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How to get your idea shared: Or, going viral

April 14, 2009

What does ‘going viral’ really mean? It simply means getting shared.

The act of going viral, means content is shared by people. Viral doesn’t depend on the online tools, it’s all about the idea. Social media has allowed us to seed an idea with tools like Digg, Delicious, and YouTube. But they are just enablers. Tools, if you will. Think of them like you do a hammer: a hammer doesn’t build a house, it’s merely a tool to build a house.

Social media doesn’t make something viral. The idea must.

So think about the act of spreading something. It’s an attempt by one person to impress their network. I put a link on Twitter, and if it’s good, people will reward me with their engagement, or follow. I put an idea on this blog, and if people think it’s good, they will reward me by sharing it. in my opinion, people share things for two reasons:

  1. It’s funny/weird/clever/cute as hell.
    Kittens, young kids coming home from a dentist, a young kid dancing in the AV room to Star Wars music (in a performance that turns him into the Star Wars kid, but is never meant to get out), these are the things we share. Babies, kittens, and small creatures are cute. The stoned kid in his parent’s back seat is cute and funny at the same time. The last one though, the Star Wars Kid, the video that is widely thought to have gone the most viral, did so because it’s voyeuristic. We watch (and forward) the Star Wars kid because we know it was never meant to be shared. We’re a fly on the wall, watching a guy who never wanted to be watched. And it spread because the people with the biggest networks, and the biggest ability to share things on a massive level are geeks — the early adopters. Star Wars kid impressed and scared the geeks at the same time. Lesson: You need to impress the geeks — that’s the entrance into the mass.
  2. Inside information that makes people seem smarter. Remember at the dawn of e-mail how many times you got the secret recipe for cookies. Or someone would forward you a message about Bill Gates giving you $100. This is the reason for the website snopes.com, a place that dispels internet rumors. People pass them so fast because it’s impressive. It’s apparently not impressive to have facts on your side, but I digress. Digg and StumbleUpon are full of top Ten lists because aside from other reasons, a top ten list informs. The 19 things you didn’t know about death is one of the more famous examples of a brand using a list to inform, and getting it widely shared.

So there you go. That’s my take on viral.

I should tell you that no one knows what will and what won’t go viral. But I think an important thing to ask yourself is this: why will someone share the content I’ve created? It can’t be because it’s funny. It needs to be funny as hell to compete with the billion other things that are funny. Will Ferrell launched an entire video sharing site that showcases funny as hell stuff.

Will Ferrell (as Alex Trebek, left) and Darrel...
Image via Wikipedia

Winning in funny is hard. So is winning in cute. Winning is surprising is probably easier, as the unexpected still gets people’s attention.

All that said; I’m no expert on viral. I haven’t the slightest idea what will or won’t get shared. I have guesses, but that’s all the above is. My guess. It might be that the thing you create will take the internet by storm. just don’t start off thinking that. Start off by answering one simple question:

What do I want people to do? Then create something that gets them to do it.

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