Creating viral content

I met with a friend this week who’s in the process of launching a fascinating new art/political campaign. It’s still stealth right now but they’re trying to lay the groundwork for viral growth once the story goes live. I followed up with some feedback/suggestions and I’ll share some the take-aways from that email here.
Virality is impossible to engineer. Many have tried, indeed, the best PR firms try every day, but only a very lucky few succeed. If you think about some of the most popular Youtube videos (Gangam Style, Charlie bit my finger, etc.) or books (Harry Potter, Malcolm Gladwell, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.) it’s very difficult to identify what specifically made them successful. Some are home videos, some are vampire fan fiction, some are thoughtful academic analyses, etc. One thing is clear: the creators didn’t know whether they were releasing a hit or a flop.
If you want to create a viral movement around your story, the best you can do is create the best darn story possible. It needs to be good enough that people who have no relationship with you will engage with it so deeply that they feel compelled to share it of their own accord. At the end of the day, this is really the only thing that matters.
Orchestrating and executing a stellar launch plan is the best way to seed the world with your idea. This is how you get the initial word out. If your story is good enough, timely enough and lucky enough then those seeds can grow into a viral movement around your message.
Achieving virality in ‘one big push’ is particularly difficult. This is why so many popular authors release series of books. If you are releasing successive tranches of amazingly good content then (1) you have more at-bats to get lucky and go viral and (2) you develop a core fan base that become your evangelists to help you achieve said success.
Monetizing virality is equally subtle. It’s easy to monetize a movement after it goes viral. You have endless opportunities to up-sell people on something they care deeply about (look how much money George Lucas made with Star Wars merchandise). But it’s very difficult to build monetization into the movement early on. That’s why Facebook is still free for users. Charging a lot for things reduces rate of uptake and if you truly want a message to go viral, rate of uptake is what it’s all about. That’s not to say you can’t charge at all. Obviously people paid for Harry Potter. But it leads to sometimes counterintuitive approaches: if you give away 20 thousand ebooks (and ~0 marginal cost to you), would that help you achieve an additional 50 thousand in sales? Maybe (bestselling authors such as Guy Kawasaki have used this approach to great effect).
All this goes to show that it’s impossible to orchestrate popularity. The best approach is to create a product that’s as amazing as it can possibly be and to think outside the box about how to get the word out.

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