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What it feels like when a post goes viral

viralHere’s what I learned when last Monday’s writing tips post went viral: smart people stick to their goals in the middle of a viral storm. I’ll tell you what happened, what it felt like, and what I learned.

Let’s start with what I’m trying to do here. When I started this blog, my goals were, in order of importance:

  1. Develop and test content that is part of larger whole (eventually, a book)
  2. Build a reputation as a worthwhile thinker about content and writing.
  3. Build an audience.
  4. Generate a little consulting revenue in the process.

By blogging every weekday since I launched in late March, I expected to slowly and steadily build content and audience.

By May 3, I had posted 34 times and generated 12,000 views. Between 200 to 600 people visited the site each day. May 4 started in the same way, with a single post collecting all my writing tips. To stand out from others’ similar posts, I added a twist: my perspective on why intelligent people persist in poor writing habits. I used Google Docs to build a simple summary-table graphic.

Much to my surprise, that post generated over 220,000 views in a week. I was amazed at this, exhilarated to see the traffic, excited that my ideas were helping people, and terrified that I would somehow mess up and fail to capitalize on the opportunity.

Here’s what I learned.

Advice on creating viral posts is bullshit. 

The average post has a one-in-a-million chance of getting this level of traffic. If you follow people’s advice on creating viral posts, you could increase your chances — to one-in-one-thousand. As Lee Odden says, “for the vast majority of people, this is simply never going to happen.” Create useful content, keep it short and pointed, add a bit of humor, and include a graphic. You’ll serve your readers and increase your hit rate, but don’t get your hopes up.

If your only objective is to create viral content, then just write headlines like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, reference current news, and include stupid videos. This will maximize the chances that thousands of people you’ve never met will learn that you are an idiot. If that’s not your objective, concentrate on being useful, not viral.

Viral posts spread slowly and unpredictably.

Kim Kardashian’s butt photos spread at the speed of light. My post didn’t. As you can see from this snapshot of my blog traffic, even popular posts grow over a period of days.

wobs viral traffic

By noon on May 4, day 1, I knew I had published my most popular post ever with 6,000 views. I was surprised to see traffic nearly quadruple on day 2 and nearly double again on day 3. When traffic continued to grow on day 4 to a high exceeding 56,000 views (highlighted on this chart in orange), I predicted more growth on day 5 — and was wrong again. When you’re inside the tornado there is no way to predict what direction it’s going.

You need a host you can depend on.

I hired Jim Spencer from JBS Partners to help launch this blog for two reasons: 1) he combined WordPress skills and hosting and 2) I wanted a hosting partner I could talk to. When the traffic began to build, he emailed me and we adjusted the hosting package to maintain performance. You can save money with a faceless hosting company, but you might regret it if they desert you right at the moment you need them most.

Facebook drives viral growth.

I had launched the post as I usually did — with a series of timed tweets and a single Facebook post. I name-checked Jeremiah Owyang on Facebook for suggesting the post. I also cross-posted on Linked In, as I typically do for substantive posts like this. I use a bit.ly link to track how well my promotional efforts are working.

As I write this, the writing tips post has 223,002 views. Bit.ly reports that 8,571 of them were people clicking on links that I promoted on Facebook and Twitter. LinkedIn shows 514 views of my post there. But the share buttons at the bottom of my post tell the story: over 20,000 people shared it on Facebook compared to 1,000 each on Twitter and Linked In. While I could see the tweets, I couldn’t see the Facebook shares outside my circle of friends. But the Referrers page shows how much Facebook drove the growth. The spark on Facebook was when Jeremiah posted there for his large following.

wobs referrers


Make mid-viral corrections carefully.

As I watched the traffic on the viral post shoot skyward, I was delighted. But what should I do to maximize the value to the blog? I could have immediately attempted to monetize traffic by adding AdSense ads, inserting a pop-up to capture subscribers, or promoting consulting, but those actions would have been incompatible with my goals. However, I noticed that traffic to my other posts was not expanding in step with the viral post. So I did the following:

  1. I asked my hosting and development partner Jim to put a subscribe link at the bottom of each post. After that, blog subscribers began to climb much faster.
  2. I added links to related posts at the bottom of my original post (in addition to the three auto-generated links that normally appeared there). Traffic to all those posts increased significantly, reinforcing my broader ideas with my new friends.
  3. I updated the graphic with a subtle hint to subscribe to bernoff.com (the PG version of my blog’s URL) for daily tips. Now, when the graphic spreads and people print it out, they get a reminder to come back.

What did I do to expand the viral reach? Nothing. The post spread because it was useful, and because the social Internet spreads useful stuff. I saw neither any method nor any need to affect the trajectory.

My post generated two promising consulting leads, five inappropriate leads (no, I don’t edit law-school admissions essays), a whole lot of valuable comments and emails, and raw material for a post on writing in academia that’s now my second-most-popular post. I’ve advanced my objectives without alienating my audience.

If I never replicate this experience, you might think I’ve squandered this opportunity. But I’m confident — probably overconfident — that despite the odds, I can do this again. I’d rather get a reputation for consistently useful content than rush in to monetize a single post and alienate my audience.

Photo: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr

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  1. In my experience, it is very hard to predict which posts will gain momentum (and the flip side – some of the ones you’re SURE will be popular fall flat). One simple way to capitalize on great content – post an identical or similar post on LinkedIn Pulse (if you’re a Premium member), and be sure to link back to your blog.

    1. Steve, I think trying to get a post to spread is like trying to hit a home run — you’re very likely to fail. Instead, try to hit a solid single. You’ll still fail 3 times our of 4, but sometimes that single just keeps going . . . .

  2. Congrats on the post success Josh and thank you for the analysis. I think some of the most valuable things shared are your clarity of purpose and focus on usefulness.

    The value of a really high quality experience with 1 visit is far more valuable than 100 social media drive bys. I appreciate that you get that.

    One of the great things about content that resonates is the insight from data that you can use to inspire repurposing or extension of the theme – or even the format of the post applied to other topics.

  3. I agree with your approach; I’ve learned it does take persistence and patience, however. But, short-term monetizing is short-sighted, especially when you’re dealing with an academic audience.

  4. Finally a sane post on Viral. Grats on the post success.

    What would be nice is to have a follow up in 2-3 weeks to show:

    Increase in blog subscribers.
    Did your average daily traffic increase for your blog or did it go back down to pre-hit numbers?
    Did you gain any customers from it?

    That is how I would judge true success.

    Content marketing is meant for converting leads who already know who you are vs lead generation via SEO/Social because for SEO AdWords will kick CM’s butt in terms of speed, cost, ROI etc. And social as you said is a crap shoot. Winning Lotto is kind of easier. But Viral is part of discovery and this the content has to convert new visitors to come back for more.

    Good luck!

  5. I had a post go viral last October from out of the blue. My sister and I had barely started the blog and I threw up a picture I found on Facebook with directions on how to make roses from leaves. I had 300,000 views in a week and then it died down.
    Now I notice the views are starting to climb again and I am hopeful every season it will produce these results!
    I love what you said about writing for your audience. I have added a few things to the post: a video, other DIY with leaves, etc and I already had the newsletter sign up and ads in place.
    It is nice to read your facts and be reminded that I’m sharing for a bigger purpose than this one post.