I’m not being modest when I say that my online activities make a very small impact when pit against the celebrities, the shocking wardrobe malfunctions, hoverboards, and first-round takedowns found in this mad, mad, mad, mad internet world of ours. And while it has never been my goal to achieve celebrity status, or amass a global following of loyal fans who will share, like, and retweet my every waking word (the only people who fit that description are my mother and sometimes my wife), I can’t deny that fleeting sense of elation when I see the view count for one of my blog posts spike for the first couple of days, then steadily crawl for the rest of the month. “I need to do this more often!” I tell myself. Delusions of grandeur sneak their way through the back of my mind, and I envision myself being featured on some late night talk show or something.
But then, I also can’t deny the equally proportionate depression when I see that the post is no longer trending among my small online network. “This was a dumb idea,” I groan to myself, “I’m not cut out for this.”
So, when my boss issued the company a challenge to produce something that can go viral, I was doubtful of any real success. What does it mean to go viral anyway? Is it 100 shares? 1,000? Nevertheless, I decided to throw my hat into the ring, and see what I could produce. My decision led me back to my roots: making silly amateur home movies with my cousin.
Although the video is only a couple days old (archaic by internet standards), and is anything but viral (which adjective I now realize means something can spread with the same speed and breadth as a virus like the Bubonic Plague. Kind of a nasty comparison, if you ask me), I did learn some important lessons about engaging with a large online audience.
1. Do Lots of Research, or None at All
I’m not saying everyone who creates something viral is necessarily some kind of marketing savant (though some of them assuredly are), but viral material breaks down into two main camps: 1) Premeditated and 2) Spontaneous. The premeditated camp includes blog posts, listicles, visticles (that’s video-list-articles like mine), and everything you’d find on BuzzFeed. It’s the result of hours of market trend analysis, punchy writing, and appropriate doses of humor, satire, or pathos. It takes a different approach to normal, everyday occurrences, and is visually digestible. It’s tight, neat, and makes you automatically think of at least one other person who has got to see this!
The spontaneous camp, meanwhile, represents almost none of that – except that very last point: it makes you think of at least one other person who has got to see it. It’s incredibly candid, probably involves a celebrity, and is either hilarious, shocking, disgusting, or downright confusing. Either way, it has your attention, and is not only not letting go, but will compel you to make others watch.
So, you can see my dilemma: I either dedicate a master thesis’s worth of research to produce something awesome, or I just sit and wait to capture the proverbial meteor falling from the sky on my smartphone camera. If you watched the video, it is clear that I did neither of those things. I at least had a rudimentary script, some props, and employed the free video editing app on my phone to its fullest capacity.
2. You Need Help. Man, Do You Need Help.
As I mentioned before, my following isn’t exactly at Taylor Swift proportions. I have like 400 Facebook friends, 19 Twitter followers, don’t even get me started on Google+, whatever that is supposed to be, and a handful of people that subscribe to this blog. The first rule of the contest was “no boosted or paid advertising,” meaning that all the shares needed to be organic. Word of mouth.
I honestly felt like I was doing a political campaign. Only, instead of asking people for their money or their vote, I was asking them to click a link and share it on their Facebook page. Outside of threats and bribes, I fired every channel I could think of, personal-messaging everyone I could think of who owed me small favors, promising everyone that the two minutes they’d spend on my video would be worth the share. I must have refreshed the webpage about 2,400 times to see if the share number had risen at all.
After the first 12 hours, I had hit over 100 shares, which by my standards, was monumental. But despite the accomplishment, I couldn’t help feeling that making something like this viral shouldn’t have been that much work. But maybe it should have been for someone like me.
3. Try. Fail. Try Again. Fail Better.
Samuel Beckett was on to something when he wrote that. I think he was specifically talking about creating viral videos. The relative (ly small) success of my short video has made me both excited and terrified. Of course I’m going to learn from my mistakes and try again. Perhaps that makes me no better than the desperate gambler sitting at the slots with a slowing depleting cup of quarters. But if my lifelong goal to entertain and inform requires me to take some chances now and then, I think I can handle it.
Here’s to hoping the rest of you can too.