The Paradox of What Makes Something Go Viral

5 min read
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A few years ago, I had my first piece of writing go "viral." It was called “An Open Letter To Frustrated 20-Somethings.” It started off as a Facebook rant that got picked up and spread all over the world.

(Here’s the original Facebook post.)

Fascinated by the experience, I wanted to make it happen again. I wanted to learn the science behind writing something that spread.  

The first time, I’d done it by accident. Now I wanted to intentionally create the viral effect. So I started asking people who were much smarter than I with a history of creating work that spread.

The first person I asked was Seth Godin. If you don’t know who Seth is, go to Amazon right now and buy any one of his books. I’ll wait…

I hit Seth up and asked him about the whole “going viral thing” and how I could make it happen again. What he told me was pretty surprising:

“The best thing is not to try to write things that will go viral.

The best thing is to write for just one person. Make an impact on just one person. Even better, make it so they can’t sleep at night unless they choose to make a difference for one other person.

The rest will take care of itself.”   

Related: The 7 Factors That Make for Viral Content

At the time, I understood what he meant intellectually. But I didn't really know how to put it into practice. Even a few years into the game, after I've had several pieces of writing make a big splash, I'd never really taken a second to dig deeper into what he said.

But today at the gym, it all clicked as I was scrolling through Spotify for something to listen to.

I opened up my playlist and thumbed to the songs that get me pumped up. I landed on “Lean On” by Major Lazer.

Have you heard this song before? It’s incredible. It's just really good music with a captivating video. I’m not the only one who thinks so. It has almost a billion views on YouTube. Here it is, for the uninitiated.

Let that sink in. If those views were all coming from unique visitors, that'd mean almost 15 percent of the entire world had heard this song. And those are just YouTube views. Nuts!

But something else even cooler is going on. The song has 10+ different versions on Spotify, all remixes and re-imaginings by different artists. There’s even a slow acoustic country version…

Such a collection of variations for one track is super rare on Spotify, which usually only has one (maybe two) versions of each song.

Related: 5 Ways to Increase the Odds of Your Content Going Viral

This is what Seth meant. For some reason, this is a song that got people to care. Care enough that it got viewed/shared a billion times.

Care enough that other artists spent their time creating and sharing their own versions of this song. Because it is that damn good.

To my knowledge, there weren't any complex marketing campaigns designed to push the song into the stratosphere. It was just so damn good that people couldn’t help but watch it, share it and remake it.   

They couldn’t sleep at night without passing it on.

And come to think of it, I feel the same about Seth’s newest book, What To Do When It’s Your Turn.

(I wrote a 30-second review of it, if you’re so inclined...)

I read the book in two days, and immediately after, bought 10 copies to give to the Rich20Something team, my family and friends.

Buying books in bulk to pass out isn’t something that I normally do. But in this instance, the book was so damn good that my immediate thought was, “If everybody read what I just read, the world would be a much better place.”

So I had no choice I felt good about except to pass it out. I left a copy at my neighbor's doorstep with an inscription: "Do great work. Have an amazing day." I didn't even want credit for giving the gift. Totally anonymous.

After reading it, I felt obligated to show it to people, if only because I knew that after reading it, the people I’d passed it out to would probably be just as inspired as I was.

That alone was reward enough.

This type of selfless sharing effect is what Seth Godin was talking about.

So what’s the secret to making something go viral? It starts with making something that people have no choice but to care about.

Something both so personal, but simultaneously so universal and human that not sharing it would seem selfish or “out of whack.”

Now, what you go about creating is totally up to you. It may take 100 or 1,000 tries to make something that has such an impact on people.

But if your goal is to make other people genuinely care about what you have to say -- not in the general social media “like” way but actually feel it -- you’ll have no problem going viral.

Related: How These 10 Marketing Campaigns Became Viral Hits

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