The Value in Going Viral (And Five Steps to Improve Your Odds)

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A man who used to be an editor for Upworthy followed me on Twitter. In his bio it said, “I can’t make that thing your boss cares about go viral.”

Neither can I, but Captain America probably can.

The former Upworthy editor was one of a few thousand new followers I attained thanks to actor Chris Evans.

I make money via freelance writing for various publications, ads on my blog, selling books, and public speaking. For the past decade I’ve endeavored to make my work be an Internet hit, and achieved success numerous times. I’ve learned there are numerous ways to trigger an Internet explosion. I’ve also learned it doesn’t often sell much product. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. It means one must understand what is gained by suddenly having your work reach millions of people via an explosion of interconnected electrons.

Back to Cap for a moment.

You want a guaranteed method of going viral? Have an A-list celebrity with a massive following retweet you. Even then, it’s got to be the right message and the right time.

Such was the case with me.

The Story

In June there was news about a “Straight Pride Parade” being approved in Boston. As an outspoken LGBT ally, I had some thoughts about that, and posted them to my Facebook page. I’ve put many years of effort into building a loyal following on that page, and it’s paid me back by driving millions of people to my blog, generating sizable advertising revenue. It’s also helped me sell books and secure speaking gigs.

The post did very well on Facebook: 6,700 Likes, 3,800 Shares, 900+ comments, and a reach of 325,000. It was far too wordy for a straight tweet, so I screen capped it and shared it as an image to my Twitter. By the time I went to bed it had a few hundred likes. I awoke to an email from my literary agent with the subject line “Captain America retweeted you”—followed by about 17 exclamation points.

He was more excited than I. I’d been there, done that. Ten years earlier, my uncle emailed me from Hong Kong, asking, “What’s this about you and Jillian Michaels?” She was the “trainer” on TV’s The Biggest Loser and was threatening to sue me for calling her out in the Los Angeles Times.

Anyway…

I wrote about how straight pride parades are stupid. Chris Evans has a gay brother and is from Boston, where the parade was supposed to take place. He saw my post and retweeted it with his endorsement to his 12 million followers. On Twitter, it reached about 8 million people.

Then the media ran with it.

It became the story of the day and a half, getting ample coverage in the Boston Globe, Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, CNN, Yahoo, USA Today, People, Salon, IndieWire, Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, God, George Takei, TooFab, Elle, Pride.com, Business Insider, plus countless blogs and other smaller media.

People Magazine spelled my name wrong, in two separate articles.

Chris led the story, of course, because who the hell is James Fell compared to him? But my name, my full tweet, and the link to my Twitter page were in all those stories. With the added coverage, my name, my words, and my link were seen by tens of millions more people beyond the Twitter exposure.

And if you look at my Twitter profile, you’ll notice the feature photo is a blatant endorsement for my new book, along with a link to buy it. But there was only the smallest of blips in traffic to my books page, and not many additional books sold beyond a typical day. I did get a few thousand new Twitter followers, however, some of whom are celebrities. There was also quite a bit of fan mail, and some hate mail from bigoted asswipes, too. Comes with the territory.

But despite the lack of sales, there is still value in going viral.

One benefit is more followers. Every time I have something blow up—a published article, a meme I created, a blog post, a tweet, or a Facebook tirade—I get a bunch more followers. The Chris Evans retweet led to about 3,500 new Twitter followers (15% increase), but the biggest boost I ever got was closer to 6,000 new Facebook followers (which at the time was a 60% increase) because of a profanity-filled blog post about dark chocolate.

And when you consistently have posts go big, and build your social media presence, then develop a long-term relationship with those followers, there is direct financial value. It’s the long game of building affinity and trust. They won’t buy my book or hire me to speak because of one tweet, but they’ll become aware of me, and if I keep impressing them with work that they consistently find appealing, they can one day become a paying customer.

Beyond that, there is the fact that the tweet that went so viral was on brand. The value of this cannot be underestimated. I write about many different things, but through it all is a message of inclusiveness and being a good ally. Many of my existing followers positively freaked out that Chris Evans was sharing my work, and it gave them the reinforcing social proof they needed that James Fell is a good guy with a good message, and they were right to be following me.

On a personal level, my wife drove the value home. What I’d written was contentious and opinionated. “About 40 million people read that tweet,” she said to me over a shared beer on our back porch. “Most of them are either already on your side, or firmly against you. But say one percent were on the fence. That means you changed the minds of 400,000 people toward a more enlightened way of thinking with a single post.”

That doesn’t pay bills, but you can’t discount the value of people having passion for their work because they see it is making a positive difference in people’s lives. This can apply to you, and your employees.

A couple of weeks after the Chris Evans retweet, it happened with another celebrity, Bella Thorne, who retweeted a thread of mine to her almost 7 million followers. The reach of that thread was also close to 8 million, but it didn’t have the subsequent media explosion. Again, however, there was influx of new followers.

I do have some actual advice for going viral that doesn’t rely on celebrities’ taking notice.

Five Steps to Improving Your Odds of Going Viral

1. Stop Selling and Start Giving

People go online, and especially to social media, for information and entertainment. I have books to sell, but I almost never do direct selling except as an aggressive byline at the end of a blog post, after I gave them a free article to read. If I make a post about the books themselves, it’s crickets and tumbleweeds. People don’t often share an ad unless there is something meaningful or entertaining about the ad itself that isn’t screaming “buy this thing!” Even then, most viewers are still after the entertainment, not the product.

People share things they care about, things that change the conversation, make an important statement, or make them laugh.

Gillette didn’t have its ad about toxic masculinity blow up because it was talking about razors.

If your social media strategy is full of an endless stream of press releases and product pushing, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve seen so many complain about how “reach on Facebook sucks now.” No, Facebook doesn’t suck, you suck. Facebook rewards what is popular. Make posts that people click Like, share, and comment on, and Facebook notices, and shows it to more people, and it goes from there. Same with Twitter.

So, create posts that people want to click Like, share, and comment on. Duh.

And then sneak in the selling.

2. Novelty and Resonance

People want something new, but not just anything that’s new.

It also must resonate. It has to reach into their psyche and trigger a little “Yes!” in their brain that makes them take notice that this is worth paying attention to.

You need to read the minds of your customers and tell them what they were thinking even though they didn’t know they were thinking it yet.

That is not an easy thing to do. If I knew a guaranteed formula for going viral, I’d be driving my Lamborghini down the Autobahn right now instead writing this article.

It’s trial and error. There will be occasions when you invest much time and effort in trying to grab the Internet’s attention, and it will just… die.

Other times, you’ll dash something off in a matter of minutes, not even realizing that this was a thing the Internet wanted to make big that day, and it will explode.

3. Timeliness, With a Difference

Gillette blew up because #metoo has gained a lot of steam. Ten years ago, it would have been eaten alive. Plenty of troglodytes still let loose, and many prognosticated financial doom, but six months after the campaign the company’s stock is up 8%.

That doesn’t mean one must engage in such risky behavior, but I’ve noticed a trend in time-sensitive storytelling: To be noticed, you must address the story in a way no one else is.

Do you remember in 2014 when the winner from TV’s The Biggest Loser was revealed and the world went nuts, proclaiming she was anorexic? Every news outlet covered it. I’ve long been critical of that show, and while all the outlets were “reporting,” I took it a step further, writing a piece titled “Boycott The Biggest Loser.” (Site is now defunct.) I used all my knowledge of why the show is bad (I wrote about it later for the Guardian, here, if you’re curious as to why it’s so terrible) and told people to stop watching the show and even telling readers to contact advertisers (I provided a list) recommending they stop supporting the program.

Despite being on a small site, it was one of the most read pieces on the net during those two days of furor. Because every other site was telling the same story, but I had a different one.

And remember Harambe? For a few days in May 2016 it was all people could talk about. Most everyone was arguing over whether they should have shot the gorilla. My approach was to not choose sides, but talk about the times “I Blinked, and My Kids Disappeared.”

When a story is all anyone can talk about, they are soon bored with the constant repetition. But if you can provide a fresh angle that no one else is covering, it has the potential to explode because it gives them the dopamine hit they crave over the story of the day. That Harambe piece of mine crashed my website from the influx of traffic.

If your company is positioned to offer something unique and interesting about a hot story and won’t be perceived as jumping on a bandwagon just for eyeballs, then tell that story. People will remember.

4. Engage Directly

I don’t often partake of Dairy Queen, but when I do, I go big.

A couple of years ago I tweeted “Had a salted caramel truffle Blizzard from DQ right before bed. Weirdest dreams ever.” You’ll note DQ wasn’t tagged, but they do some kind of social media magic (I don’t know, google it) that lets them know when certain tags like “Blizzard” or “DQ” are mentioned. And so, they replied to me with, “Do tell.”

It took them only a few seconds, but it forged a tighter bond with me, the customer, making me think more fondly of them. But it also paid them some direct dividends in that I decided to screen cap the interaction and share it on Facebook, where it got 1,900 likes and dozens of comments, some professing that they now wanted to go out for a Blizzard.

Hell… now I want a Blizzard.

5. Leave the Middle Ground

Like it or not, we’re in an “us and them” world.

Such divisiveness has people shooting up their expensive YETI coolers, setting their Nikes on fire, and freaking out over coffee cups at Christmas time.

Some can walk the line; others may benefit from choosing a side. A few years ago I decided to do something risky by asking women to tell me their stories of how men had acted like they were entitled to their bodies (BIG Content Warning). To this day, that piece the most popular blog post I’ve ever written.

I lost followers and customers because of that article, but gained more than I lost, and the ones gained are more loyal because they consider me to be one of their own.

A Lesson in Latin

Boring doesn’t get shared. New, exciting, provocative, enticing, polarizing… these are things that get shared. These are things that go viral.

If you want to go viral, there is luck involved, because you never know for sure what’s going to hit. But in pursuing such lucky hits, you’d be wise to remember the Latin maxim audentes Fortuna iuvat.

“Fortune favors the bold.”


 

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