It Came From Quora: How To Make A Website Go Viral

How do you make something go viral when it's not tech-related? SocialTimes B.J. Mendelson may have an answer ...

Back To The Future Legos

Back To The Future Legos

I don’t know how many of you know who Emerson Spartz is, but he’s smarter than I am. Especially when it comes to viral marketing. There’s not many people I’m comfortable saying that about. Not out of arrogance, mind you, because there certainly are people smarter than me, but I’m very competitive. I want to be the best in my field by a mile. Unfortunately, when it comes to viral marketing, I’m not where I want or need to be. At least publicly. Most people just know me for being the Social Media Is Bullshit guy. That’s nice, but it’s not the whole story. I mean, c’mon, I got  my cat involved with a presidential election! That’s gotta be worth something, right? Right? Hey, where are you going?!

Ok. Ok. Let’s get back on track. In order to get to where I want to be (the top viral marketing guy in the world … I know. I’m so lame), Emerson recommended I spend some time on Quora learning everything I can about the stuff I don’t know. Not a lot of you probably use Quora, but you should. It’s a great resource, there’s not a lot of stupidity on there, and you can learn quite a bit. Plus hey, you might run into me answering questions about viral marketing and virality. Because of course … that’s what I do with myself on a beautiful Saturday afternoon instead of interacting with nature. Hey, the same can be said for you. Why the hell are you reading this right now? Go use Instapaper and read this later. Like on a bus or something. That’s what I do. Ah Instapaper, how would I survive my bus rides to NYC without you?

I don’t know if we’ll make this a regular feature at SocialTimes, but here’s the answer I wrote to a question concerning how to make a “non-techie customer focus” website go viral. Enjoy!


You can make anything viral, it doesn’t have to be tech-focused at all. The trick, more or less comes, down to making sure a lot of things click at once. This is more difficult than anyone will ever admit, but it’s also not as impossible as some viral experts have claimed. I’m a believer that good organization overcomes chaos every time. I learned that while I was promoting sold out concerts across the East Coast when I was eighteen-years-old. When you book concerts, anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so you have to be prepared. The same is true for making things go viral. If you’re prepared for chaos, you can overcome it.

So …

Step 1 and 2: The idea / product / website / whatever has to be easy to use (we’ll just call it the product from now on), easy to understand, and easy to share. My philosophy is borrowed from Einstein on this one: Is the website so easy to understand, use, and share that my grandmother would understand it? If so, you’ve done your job. If not, work on this until she can get it. Both of my grandmothers were very smart, my Dad too. But, for example, trying to explain to my Dad the benefits of using the XBox 360 to use Netflix over his in-television smart app is like trying to explain an alien technology to a caveman. You need to overcome that hurdle first and explain the benefits to him (a better user experience) in a way he understands. THEN you have to make him excited about it. Otherwise he may know what the benefits are and not care because the television remote is the default setting for how he has always used a TV. That’s step two. Step two is reaaaaaaaaaly important but often overlooked. Why would you act on something, or share it, if you don’t care about it? Find a way to make them care. I wish I could be more specific, but every product is different. That answer has to come from you and your team. Anything I may say is just (questionably) healthy speculation on this front.

(By the way: If you don’t know why someone should care about your product, you’re in a lot of trouble and have more serious concerns than how to make something “go viral”.)

Step 3. Where everyone screws up in making something spread is that the infrastructure around their product usually sucks. This is a huge mistake I made with Social Media Is Bullshit. One we’ll talk about in another post on SocialTimes. But let’s leave describing that mistake at this for now: I didn’t have the infrastructure in place, and it’s taken me over a year to correct that. So, don’t make that mistake. I can make excuses all day (I was getting divorced when the book came out) but it’s a mistake you can’t afford to make in getting things to spread.

The infrastructure is also where the “techy stuff” (see: Growth Hacking) tends to come into play, which is what creates the illusion that something has to be tech-oriented to go viral.  The truth is, virality is mostly an illusion. It’s more P.T. Barnum than Stephen Hawking. Sure there are efforts to quantify it (“viral cycle” and “viral coefficient” chief among them), and those efforts are important to a point, but if you can fake the appearance of virality? Then that other stuff really doesn’t matter. Besides, all you really need to know about viral coefficient and viral cycle is this: You want people to convert on whatever it is you want them to convert on as quickly as possible. That’s viral cycle in its most basic sense. The faster they convert, the more likely they are to have a good experience they will tell others about. Viral coefficient, again in a very basic sense, is the probability that someone is going to pass something on. So if you follow step one and two, and you make the experience of them converting on whatever it is you want them to exciting, the higher the probability is that they’ll tell someone about it. If you make it especially easy for them to invite others (like importing their address book and making it take just a single click to notify their friends) you up that probability further.

(Massive pet peeve of mine: The concept that maximizing both the viral cycle time and viral coefficient is something “only developers can do”. This is total BS, and part of the magical thinking we’re going to talk about momentarily. This is a team effort, the second you start siloing who does what in your organization and cutting off the flow of information, you lose! In other words, you can’t properly prepare for chaos because you simply don’t have all the information you need to do so. So, please, if you believe growth hacking / viral marketing is something strictly in the domain of developers, stop. That’s arrogance born out of Silicon Valley. Don’t believe it.)

A lot of large corporations don’t really bother with stuff like viral coefficients and viral cycles, they just pretend they have a viral product and let the herd mentality of lazy journalists looking for page views say that it’s viral for them. The large corporations do this by paying for sockpuppets, fake comments, fake likes, fake views, and fake upvotes on Reddit. You may think these things are easily detected, but they’re not. Not if you do it right. (P.S. Using fake accounts to pretend a site is more popular than it looks is actually how Reddit grew in its early days.)

But if you don’t have that kind of budget, you have to use what you have to its fullest, meaning the infrastructure has to be in place and operational once you’ve got the viral qualities figured out from step one and two.

Roads? Where We’re Going … We Don’t Need Roads

Infrastructure here refers to your address book, your local media outlets and contacts at them, your local networks (colleges, church groups, high schools, your place of work, fellow startups), anything having to do with your ability to reach “other people”. Some people call this a “platform”, but that term is stupid and misleading because it puts the emphasis on the medium and not the message or person. (Think: “You gotta be on Twitter” versus “You gotta find the right people in your demographic to talk with on Twitter, if they even use Twitter at all”. One of those statements is correct, the other statement I just wrote an entire book on how BS it is.) You gotta figure out who in those groups I mentioned you can coordinate with and know you can get them to share X (whatever X is) at a specific time and place.

(How do you build up those contacts? Easy: Don’t be a dick, be a human, get off the computer, and network like crazy. If you network without being a dick and don’t approach people with that lousy “What can you do for me?” mentality, you’ll do just fine.)

Once you’ve got that all sorted, and your product is ready, you launch in a coordinated fashion with all those parties and resources working to their fullest (including media coverage). And if you did everything right, the product will start to spread … slowly.

What?  Did you think this was going to be fast? Sorry. No magical thinking here. Facebook? Hotmail. Yes they made a lot of smart moves, but don’t think for a second that the product grew almost entirely though online means. Facebook, Hotmail, and numerous others had access to well-connected OFFLINE networks (former Apple employees, Harvard students, Stanford University alumni, ect.) Without those networks there would be no viral success story for them and many others to brag about. Those well-connected networks fueled the growth of the product online. Without those networks? It’s a slow process.

It’s also a slow process if you don’t spend any money. (More magical thinking: “We don’t have to spend any money on advertising.” Yeah. You do in most cases.)

The reality is, if you’re launching a product, you’re going to have to launch and launch again, meaning once you’ve launched in your area, it’s time to expand outward into the next area, and then the next area after that.

YES, it is possible that your product starts to spread on its own, but you have to keep pushing it out because the probability of an actual viral spread of anything is pretty low (hence, the need to create an illusion that your product is viral in the first place.)

Some of this answer is vague intentionally because what works for me, and what has worked for different projects I’ve worked on, may be totally different for you, your product, and your market. The key for making something spread successfully is to save up money for a limited and coordinated paid advertising campaign, network, and educate yourself when it comes to things like behavioral psychology, copywriting, and PR. That may sound daunting, but I promise you it’s not. Knowing how people think and react, and tweaking your product to meet and exceed those expectations is the key to all of this.

For websites in particular, I recommend experimenting with Unbounce, running Google Adwords to send people to a landing page to capture their info, and then from the landing page send them to your website. Once you’ve got their information, you have that user’s permission to push information to them. (Just don’t be a dick about it.)

Step 4. For now we’re going to skip over how to fake things. What’s important is the timing. Everything you line up and coordinate needs to happen in pretty rapid succession to trigger the numerous algorithms on the Web and to make the (lazy) journalists think there are page views to be had in writing about your product. So once the infrastructure is place, launch should be coordinated carefully and with precision so that everything hits at once. The media writes about you on the same day you email all your contacts, for example. Traditional book publishers do this in the hope of creating a snowball effect. Everything is held until day of launch and then they fire your book out of a cannon. The only problem is that traditional publishers are REALLY BAD at promoting books, so instead of a cannon ball, the cannon is firing confetti. The snowball effect is very much real, and while you can easily fake it, it’s best that you don’t and instead focus on coordination around a single date (preferably with as much lead time as you can afford to get everything in place.)

This is where I used to give SEO advice, but honestly? SEO is so screwed these days that it’s not worth it. If you do the rest of this stuff properly, the SEO will take care of itself (as long as you’re making sure you’re getting inbound links to the right places, of course.)

I hope this helps. Like I said, it’s hard to be too specific without knowing what kind of website we’re talking about here, but this is the gist of making things go viral, or making things look like they’re going viral.

(Photo Credit: Norio.Nakayama on Flickr.)