Engineering Viral Success

Going viral doesn’t just happen!  And if it does, it’s the exception to the rule.  Almost always, viral content explodes because of careful maneuvering by content creators or community influencers… that includes seemingly organic pieces like Tay Zonday and Star Wars Kid.

Engineering virality is usually dependent on three things:

  1. Key Influencer Relationships
  2. An Open-Eared Sharing Community
  3. Paid (or Earned) Media

You need to have this network infrastructure in place before you can create a viral success.  Meaning, you can’t just build this network overnight or break-off communication immediately after you succeed.  You have to nurture this network and build it over time.

Why should you put in the work?  Links!  Virality means links and boatloads of them… more importantly this link building strategy is sanctioned by the engines and is probably the only way you can generate massive amounts of links over a very short amount of time without tripping filters.

A final preface: These strategies aren’t the only way to get viral success.  It’s just the most effective way to maximize the likelihood that you’ll succeed.

Influencer Relationships: A How To

Influencers, also called Linkerati, are the core of your strategy.  They are that 1% of the social media world that hold the keys to the kingdom.  They are the top bloggers, power users on Digg, tweeters with 100,000 followers and social aggregator communities such as Fark, BoingBoing, Not Cot, etc.  You need to have these people in your pocket, but first you need to find them.

If you work full-time in the same vertical, you probably know who they are.  However, if you’re new to a project or vertical, the best way to find them is a combination of search engines.  Begin by searching for “[Insert Vertical] Blog” and looking through the results.  When was the last time they posted?  If it’s over a month ago, keep moving.  What’s their PR/backlink count? (Before people start shouting about PR being outdated, this has nothing to do with SEO.  It’s a measure of authority and PR is measured by link counts, domain age, % of unique content, etc)  If it seems legit to you, mark the blog down and look for contact info in the blog itself, attached social network profiles/pages or on WHOIS if necessary.

Next, you should estimate their reach by checking Quantcast and Compete.  Take the average of the two sites and then bump it up slightly because both sites tend to under-estimate.  This will help you prioritize your outreach and how you deliver content on a limited basis.  For non-blogs, keep track of followers, fans, etc.  In the case of Digg, look at their friends for guaranteed impressions and estimate based on 40-50k from a first page hit.

Once you’ve selected influencers, begin to reach out to them.  The first step is start a conversation.  Start with an @reply on Twitter, a message on Facebook about how much you appreciate their work or participate in the comments section on their blog.  The next step is introducing yourself via email, DM or some other kinds of direct line of communication.  Be honest about who you are and make sure to flatter the hell out of them citing specific blog posts, tweets, etc.

Once you’ve started the relationship, feed it by regular conversation through less direct channels like comments and @replies.  You don’t want to be a stranger when you send them content asking for help.

When it comes time to send content, think big.  Yes, a simple email will potentially get a response, but there are much more interesting outreach methods.  Create something unique to each person you’d like to reach out to and send it through the mail.  This strategy not only gets your content to your target, but gives them more reason to write about it.  Some great examples are the Coraline boxes, Nokia’s N900 Hacker Box and the Group of Death’s promo kit.  When you do something like these examples, not only is your content the story, but so is your outreach.

If this strategy isn’t feasible, you have to think in terms of exclusives.  Who on your list has the furthest reach and is most likely to push out your content?  Send that person an early exclusive and hope for the halo effect of other people jumping on the bandwagon. A good example is ABC’s Modern Family early online screenings, which were offered to a few bloggers and immediately was passed out via twitter, which grabbed hundreds of thousands of eyes.

Once you’ve finished this step, thank the people who helped you and keep track of their articles for the next step.

Tapping Into Your Sharing Community

Your fans, followers, etc are going to be your next line of offense.  How to develop a vibrant social media presence is an entire article on it’s own.  So this section will cover how to optimize your sharing.

Josh Millrod
Josh Millrod is a digital strategist at Wieden+Kennedy, a full-service, creatively driven advertising agency based in Portland, Oregon with offices in Amsterdam, London, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai and Delhi.  Josh’s work encompasses brand strategy, community management and SEO for a variety of clients.  In his ever dwindling free time, he plays trumpet in a noise band called Grasshopper and runs a small record label called Bloodfist Karate School. The views in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent those of Wieden+Kennedy in any way, shape or form.

Comments are closed.

3 thoughts on “Engineering Viral Success

  1. Just love finding “real” content that works when applied.

    I teach dog trainers, pet sitters and dog walkers to market themselves. For the most part I get the consensus that if they give their information away for free no one will come to them. So the opposite. When I started telling people exactly what to do is when the circle of good will started coming around for everyone.

    Thanks for great content.