It was approaching midnight when the phone rang. Usually, one of two things go through your mind when someone calls that late: "Who died?" or "Do I have enough to make bail?" I was wasn't so lucky. It was a television show host I was working for, calling from a hotel room somewhere deep in the heart of America. They had an idea. "We're going to make this campaign go viral! What do you think?" I said the idea was terrible and went to bed.
You don't need to be Miss Cleo to know how the campaign ended; however, there's an important lesson for those new to social media: How does something really spread?
Thankfully, there's a paint by number formula to answer that:
Step 1: Create something funny or informative. It used to be in the form of text, now it's almost exclusively video. This material has to be good. So good, your friends like it enough to comfortably share it. If you stop promoting here, your prospects will taper off because we can only know so many people willing to share your material. (150).
As a tip: You can measure if something is truly viral if it spreads into the real world. Usually when that happens it's watered down and / or no longer funny. So be warned. Example: Everyone at work using "Fail" in regular conversation.
Step 2: Then, through a variety of ways, but most notably through Digg's upcoming section, you and your friends promote the item. You need about thirty friends, the more the better, to help vote for the item. Unless you bring in the votes, nothing is going to move on Digg under their current system.
The point of submitting to Digg and having your friends vote isn't to get on Digg's front page. The point is to keep your item visible for websites who pull content off Digg. There are many who do this and twice that of people who find rising items to submit to these sites. And increasingly, to their own followers on Twitter. In turn, there are larger websites who monitor these smaller websites and pull the content from them.
That's why you often see the same stuff posted online. It's rarely if ever viral, people are just pulling material from the same source.
Step 3: With luck, you can make these feeder websites and that's where the content begins to legitimately spread. Why? Credibility. From here, the material might make the Digg front page, a celebrity might talk about it, or a mention on a national media outlet may occur, which is where the item then translates into something mainstream.
Doubt it? If I told you something was funny, only a few of you would take my word for it. If George Carlin told you something was funny, you would all take his word for it.
We trust George Carlin. We trust the celebrity. We trust the national media outlet and their blog. We don't trust random, unknown bloggers or Twitter users that no one has heard of.
That second step is often glossed over or totally ignored by social media "experts" but it is critical. No matter how great your material is, and it better be contagious, you need to make it visible and allow for others to feature it. This lends your item credibility and allows for it to spread legitimately.
If all else fails, buy your way to success. A lot of deep pocketed marketers have figured out they can buy access to these web sites and have them feature their content, inflating their view counts and creating the "illusion" of viral success.
Don't buy the hype or the books. This is something anyone with a motivated group of friends and good material can do.
Brandon Mendelson is the author of the wannabe viral sensation, Dracula And Kittens. When not desecrating public domain masterpieces, Brandon can be found blogging about social publishing, whatever that is, on Soap Box Included.