Coaxing Virality

Post here from the perennially provocative Marta Kagan, distilled with significant loss of charming snarkyness to this:

I’ve said it before—and I’ll probably have to say it a zillion times again before anyone listens: YOU CAN’T CREATE “VIRAL.”

Got me thinking… Is that right? She added a list of things that contribute to virality:

  1. Value
  2. Fun
  3. Creativity
  4. Timing
  5. Distribution
  6. Magical pixie dust

Good list… but are there more? Here’s my list of Other Things That Increase The Likelihood of Virality:

  • Celebrity. The playing field isn’t level among people who create viral content. Generally speaking, famous people have an easier time creating famous content. George Clooney’s output is more likely to become viral than Robert Scoble’s, whose is more likely than mine, whose is more likely than my Aunt Lala’s. If you buy that, and expect that making something viral might be useful down the road, then you should be investing the time and energy to cultivate and maintain some level of personal visibility on the web. While fame is a long shot, if you can at least get a large network of people interested in what you have to say, you’ll increase your odds of getting the word out when you need to.
  • Proximity. Too lazy, dumb, or time-pressed to get a large number of people to be interested in what you have to say? You, my friend, need to get closer to the People Who Matter. The good news is that if Steve Rubel LOVES your whatever it might become famous among persons of a certain archetype. The bad news is you need to cut through the clutter of the thousand or so other schmucks competing for his affection.
  • Tenacity. You either hit or you don’t, right? Bullshit. How many “Will It Blend?‘s” were there before that thing went nuclear? LONELYGIRL15 took a long time to build her following, as did Zefrank, Fake Steve Jobs and others. While it’s true that some things come out of nowhere and are everywhere suddenly, just as many others bide their time in the woodwork before being ignited by something they might never have anticipated at the start.
  • Scarcity. Think about this: Would Evolution of Dance be the 2nd most viewed video on YouTube if it were added today? NFW. It went viral because in the vacuum of genuinely entertaining stuff that was on YouTube when it emerged from the primordial ooze in April of 2006, it was the thing to watch. Every new service launch creates the potential for a breakout, viral event. Blogging did it for Doc Searls, MySpace did it for Tila Tequila, Twitter did it for Pistachio. All of these people have something to add (two of them, anyway,) but so do lots of other folks. They offered something of value in an emergent context, and rode the wave of that new “medium” to become viral “brands” in their own right. If you want to go viral, you need to be among the first to try new media as they emerge.
  • Humanity. Finally, it seems to me that most of the stuff that goes viral touches something fundamental in us. It’s not intellectual, or well crafted; it’s rarely overproduced, or requiring of special skills. It’s something universal, something anyone anywhere can easily grasp, appreciate, and want to pass along to someone they care about. At it’s most base it might be toilet humor or a great rack (had fun considering a link for that, thought the better of it…). At it’s most elevated, though, it’s something that gets under the stuff that makes us different, and touches the things that make us all the same.

So what am I missing? If you can’t make something viral, what else can you do to improve your odds?


4 Responses to Coaxing Virality

  1. I respectfully disagree – in moderation – with a link to The Feed Company at and its CEO Josh Warner, whose Adweek interview is on their site here: Commercial viral videos are helped along by a variety of techniques. The most common is simply a digital version of representing the content to social media gatekeepers in order to attain “featured” placements. It’s not PR, though it comes close. I like to compare it to being a rock band manager. It’s the Ruben Kincaid Effect. Your “viral” video is The Partridge Family. They need to play a bunch of gigs in far off towns to gain a toehold with a disinterested audience via a limited number of venues. So, Ruben calls the booking agent. He needs to give away a free sample in the form of a demo tape. And if they agent finds the Partridge’s content to be compatible with his “editorial vision” for his audience, then he puts the band on the bill. By virtue of being given such high-profile placement, the Partridge Family “goes viral.” (Yes, I made that up myself.)

  2. miketrap says:

    Interesting, and great link. Not sure we’re at odds, though… Isn’t this leveraging “proximity” to a third party gatekeeper to improve the odds of viral adoption?

  3. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks for the mention. (Though you might take the spare ‘e’ out of Searls.)

    I don’t think I’ve ever been viral, in any meaning of the term. I think Cluetrain has been very viral, however. Still is, in fact.

    Cluetrain came out in spring of 1999. I started blogging that fall. That was still on the early side for blogging, but well after the Cluetrain website achieved notoriety.

    A measure: my emails went from almost none to dozens and then hundreds per day, as I recall, after Cluetrain went up. Or, more specifically, after the Wall Street Journal covered it. Yes, it did help to have that mainstream media attention.

    Bonus link:



  4. miketrap says:

    Wow. To be honest it’s kind of an honor to get a comment from you, thanks for stopping by.

    Apologies for the typo (fixed)… As for the substance of your comment, I agree that Cluetrain accounts for some of your early success, but with all modesty you’ll have to admit that the quality of your blog output relative to the other stuff that was available back then contributed to your current place in the head of the blogging power curve. You might say it boosted blogging as a whole, relative to a lot of the shallower or biased stuff that was available from “professional” media.

    I was a skeptic back then, still am sometimes. Ironic we “meet” here, in my own blog.

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