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Making Stuff Go Viral - Scott Adams' Blog

Making Stuff Go Viral

The main theme of my book How to Fail…  is that goals are for losers. What you need instead is a system. For example, losing ten pounds is a goal, whereas learning about nutrition and diet so you can gradually replace willpower with knowledge is a system. (That makes more sense with a full explanation.)

Upworthy.com, which has experienced explosive traffic growth, has a great example of a system for making content go viral. Business Insider has a fascinating presentation on it. Upworthy concocts 25 headlines for each bit of content, just to increase the odds of stumbling on a few good ones. Then they do A-B testing on the favorites. Their experience is that no one knows in advance what will go viral, so the best you can do is a system that improves your odds. These guys are experts in creating viral links and yet only 6% of their links generate 100K views.

Upworthy creates only the intriguing link descriptions and not the content itself. When looking for good content that has viral potential, they say they look for these qualities.

Hero or villain

Emotion (raw, human, honest)

High production values

Surprising information

Say what others are thinking

Frame it right to be clickable (on Facebook usually)

Inspire curiosity

Mom-friendly (to get maximum Facebook shares)

Compare Upworthy’s viral checklist to Jonah Berger’s checklist in his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Berger says that the stuff that catches on has the following qualities.

Social Currency: How does it make us look to others?

Triggers: Does the environment remind people?

Emotion: Do we care?

Public: Can people see others using/sharing the product?

Practical Value: Is it useful?

Stories:  Does it fit stories that are already in the air?

Combining Upworthy’s checklist with Berger’s list, and getting rid of duplicates, we have this hybrid checklist.

Hero or villain
Emotion (raw, human, honest)
High production values
Surprising information
Say what others are thinking
Frame it right to be clickable (on Facebook usually)
Inspire curiosity
Mom-friendly
Social Currency: How does it make us look to others?
Triggers: Does the environment remind people?
Public: Can people see others using/sharing the product?
Practical Value: Is it useful?
Stories:  Does your thing fit stories being told anyway?

That’s a lot of stuff to get right. So let’s test the list against my experience with Dilbert. As we know with the benefit of hindsight, Dilbert is hugely viral. So how does it do against the checklist?

Hero or villain (YES – bosses are villains)
Emotion (raw, human, honest)  (YES)
High production values (NO, but good enough)
Surprising information (NO)
Say what others are thinking (YES)
Frame it right to be clickable (on Facebook usually) (NOT APPLICABLE)
Inspire curiosity (YES – comics scream “read me.”)
Mom-friendly (YES)
Social Currency: How does it make us look to others? (YES -humor is attractive)
Triggers: Does the environment remind people? (YES – workplace)
Public: Can people see others using/sharing the product? (YES – on cubicle walls)
Practical Value: Is it useful? (YES – humor entertains, informs, and relieves stress)
Stories:  Does your thing fit stories being told anyway? (YES)

Dilbert hit all of the viral points except for “surprising information” and high production values. But in my case, the poor artwork actually helped, I think, in the sense that it signaled I was more of a cubicle victim myself than an artist. And that became a big part of the story.

Now let’s look at my recent attempt at a viral video that attracted only 15K clicks as of this writing. I’ll provide a link to it below, but don’t look yet. I’m going to tweak the teaser to it below and see if it makes you click.

Here’s how my not-so-viral video stacks up on the checklist.

Hero or villain (NO – except in a joke way)
Emotion (raw, human, honest)  (NO)
High production values (YES)
Surprising information (YES, for some – the Wacom Companion product)
Say what others are thinking (NO)
Frame it right to be clickable (on Facebook usually) (NO)
Inspire curiosity (NO – and the teasers to it were not A-B tested)
Mom-friendly (NO – some bleeped cursing and a hot tub scene)
Social Currency: How does it make us look to others? (NO – neutral)
Triggers: Does the environment remind people? (YES -graphic art is everywhere)
Public: Can people see others using/sharing the product? (NO – not usually)
Practical Value: Is it useful? (YES – for artists who want freedom from desks.)
Stories:  Does your thing fit stories being told anyway? (NO)

When I was developing the script for the video, my angle was that almost everyone knows someone who is a graphic artist, or wants to be one. And the technology shown in the video – the Wacom Companion – is a very big deal for graphic artists. It’s the first time in my career I can effectively do work on an airplane, for example. So I thought (incorrectly) that anyone who knew a graphic artist would helpfully forward the link with news of this breakthrough device.

I learned after the fact that non-artists are completely unimpressed with the new technology because they don’t see how big a deal it is to people who draw for a living. Few people realized the information would be especially helpful to their artist friends.

So I failed hard at making the video viral. But in the process of failing, I picked up a half-dozen new and probably useful skills.

For starters, I learned a whole lot about what to do right next time if I want something to be viral. I could have simply read about how to make things viral, but trying and failing is a much richer and more memorable experience. The doing makes the learning real. So my odds of making something viral in the future just went way up.

Failure is part of my system, by the way, as I describe in How to Fail…  I choose projects that will teach me something useful and increase my market potential no matter what happens. So while my video did not go viral, I now have a fairly deep understanding of what went wrong. And that will almost certainly be useful for future projects.

I also picked up some insights about writing for the camera. I plan to write a Dilbert movie script in 2014, so most of that is useful. So I failed forward, as my career system is designed to do.

Now let’s do a little test to see if I can “fix” my video clip and make it viral by paying attention to the checklist. I need to change the focus from “look at this technology” to something that inspires curiosity and has an emotional charge.

So here’s my new teaser. What you don’t know is that the video was shot entirely at my house, which I built a few years ago. The house has one room in particular that perhaps no other house in the world has. See if you can spot it. And remember, every interior scene shown is an actual room of my house.

My new teaser headline for the link is this: Dilbert cartoonist has a VERY unusual room in his house.

You can track the hit count on the page with the video.