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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 (Before people start shouting about PR being outdated, this has nothing to do with SEO.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.

First and foremost, the most important thing to share with your community aside from the actual content is respected sources’ feelings about that content.  A BoingBoing story is infinitely more meaningful to your user base than a message from you saying, “Check out this cool thing we made!”  Seed your community with this information, ie a tweet that reads “BoingBoing said X is the best they’ve ever seen, what do you think? – [ link]”  That’s under 120 characters, which is ideal because you want to leave room for RT’s.

Whether you use Twitter, Facebook, etc, you should use to share links, because of the analytics available.  When you post a link and add a + to the end of the url, you’ll be able to access click data, which is incredibly important for measuring your audience size.

When sharing things on Facebook, also make sure to use, but don’t use a link post on your personal or fan page wall.  Add the link to the end of your status update instead.  If you post a text only post, rather than a link post, it will be displayed in the header of your fan page’s wall, which will ultimately get more eyes on it.

As far as your personal channels, ie blog, site, etc.  Cover the coverage.  Don’t do an entire blog post about how great you are.  Let others do the work and repost sections of coverage or create an aggregation of what people are saying.

The next step, is tapping into communities outside of your scope.

Gaining Traction In Closed Communities

Unless, you have a ridiculous amount of time on your hands, you probably don’t have strong presences on every social network.  However, there ways in that can help you get traction even though you aren’t heavily involved.

Lots of marketers complain about not being able to get their content to do well on Digg.  Well, there’s a few solutions that fall into one of two categories: paid and organic.

Paid is simple, you can buy Digg advertising, which gets you premium placement on the front page.  You can target by user behavior and pay on a CPC basis.  The more Diggs you get, the lower your CPCs.  If you get buried, then your CPC’s go up and eventually, your content stops showing.

On the shadier side of paid… DO NOT do this, unless you aren’t worried about being called out as a fake!… You can pay a power user to promote your content.  Unless you have an established relationship with someone who has never been busted for this, DON’T DO IT!  Approaching a Digg user about paying them to promote content is very, very difficult because you run the risk of them publicly humiliating you.  The only reason, this idea is included is for comprehensiveness’ sake.

There aren’t a whole lot of tricks for organic ways into Digg’s upper echelon.  However, there’s one trick I’ve seen work a number of times.  Digg’s power users see content as a commodity. They don’t want to Digg your submission because it doesn’t help them as much as them putting it out there themselves.  The best way around this is submitting your content to Digg and then submitting to Reddit and other networks that are more democratic with content (Reddit is especially good because of the way the first page is generated).  Digg power users are notorious for trolling other social aggregators looking for stories they can be the first to post on Digg.

The next community is one I’m embarrassed to write about, but it’s undeniably important.  That’s 4Chan.  4Chan is responsible for the Miserable Failure Googlebomb, Tay Zonday’s Chocolate Rain and Star Wars Kid.  This community is notoriously filthy and their actions are beyond reprehensible nearly 100% of the time, but viral sensations frequently crawl into the light from the pile of filth that is 4Chan.

The best way to understand the dynamics of this community and how to seed content with it is to spend some time following it.  Don’t do it at work and try to avoid /b/ (intentionally not linked) if possible.  This site speaks a different language and you need to learn it.  If you can master this community, pat yourself on the back and then take a shower because you’re a made man.

Now onto paid media…

Paying Your Way In

StumbleUpon Ads is probably the most effective paid media for seeding a viral sensation.  There’s pretty stringent quality filters and every piece of content is approved manually, but once you get into the system you’ll only pay $0.05 per guaranteed unique visitor.

The benefit of using StumbleUpon Ads over community submission is your content is shown to a much wider variety of people within each interest group.  If you submit the content or get a power user to submit content, you are going to be pretty consistently exposed to the same pool of users.  StumbleUpon’s algorithm rewards approval from diverse communities of stumblers.  By using their ad platform, you cast a much wider net.

The best way to use StumbleUpon Ads is to submit your content to multiple interest groups each as a different campaign.  This method will give you much more control over your campaign and how you allocate funds between interest groups.

The beauty of this ad system is if you gain traction with your paid stumbles, you’ll get bonus organic impressions, which will lower your cost per visitor.

The next paid media to approach is banners on the Google Content Network.  You get a double benefit from this strategy: low-cost clicks from contextually relevant sites and increased brand/campaign search traffic (A Yahoo study found that running banners increases related searches by 61% and CTR for paid and organic listings by 249% and 139% respectively).

Target contextually relevant sites using keyword targeting and managed placements.  Google’s placement tool should help you select the managed placements.  You should keep your keyword targeting fairly broad with a small number of contextually related keywords.  This tactic will help you get millions of impressions pretty quickly.  If you’re working with video, you should also consider click-to-play video ads.

There are other paid seeding tactics, but they lack the critical mass of StumbleUpon or Google Content Network.  Here are a few: paid celebrity tweets, interstitial video ads on site like Ninjavideo or Sidereel, paid links, etc.

Measuring Success

Before you set out, it’s important have a good idea of what success means for you.  Is it videoviews, Facebook fans, orders or something else.  Along with whatever you select, it’s important to track organic search traffic for your site, brand mentions on Twitter, inbound link, clicks on your links and overall press coverage.  You should probably set up Google Alerts too, just for good measure, in case you miss something.

By aggregating all this data, you’ll be able to analyze what worked and what didn’t so you can maximize your efficiency next time.  You’ll also be able to estimate your audience size by looking at traffic to your site, clicks on links, referrer traffic and estimated unique visits to blogs.

The most important thing to understand is how can you “go viral” with the least amount of effort, ie which influencers have the most effect and require the least maintenance, which sites produced the biggest effect, what paid media channels had the lowest cost per visit/pageview, etc.  Over time, you’ll develop a well oiled machine that allows you to get the maximum amount of traffic with the minimum amount of effort.

Josh Millrod is a digital strategist at Wieden+Kennedy, the largest independently owned full-service advertising agency.  His work encompasses everything from brand strategy to community management to SEO from a wide 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.



Category Social Media
Josh Millrod Wieden+Kennedy

Josh Millrod is a digital strategist at Wieden+Kennedy, a full-service, creatively driven advertising agency based in Portland, Oregon with offices ...

Engineering Viral Success

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