Going Viral: A User's Guide

My guest blogger this week is David Gaughran, author of Amazon Decoded, Bookbub Ads Expert, and all-around expert on author marketing. This piece originally appeared in his newsletter, normally exclusive to those on his mailing list, but he graciously allowed me to reprint it here. David will be a presenter this year at WriterCon. If you’d like to register for his newsletter, click the link at the end of the essay.

Going Viral: A User’s Guide

Nobody knows what truly causes something to go viral.
Sure, afterwards, we can all point to something — with the benefit of hindsight — and list off elements which contributed to the explosion in sharing: it had a cute dog bouncing on a trampoline, it had just the right amount of indignation, it was funny, there was a well chosen emoji, it was topical, it tapped into some lingering but unspoken resentment about a hot button issue… that list could go on forever.
Trying to assemble a Franken-thing that ticks all those boxes will quickly show you that this retrospective diagnosis is missing something — the X-factor that makes one thing go viral and another thing, which was very like it (or even superior in many ways), do the opposite.
This is not going to tell you what that X-factor is. I’m not even sure anyone can answer that with total confidence. If you had to push me, I’d say it’s probably luck, as long as we allow timing to share luck’s umbrella.
If you think that’s a dodge, wait for this: it doesn’t matter.
Going viral has less value than you think. Unless you are actually interested in celebrity rather than building something more meaningful, then it often has very little lasting value at all. For me at least, I’m a million times more interested in money than fame. If it was an actual choice, I wouldn’t have to think about it at all — give me the bag of gold and I’ll be a happy hermit.
This might surprise anyone who hasn’t gone viral. Let me share some experiences.
A close friend of mine went viral last week after posting something to Facebook. Her personal page too, not her business or author page. It wasn’t a new release announcement or ad. It wasn’t anything that was going to put money in her pocket or promote or books or company in any way. It was a funny post, but with an underlying serious message that obviously resonated with a lot of people because it got something like 10,000 Facebook shares. That’s a lot of eyeballs on a post that might otherwise have been seen by a couple of dozen or a couple of hundred people.
The first thing you should realize about something like this is that you can’t choose what goes viral. You might prefer it to be something which would provide more tangible benefit — like maybe something that had a link to one of your books — but you can’t choose what goes viral.
(I should note that these things genuinely can have real value which transcends grubby monetary concerns, and I know that my friend both enjoyed the experience in itself, and was also deeply touched by how that post made so many people feel, but we’re strictly talking about business and marketing stuff here, not the emotions of puny hoo-mans.)
And if you start pumping out stuff that is designed to go viral, you just end up turning into a clickbait publisher, telling people 7 Reasons For This and How To Do That and pretty soon you are just regurgitating the historically common elements in viral posts in an empty and robotic way, and your site descends into slideshows of desperation.
You can’t choose what goes viral. You can’t make something go viral. And you shouldn’t care either. More personal experience:
I’ve gone “viral” a few times. Not like meme-ing my way to an appearance on Ellen, or being shared by George Takei, but my old Wordpress site was officially certified as “Stephen Fry-proof” which was a jokey designation if you were able to handle a sudden, unexpected, and massive spike of traffic, as if you had just been tweeted by Stephen Fry.
(In case you don’t know, he’s an English comedian/actor/writer with over 12m Twitter followers who is known for covering a remarkably broad range of issues on his feed, and high engagement too.)
In my case, I was actually tweeted by Stephen Fry, so it was literal. I think I had 40,000 visitors in an hour or something insane like that. Luckily, I wasn’t self-hosted at that point or I could have fried my servers (and my pricing plan!). But the good people at Wordpress.com had systems in place to handle viral outbreaks like this and cycle in beefier servers, so the site was able to stay online with barely a burp.
Honestly, the first time it happens it’s a huge rush. You are refreshing the numbers every ten seconds, watching them climb and climb and CLIMB. And, of course, because the brain often needs to be treated as a hostile witness, you start thinking, “Maybe I’ve finally made it!” or some such nonsense.
I should note that, unlike my friend’s example above, this actually was a blog post that was totally nailed on for my audience, so it was natural to think that the traffic surge would be comprised of people I could potentially sell books to, or at least maybe get blog sign-ups or Twitter followers, or email subscriptions.
But none of that really happens, not in meaningful numbers.
The first time, I blamed myself. I reorganized my website. I changed up my book links. I made my blog subscription more prominent. Tried to clean up my act and sharpen my hooks, and just make everything look more pro. Next time it happened… well, to be honest, I blamed myself again! And tweaked all that stuff again.
After a few times the penny started to drop. (While I am a slow learner, I’m not a total lost cause.)
Here’s the deal: this kind of drive-by traffic is… drive-by traffic by definition. The very fact that you have gone viral is usually a sign you have gone beyond your target audience.
This kind of traffic isn’t sticky. These people don’t hang around. Well, maybe a handful will, but if you expect a meaningful chunk of the 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 people who clicked on your post — because the planets happened to align that day — to turn into fans or readers or customers or prospects, you are going to be very disappointed. It’s not junk traffic, but you haven’t struck gold either.
It’s kind of like press attention, in a way. Something that can be nice to happen, as long as you don’t treat it with too much seriousness, and don’t expect it to change your life or throw your book to #1 or land you a big deal.
Again, that’s not to say there is no value in going viral. In my case, I was able to influence a public conversation that I felt strongly about. That has huge personal value to me — I genuinely cared deeply about the issue. But in pure mercenary terms, it did little or nothing for me. Which makes it a terrible thing to shoot for if you are trying to sell books, or boost sign-ups, or make money.
What does lead to success on those fronts is the slow, hard slog of producing things that people want and getting it into their hands. Building something over time that people need, something real, something substantial. Targeting those people with laser-like precision. Drilling down into the subset that digs your stuff, whatever that may be, and working that niche crowd. Not the bigger one surrounding it.
And if you do go viral, what will make those few stick around is that slow, hard slog you have already put in, not the dog picture, however cute he might be.

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