The myth of viral content and 5 steps to get there

2 Feb

“How do I make content go viral?” Every time I hear this question, I want to scream and shake the person who asks it. If that’s the question you ask, you’re doing it wrong. What you should be asking is: “How do I create something that people value and thus want to share with others? And why would they want to share it?”

This last week, my team and I published this amazing Community Playbook that went absolutely bananas on Slideshare. It was one of a three featured presentations for a number of days, and got over 50,000 views in under a week.  Have a look here:

I knew it was going to do well — otherwise, I wouldn’t have invested so much of my own and others’ time — but this was beyond expectations. It also made me think and analyze precisely how this thing went so viral, so I figured I’d publish my thoughts here. This is by no means a bible of viral content; it’s just my views from my experience.

1. Make something remarkable that can massively help others.

I know it’s hard to imagine, but try to forget your own reasons for making something and ask yourself what others need. I saw a need in community management education for new community managers, lack of understanding of the strategic importance of community management by businesses, and a massive confusion between social media marketing and community building, which continues to hurt our field. I listened for months — if not years — to the questions people were asking and ways in which they fell flat. I also knew I had to scale, because the sheer number of questions I was getting was starting to get out of control. This book was singularly focused on the goal of helping community managers advance their careers and raising the literacy level of our profession — nothing more and nothing less. It was exactly what was needed, with the right dose of inspiration and tangible advice. People needed this, and we gave it to them.

2. Give people a reason to share.

Your content will never go viral if people don’t want to share it. My buddy Angus Nelson said this best: “People share great content because it makes them look ________ (fill in the blank)”. If your content is crap, people won’t read it because it’s crap, and they won’t share it, because they’ll look like crap. The Playbook made people sharing it look well-informed and smart, and I’m sure (or at least I hope!) that it helped many community managers get more support for their initiatives.

Believe it or not, steps #1 and #2 are the easy ones. Here is the hard part.

3. Have a reputation.

This is the hard part. I don’t think the Playbook would’ve done as well as it did if I wasn’t a somewhat recognized practitioner of the subject. I realize that it sounds self-absorbed, but if you are someone people have come to trust, they will be more likely to share it. Again, see #2 — people want to look good by sharing it. What does this mean in practical terms? Release something that’s meaningful to you, that you’re good at, and where you have authority and thought leadership. Your content has to align closely to your craft. You have to work on this for years and you have to start building your brand today if you want to be a viral success tomorrow.

4. Have relationships and involve others.

This is also the hard part. What is not obvious to the success of the Playbook is that I had seeded the table of contents with many people, a few months in advance. A lot of these people are influential in the field of community management, and their endorsement matters. I asked them to provide input and did a quick sanity check. I asked everyone: “What am I missing? Am I completely off base? How would you make it better?” I started talking about it months ahead, and it was a lot of work. Working in the open is also risky, because, what if someone steals your idea? But whatever risk you run is heavily outweighed by the reward you will most certainly get.

When you ask others to participate, they feel closer to the project and will advocate for you. When it was time to publish, I let people know in the backchannel that this was happening, at the same time. People started sharing it, and it quickly got on the “Hot on Twitter” section of SlideShare. From there, it became a Featured Presentation, and the views happened from there. Had I not seeded it, people may have missed it, and without the tightly orchestrated tweet storm, we may not have trended on Slideshare. In most of social content sites, you have to trend with a certain velocity to get lifted to featured status, so timing does matter.

5. Gut check to make sure people still want to read it.

I also seeded it with our customers and our colleagues, for a gut-check and a well-rounded view, so that we could make sure that it was something that would help our customers. It’s so easy to get lost in your own brain in an attempt to codify your knowledge, that you may forget about making your content useful (step #1) and shareable (#2). The week before we published it, I had led my team too far down the rabbit hole, and with sound advice from my colleagues, we were able to tame it back to a manageable size.  I learned a valuable lesson that what you want to publish isn’t necessarily what others want to read. When you think you are done with your content, gut check it against step #1 and #2 and ask others for their opinion. If you don’t like what people say, don’t get hurt and defensive; take it as an opportunity to improve, while also assuring that you are getting good advice from a reputable source.