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blog | April 11, 2016

I’m No Taylor Swift: Lessons Learned from Going Viral

By David Hopkins

Two weeks ago, I went viral. I wrote a snarky little essay about the rise of anti-intellectualism and how a popular TV sitcom might be to blame. Within a few days, over two million people had clicked on the article. It had been shared through various social media channels several hundred thousand times. I knew things were getting a little crazy when an executive from Medium.com (where I posted the essay) emailed me to say, “This is getting a little crazy.” Duly noted.

I received interview requests from multiple podcasters and radio talk show hosts. The essay was translated into three different languages. The Dallas Morning News and the New York Observer both reprinted the essay.

All of this attention is fine and dandy. Nothing much has changed, except my phone buzzes a lot more during the day because I can’t figure out my notification settings. However, it has changed my perspective on work. As a writer for a digital marketing agency, I dreamed about helping my clients “go viral.” But now, I’m not so sure it’s something you can plan for or even something you would want.

What is viral?

To say a meme, video, or blog post has “gone viral” is an appropriate term. The phrase suggests something spreading rapidly through a system—in this case, through social media. You share content and then, even if only five of your friends share it again, it now moves on to all their friends, and then their friends’ friends, and so on. At a certain point, the sharing hits a critical mass, and it takes on a life of its own, spreading far and wide without much effort. The content is just out there, bouncing around and around.

Here are a few things I learned from the experience:

1. The headline is everything

I admit “How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization” is a clickbait headline through and through. Clickbait is intentionally sensational or provocative, tempting you to click and find out more. It’s vague. Which TV sitcom? (Friends.) How did it cripple our society? (Promotes an anti-intellectual agenda.)  Is the author for real? (Uh, maybe?)

Be careful though. Clickbait can be annoying to readers. I don’t know about you, but I’m done with headlines that contain the clickbait phrase: “and you won’t believe what happens next!” Actually, I believe I don’t care. The clickbait headline creates an information gap between what we know and what we want to know. The curiosity must be fulfilled in a satisfactory manner. If the content doesn’t deliver, you’ve done more harm than good.

2. Make a bold claim that hits close to home

People want to read something that provides a new prospective on something familiar. It’s not just about being outrageous, but tying it to something the reader cares about. When done right, it’s about connecting to your audience in a meaningful way.

However, if the Internet is to be believed, most people care about four things: cats, Disney princesses, Taylor Swift, and bacon. So, if you have something new to say about one of these topics, you just might go viral. Is it worth dragging your brand through the gutter of animated gifs featuring cats in order to get a little bit of attention? I don’t think so.

3. Be funny

Humor is Internet gold, more valuable than Bitcoin or a Grumpy Cat video. At the same time, humor is a slippery currency. When humor fails, it’s just embarrassing. Nothing is worse than trying to be funny. The fact is a good joke can go horribly wrong if it’s not well delivered.

Humor works best when a person is willing to not take himself seriously. (Exhibit 1: My hero, the Texas Law Hawk.) But it’s more important for you to just sound like yourself. If you can be funny, that’s great. If not, don’t worry about it. Be pleasant, be approachable, be ironic, be kind, but most of all, be genuine.

4. Seize the opportunity

I don’t think “going viral” is a goal to aspire toward. It’s simply too hard to plan. I received a lot of comments on my essay that accused me of going viral on purpose—as if I had a say in the matter. (“You just wrote this because you knew it would be popular.”) Believe me, if I had that sort of power, I’d be the Taylor Swift of digital marketing copywriters. And trust me, I’m no Taylor Swift.

Instead, the goal is to offer something worthwhile, something good and consistent to build your audience naturally, and look for opportunities that come along. But if you do “go viral,” the best advice I can give is this: figure out how to shut down your notification settings. The buzz can be a little annoying.