06/08/2014 11:47 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:05 EDT

What I Learned This Week: The Foolproof Secret to Going Viral


It has become the social media question for the ages, one that defines our era:

"How do I make my YouTube video/Facebook post/blog post/etc. go viral?"

I was asked it twice last week alone; once while speaking at a Content Marketing conference put on by Infopresse, the other time in a meeting with the head of one of the savviest electronic toy companies in the world. At a brainstorm session back in January, a multinational client told me outright that they were looking for "someone to push the viral button." It's the question that won't die.

By now, one would think that people would realize that there's no magic formula. Virality may be understood as the brass ring of social media success ("misunderstood" actually; keep reading until then end), but a simple cause-and-effect procedure to get one there is as elusive as a cure for the common cold.

But that brutal reality of no quick fix still doesn't stop people from searching for they continue to do for Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, winged unicorns and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

So in an effort to satisfy inquiring minds, and to finally bring closure to the topic, I have come up with the foolproof, two-step path to Virality; a guaranteed route to widespread wildfire. To wit:

To go Viral, you need to blend Rebellion and Religion.

Here's how it works:


In a nutshell, this means you have to do and say something different. VERY different.

To start, let me splash three cold, hard facts on your marketing message:

  1. Nobody cares.
  2. Nobody give a damn.
  3. You are irrelevant.

You may harbour the conceit that the world will stop in its tracks, that people will lay down whatever it is they are doing, absolutely ignore the million other marketing messages bombarding them at the exact same time, and do so just to concentrate on what you have to say.

But you are wrong. What you say doesn't matter, and is extraneous info to just about everybody.

Unless, that is, you do and say something so special, in a way so unique, that it smashes through this Iron Curtain of Complacency and gets people talking. (For example, check out the bomb my cartoonist friend Stephan Pastis dropped on Saturday.)

And even THEN you're not in the clear, because mere "talking" is not enough any more. For something to go viral, it has to be special enough for people to actually interact with, and share with others. This means that not only must your message be earth-shattering, but be so undeniably special that it makes people feel good about themselves by telling others about it. (I wrote a full, award-winning blog post about that very phenomenon here.)

That's the Rebellion part. Don't think you can do it? Then enjoy a Spartan, secluded life in a sterile cocoon. And consider this -- if a brand as established and seemingly mundane as Cheerios can do it -- TWICE! -- then what's your excuse? (Check out what I mean with these two Cheerios masterstrokes: #1 and #2.)


So, let's say you've cracked the Rebellion code and come up with something so magnificent, angels are chanting your name in choral praise.

You're still not there. Now comes the religion part. This step is way simpler than the first one:

Just get down on your knees and pray.

No matter how brilliant, how eye-popping, how brain-busting a concept you've created, there's no guarantee it spreads. That is up to the Gods.

Who knows why? You may have released it on the wrong day. Someone or something else may be dominating the social media attention span at that moment. There are thousands of other reasons for things NOT to go viral.

So even if you're the most hardcore atheist, the most shrewd SEO strategist, give yourself up to a higher power, and ask him, her or them for a little help.

Then wait and see...


After all that, here's the bad news.

Let's just say you manage to score big and infect the Internet.

So what? Getting Viral doesn't keep you Viral. You may reach a stratospheric high, but you're not setting a new baseline with it. It's like a trip into space on one of those zero-gravity aircraft; enjoy the brief feeling of floaty euphoria, but you're coming back down to earth before you know it. (Best case scenario is picking up, and keeping, a nice amount of new followers/customers while up there.)

As the social media brass ring, Virality is rusty. It's the wrong goal.

Rather than shooting for the quick up-and-down of Virality, aim instead for a positively-inclining line of consistent growth and increased interaction with your followers/customers.

That's where the REAL win, and the true answer to the question, lies.