instead, he indeed created a book called Go the ____ to Sleep. PDF copies of the text were forwarded all over the internet (I had three friends send it to me in one day), it hit No. 1 on both the New York Times and the Amazon.com bestseller lists, and now Samuel L. Jackson has recorded the audio. By sticking with the essence of what originally got him excited about the project, Mansbach's book went viral in the truest sense of the term.
3. Seek the right kind of excellence
Your project has to be excellent, but that's going to mean different things depending on what you're creating. For example, when Catholics Called to Witness created their famous Test of Fire video, it was the right choice to make it visually beautiful. This subject matter has grave implications, and the video needed to stand out against the messages of pop culture, many of which are conveyed through big-budget media. A silly piece shot with a hand-held video camera would not have worked; the top-notching filming and production were exactly what this message called for.
In contrast, the famous cartoons from the site Hyperbole and a Half would not have been likely to gain traction if author Allie Brosh had crafted classically beautiful drawings. The rough, scrappy pictures she created fit the underdog vibe of the site perfectly, and undoubtedly played a large part in its viral success. Her cartoons may not be "excellent" in terms of being placed in a fine art museum, but they're excellent for her particular style.
4. Get the right length
Every now and then I come across an idea that seems like it really should have gone viral, but didn't. Very often, the problem comes down to length. To use the example from #1, if that mom had made a 20 minute video of her kids lip syncing Gotye, it wouldn't have worked. There's only enough "it" factor there for a four-minute clip. Go the ___ to Sleep was the right length as a short "children"'s book, whereas The Shack, the explosively popular book that went viral a few years back, required more length to develop the ideas it contained. Most often, though, if there's a problem, it's that it's too long.
If you thought you had an exciting idea but it doesn't seem to be panning out now that you're putting it together, consider cutting the length. It could be that there is still something good there, but that it doesn't have quite the oomph to make it worth the time investment that you're requiring from your audience.
5. Use the no-fail viral litmus test
When my friends and I were creating content for that website, we used what we called the "You're Welcome" litmus test to check the viral potential of our work: If we had to ask friends to promote it, we knew it would never take off. If this wasn't something that they would love so much that they'd blast out to their own contacts, without us having to ask, then there was no chance this thing would go viral. But when we'd created something that was so funny or interesting or beautiful that we were enjoying the heck out of it ourselves -- when we were so sure that our other friends would like it that we could have sent them the link with the subject, You're welcome -- we knew we had a hit. Every now and then we had that feeling about a project that didn't take off; but every project that took off passed the "You're Welcome" litmus test.
6. Don't give up
Getting a project to go viral is not an exact science. There were times when my friends and I would rub our hands together in anticipation, waiting for the inevitable deluge of pageviews to begin, only to have it fizzle out. That was always frustrating, but it was always only a matter of time until another one succeeded.
The key is to not give up. If you keep generating unique, energy-filled ideas, and keep putting them out there fearlessly, it's only a matter of time until one of your projects goes viral.