Darwinian explanation and advice for “Going Viral”

Everyone wants to “go viral” these days. A viral video, blog post, news announcement, who cares so long as it’s viral!

I still can’t stand the phrase, personally. “Dude, we’re going viral tonight.” Sounds like a one-night stand without protection.

Some of my articles have “gone viral,” so I’d like to offer up my own perspective about how to make something viral: The Darwinian Theory of Going Viral.

The common way to describe Darwinian evolution is “survival of the fittest:” Animals compete to acquire food and evade predators, so whichever individuals are more capable than their peers will survive. Over time, successful characteristics are reinforced and unsuccessful ones die off.

For example, in 1848 the peppered moth in England was white with black spots, matching the lichens on the trees they perched on and therefore invisible to hungry birds. A mutation carried by 2% of the population caused the moth to be completely black; they stood out like pimples and the birds had an easy time keeping their population in check.

But once the industrial revolution set in, soot from the new coal-burning factories killed the lichens and turned the tree trunks black. For the moths, black was the new white; now the dark moths blended in and the white-peppered ones became dinner. By 1895, 98% of the moths carried the black-body “mutation” — the genetic incidence had exactly swapped.

Yay, “survival of the fittest.” The temptation now is to make an analogy to “going viral.”

Specifically, when you twitter a link it goes out to your direct followers: That’s the first “generation.” Then some of your followers might retweet it to their followers: The second generation. Instead of competing for food or avoiding predation, you’re competing for attention.

You are “going viral” when the link is “procreating” (being retweeted) more often then dying (not being retweeted).

OK, but so far this analogy is not enlightening.

For real insight, I’ll need to fix my subtly but critically incorrect definition of Darwinian evolution. If you’re a scientifically-minded stickler you’ll have already noticed that “survival of the fittest” isn’t quite accurate.

To see why, consider a horse and a donkey very much in love, star-crossed lovers who just can’t conform to a society that says separate species shouldn’t mate. Or marry. So they do (mate) and produce a mule. Mules have a combination of attributes from each parent, but most importantly for our purposes, a mule is sterile.

The problem from an evolutionary point of view is that the mule can’t transmit its characteristics to the next generation. It doesn’t matter if the mule survives, gets food, avoids predators, plays Parcheesi, gets a B+ in vector calculus, and whatever else you’d consider “fitness” — if you can’t make more babies, you’re a genetic dead end.

Mule  ==  Evolution Fail

To fix our definition, we realize that for success “fittest children” is not enough; rather we need “children who can themselves make the fittest children.” Involving the grandchildren ensures there’s a “chain reaction” of fitness, not a one-off fitness.

So here’s the insight into building a viral message: It’s not enough for the message to be interesting to your direct followers (children), it needs to be something your followers would be interested in repeating (grandchildren).

If you think about it, this is exactly the principle behind the chain-letter of yesteryear — the original “viral” message. They were successful not because you sent the letter to ten other people, but because the letter you sent requires the recipients to do the same.

How does this affect how you try to get a message to go viral? The message itself needs to suggest retransmission.

The simplest way to do this is to simply ask for retransmission in the message. For example, don’t just tweet this:

Instead, specifically ask for the retweet:

This sounds so trivial, but remember that most people retweet by copying/pasting a message and adding “RT @someone” at the front (or they use a Twitter client that does the same in one click), which means the retweet will also contain the plea for a retweet.

In fact, you need to think another step ahead. If the original tweet is 135 characters long, prepending “RT @someone” sends the message past the 140-character maximum. Some people might not bother to send it, or they might remove something critical from the message that makes it less effective. Therefore, keep the original message below 120 characters to leave room for the RT.

Here’s a different example, this time with email. If you want to promote the 1.0 release of your new software, you might entreat your friends and family for promotion with an email like this:

Dear Frank,

I just released v1.0! Aren’t you happy for me? It would mean a lot to me if you could tell everyone you know and help me kick-start this. I’ll buy you a beer or something! Okaythxbye.

The problem is that you’ve just given Frank a lot of work to do. Should Frank send a twit? If so, what should it say, and how will he say it briefly? Do you think Frank will come up with a pithy, fun, intriguing 140 characters? How much time do you think Frank is willing to put into this? Are you sure Frank is even sober?

Instead, help Frank. Tear down every barrier he has for retransmission. Do the thinking for him.

Dear Frank,

I just released v1.0! I would be forever grateful if you took just 60 seconds of your time to help me spread the word.

Here’s a Twitter message you could use:

[Cool Tool, plz R/T!] Find out who’s talking about your blog! http://LinksFor.Us

Or if you wouldn’t mind sending an email to your friends or a LinkedIn message, here’s some text you could use:

Hi! My friend Jason just released a new, free service for bloggers that shows who is talking about or linking to your blog posts. Thought you’d enjoy:  http://LinksFor.Us

Anyway, thanks in advance for helping me spread the word! I’ll buy you a beer.

In the end, though, I have to admit that when my posts have gone viral it wasn’t because of these techniques!

Rather, they went viral because a lot of people found the content genuinely useful or entertaining or inspiring, or hopefully all of the above.

Seth Godin put it nicely:

Being noticed is not the same as being remarkable. Running down the street naked will get you noticed, but it won’t accomplish much. … If you put it on a T-shirt, would people wear it?

You can see this in the list of most popular YouTube videos — the most viral of them all. As of this writing, not a single one is a result of a company trying to push a product or service (except music videos). People spread these not because of a carefully crafted campaign, but because they just plain liked it.

So the #1 best rule is: Have overwhelmingly awesome content. So good that people intrinsically want to spread the word. But then of course you might as well also be smart about how you help them spread the message.

What’s the mechanistic formula for generating incredible, remarkable content? Ha ha, let me know when you find one.

What are your tips?
Join the conversation and leave a comment.

12 responses to “Darwinian explanation and advice for “Going Viral””

  1. Good point. I’ve had a post and a campaign or two go viral, and I never think about them that way. I don’t always succeed, but I try to think of these things when I push out anything via social media:

    "What can I give my followers that will allow them to empower their followers?"

    "How can I make it as easy as possible for people to spread this?" The more work you put into it to make it easy, the more it will spread. That includes improving your writing skills to make it what you are saying easy for people to understand.

    If you have something of value, it is selfish to keep it for yourself. If you just want something to "go viral" for your own selfish game, it probably won’t work. It’s amazing how that works over and and over and over.

    Hope this helps people. Have a good week!

  2. Interesting take on content Darwinism, Jason.

    It’s all about creating quality content. No, let me rephrase that, is about creating WOW content, the kind of stuff people read and go WOW this is cool, I’m sure so and so would love to read this too.

    The challenge for us is not how to create that single post that will become viral but how to keep doing it enough times so that it becomes a virtuous cycle of people checking our content out, tweeting, retweeting, commenting, etc so much it takes a life of its own.

    In the end, we don’t want to be known as a one-hit-wonder of the web, right?


  3. This book http://howtraditionworks.com/ sets up a really nice theoretical framework for meme transmission (or whatever you want to call it). It’s dense and academic but very interesting and well worth the effort if you want to learn about the 10th century monastic equivalent of "plz RT".

  4. Viral facilitation I think works best when it’s novel and hasn’t been yet deconstructed by social media. Key there is if the method is actually valid, keep it a secret as long as possible!

    Take the "you should follow me on twitter here" meme. If I see that now, all I can think is that person is imitating Dustin Curtis. The only saving point would be if that person actually had meaningful things to say.

    Which brings me to awesome content. Is awesome content generally created specifically to be awesome or does content become awesome as more people share it?

  5. If your Twitter followers list is small or consists of mostly novice Twitter users "Plz RT" may fail also. In this case, you need more children, including people who demonstrably understand social media tools like Twitter. However, if you construct your tweet with well-known hashtags, your children pool can be a lot larger. You still have to have remarkable content to get the retweets, but hashtags can form a bridge from your Twitter island to the mainland.

    The best hashtags to use vary by topic, so use Twitter search to find people using hashtags in your subject area. If all else fails, consider: #protip, #deal, or #humor. They will get you eyeballs, but the noise is pretty high on those channels, so try to find better, more specific tags that people are using.

  6. Interesting post, but it was a rather circuitous way to restate the axiom "Content is King"

    Everyone Please Respond to my comment and tell your friends to do the same!

  7. @Michelle — I like your phrase better: "Empowering" their followers. More than just "is interesting to."

    @Daniel — Yeah, "wow" is better put than "awesome." Some people I think would settle for one-hit wonders though. Better than total obscurity? Dunno… for me it’s better to have 1000 readers with great conversations in the comments section than 100K readers who all comment "That’s great."

    @Jung — If an awesome Tweet goes out in the forest and no one sees it, is it less awesome? I don’t think so — I agree it’s nice to see it spread but e.g. a poem’s beauty is not dependent on the quantity of readers.

    @Brandon — Nice tip about hashtags!

    @JohnFx — Yes but it still does make a difference to use some of these techniques or at least think about REtransmission. It helps especially if the post isn’t "super-viral."

  8. I have a video that I made with 5 seconds clips of me juggling in various foreign locations. The things such as fire, sharks, scenery etc make it interesting.(I think) Your article assumed you already have some sort of following. What if your following is not the well-connected type? They use some e-mail, no twitter and no social networking. You certainly don’t want to be the guy running down the street naked, showing the video, but you also think it’s something cool other would appreciate.

    A local station enjoyed the video and had me on their news station, but there were very few hits on the video from the program. So either the content is no good as you suggested or proper people have not been reached. Assuming it is the later and you aren’t connected to well connected people, where do you tell people about your video? According to the above comments, you don’t reveal this so as to keep it a secret. Otherwise everone would do it.

    Now in a totally self-serving comment, here’s the link. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Juggling Video:

    Fox News Interview:
    Juggling Joey

  9. Hi…

    Any train model collectors here?

    My granddad left me with old lionel model trains 027 & O Scale engines #5651945 set and I’m not sure how much its worth.

    The motor also needs some repair. Has anyone used these lionel trains manuals before? I need help in valuation and repair of this old set as I dont know what to do with it.

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