5 Ingredients For Going Viral (Or Catching A Cold)


A few weeks back I wrote a post about what to ask a copywriter during the hiring process. That post was aimed at business owners who didn’t have the resources to write their own content and would prefer to outsource it. But not everyone falls into that category. Some businesses prefer to write their own content because they feel they’re the ones who know their subject matter and what they do the best. I couldn’t agree more.

After my initial post I received a few emails and calls from folks looking for advice on promoting flagship pieces. They have the content and they think it has the legs to go somewhere, but now what? What do you need to make something go viral or achieve buzz? While I’ve already outlined tips on how to promote good content, I thought I’d expand on that a bit and talk about the five ingredients you absolutely need to make something go viral.

Coincidentally, they’re also the five things you need to catch a cold.  I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and tackle both.  No extra charge.

Infectious Content (The Virus)

Everything starts with the virus.

Viral content is content that is meant to be talked about. It’s something that is compelling enough to deserve attention and to make people want to spread it. There’s no magic formula for knowing what will or will not take off, but there are generally accepted truths:

  • People are incredibly narcissistic. Playing to ego works.
  • We want to be entertained. At all times.
  • We also like being shocked…from the safety of our homes.
  • Mashing up things we already love is doubly funny.
  • We’re suckers for compelling stories.

Ultimately, in order to create buzz you have to find a way to ‘wow’ someone. However, do remember that ‘wowing’ doesn’t mean ‘offending’. To get someone to pass something on they first have to be willing to let people know they were looking at it. Cross the offensive line and they may not be willing to do that. You know what I’m talking about.

The Talkers (The Vector)

The vector is the infectious agent that transmits the virus. Without it, the virus will die. Said more simply, people are dirty and spread diseases. [go wash your hands]

Your infectious agent is your audience. It is the people that you want to see and pass on your content, they’re not necessarily customers. Your customers may love you, but they may not be inclined to talk about you. For example, do you tweet about the restaurant you go to every week or do you tweet about the new place you’re excited to have just found? Usually the latter. Just because someone buys from you doesn’t mean they’re in the position to talk about you. And just because they’d never by from you doesn’t meant that they wouldn’t talk about you.

When you’re mapping out who you’re going to share your content with, cast the net a little wider than just your core audience. Look for the folks with the biggest egos most prone to sharing content and the people with the biggest spheres of influence. Those are your talkers and the people you need to help build visibility and keep spreading your virus.

Social Incentives (Replication Cycle)

Every virus has a unique replication cycle that affects how quickly it can grow and spread. The stronger the virus, the faster it can potentially infect other people.

FourSquare spread through the Web quicker than mono through a middle school because they gave people stuff for participating and everyone got overly excited. Participate and you get badges! You get to call yourself a Mayor! You get punched in the face when you won’t stop infecting my Twitter stream with germs and I finally go ballistic! On Twitter it’s the same deal with our Follower and Lists displayed prominently. On Facebook we alert the whole word that we just wasted 30 minutes of our live playing Farmville of Café World or whatever the emo kids are playing these days. These sites offer a social incentive for getting involved and helping the virus to spread.

Robert Scoble had a post on how to build an addictive app that covers this same idea that you should absolutely read. The plan he outlines works for tying social incentive to apps can be modified to make anything addictive. Read that post because he nails it.

Tools To Spread (Method of Transmission)

Different viruses are spread differently. They’re ingested, they’re passed through blood, they require contact, etc. The way that they’re transmitted and how quickly they’re passed is dependent on the type of virus being spread, how it’s built, and how it’s engineered to pass from vector to vector.

You need to know how your virus will be most quickly spread and then facilitate that as much as possible. That may mean linking your post up to Twitter for easy tweeting, it may mean making it easy to share on Facebook, it may mean getting blogged by a particular influencer or putting an Email This button at the bottom of the post. It’s up to you to know how to find your people and break down obstacles to promote maximum spread.

Don’t forget that YOU are an important part of the transmission process. The same way you pass that sore throat off to your significant other, you need to help pass your content on, as well. Get into the conversation and interact with people in order to fan the infection and help it to spread further. Talk about the content in your network, pass it to your friends, respond to comments or reactions being left, and let people know that you’re part of what’s being passed and that you’re listening. No one likes playing with a wall. Show them you’re there to push back.

A Way To Study Behavior (The Doctor)

As the viral spreads, a doctor is called in to check your overall health, monitor the rate of infection and to measure the overall effect it has had on the body.

You need to appoint a doctor for all of your social campaigns. Someone who will be responsible for tying metrics to actions and following the course of the virus. Creating the original social media plan is a great first step, but you need to set goals to help you measure your community and monitor social media metrics. That’s where your social media ROI is going to come from.

There’s a lot of info that can be gleaned from simply watching how people interact with your content and the types of things they share. Chris Bennett already wrote a killer post on 5 Must Do’s After a Successful Viral Marketing Campaign so I won’t repeat it, but read that post for a list of things to analyze AFTER the campaign finishes. We often talk about the importance of measuring things like links, comments, retweets, traffic, etc, as a way to measure campaigns, but Chris looks at things most people often forget. I particularly like the Analysis and Rolodex mentions.

There’s no ‘perfect science’ for making something go viral or achieve a world of buzz, however, there are ways to better your odds. It’s as easy as catching a cold.

Your Comments

  • Curt

    I love it. The trick is to get everyone you know telling everyone they know about your idea.

  • Gil Reich

    So far I’ve only succeeded in this twice, finding the one Talker whose been willing and able to get her traffic to my site with a Tweet or two. Thanks! Now I just have to get this to work with other Talkers.

    • Lisa Barone

      You know what they say…do it once and it’s luck, do it twice and you did it on purpose. Or..something like that. :)

      The link above to the ‘how to promote good content’ post talks a bit about that, if you haven’t seen it.

  • Data Entry Services

    You would make a good politician following this advice!

  • Michael D

    I love that you mention the talkers (vector) not necessarily being your customers. In many cases related to my office, it’s been my friends in search and social media that were promoting my content, rather than clients.

  • Brandon Cox

    Now this is the kind of post that gets me fired up about the potential of the web for marketing. You’ve risen above the “how to get a bunch of traffic” talk and gone to the heart of this thing called the web.

    Really nice article, Lisa!

  • Kim S

    Giving, is a very healthy viral ingredient in contaminating the internet with your brand or product. Just don’t give me the swine flu.

  • Martin Meyer-Gossner

    Good post, well-explained – liked reading it. Picked the main take-away for my ‘dish of the day’… http://bit.ly/bOc9ZA

  • SEO Doctor

    Pay the vectors to tweet and push, its the new link buying.

  • Julie W

    Awesome article, Lisa. Great tips for making content more “virus-y”. Love your blog posts, btw! I can’t keep up with my own work to manage to write anything – so kudos and keep it up.

  • Kevin Marks

    A clear explanation of a tired and exploitative metaphor. To really do well you have to change your worldview, and stop behaving like a disease. Broaden your thinking to more interesting reproductive metaphors; think about fruit trees spreading their seeds by wrapping them in something delicious that people want to share. As long as you approach SEO with a diseased mindset, your campaigns are less likely to bear fruit.

    • Lisa Barone

      Okay, metaphor issues aside, is the information provided in each article really that different? It seems like you have a bigger problem with the metaphor than the article.

      • Kevin Marks

        I have a problem with the metaphor because of the mindset that comes with it. A virus is essentially exploitative; it is bypassing your defences and doing you harm in order to spread itself. Thinking virally is negative-sum or zero-sum thinking. Instead, think about how you can help people achieve their own goals with whatever it is you are trying to promote. If you do that, they will willingly spread your message, because then it is a positive sum game. You dance around this in the ‘social incentives’ bit. Foursquare location updates are fruitful, in that they help you find your friends in the real world, but badge and mayor updates aren’t, they are germs. You see the distinction, but miss the implication because you’re framing with the diseased metaphor.

        • Nick Gowdy

          The vast majority of people attempting to “go viral” just keep coughing with their mouth uncovered, hacking up bad and unwanted viruses on everyone around them and praying that they spread. They’re playing negative/zero-sum as you say, and are unfortunately successful some of the time. They *are* viruses.

          But not all viruses necessarily attack the host or lead to diseases. A small number of viruses have even been found to do good, protecting the host from bad bacteria, infection, and cancerous cells. And we now have the technology to create viruses that serve precisely these positive purposes – to wield viruses for great justice. It’s for this reason that I find the viral metaphor appropriate. Most suck beyond belief and are inconsiderately spread, but if crafted intelligently they can instead be welcome, valuable, and effective.

  • Elliot Travers

    This was a great article and helped me plan to go viral with my company