HOWTO be viral

Upworthy, a startup that helps promote material via "viral" distribution, has posted a short slideshow with some interesting (and depressing -- it all comes down to horrible Facebook) insights into how things become popular online.

How To Make That One Thing Go Viral (via O'Reilly Radar)


  1. “Viral Curator”? that’s a job title now, really? It qualifies right up there with “SEO Expert” and “Social Media Guru”. Which is to say, it’s the kind of job title that would probably entice my mother and not people who are already aware of how internet culture works.

    Also, I’d say if you need this guide to create content with the hopes that it will go viral, chances are your content is neither viral-worthy nor very original to begin with. 

    1. The first thing we say is we know nothing. Our job is to find good content from smart organizations who aren’t focused on making sure people get to see their amazing work, and make sure it gets seen. Kind of like Boing Boing, but not as cool.

    2. I like to think that helping little girls get more interest in being engineers, telling people that body image shouldn’t define them, telling people that gay marriage is totally awesome, telling Mitt Romney that gay soldiers are people too and shaming a publicly traded company for making sexist products is all pretty worthy content. And the 10,000,000 people who saw it but otherwise might not have would hopefully agree?

    3. “SEO Expert”

      You don’t think there’s such a thing as a search engine optimization expert?  Strange.

      What should the most experienced, educated and highest performing Google optimization consultants call themselves that would better suit your sensibilities?

  2. Don’t forget “annoy the fuck out of people with popups” – I’ve been actively avoiding upworthy links for a while now. Look at where it got X10!

    1. Sometimes they have some interesting content, but I avoid the site like the plague because of all of the reminders to SHARE the content. It reminds me of one of the reasons I got rid of my television in the early 2000s: the screen was always covered with everything but the content I wanted to see, including reminders about what I was watching, what I could be watching next, what I should be watching later, what channel I was watching, special offers, etc., most of them moving, and often with little people in them.

  3. Upworthy is one of those sites that wants to be important, but they don’t seem to do anything other than get in the way.

  4. What Hazmat said … I initially “liked” and subscribed to Upworthy but it got old fast because their links were covered with Popups, they practically beg you to like and share everything and I’d already seen most of their content anyway. 

  5. Is this the worlds most irritating PowerPoint presentation by the Internet’s most irritating wankers? Click LIKE and SHARE and let us know what you think in the comments!

    We used to just call these people spammers.

    1. Also, they used the most worn and tired memes to illustrate the presentation. Because you know, when I ponder on fresh, original and viral worthy content, my first thought is a LOL Cat.

    1. Why should we love any viral kingmaker? Viral “entertainment” is for the most part terrible. I appreciate that their rep seems to be nice, but yeesh.

  6. Here’s the thing, while many commenters here have found the pop-overs annoying, many others must undoubtedly think that they’re wonderful, otherwise they wouldn’t be using them. That’s one of the gorgeous things about A/B testing; if you’re doing it right it should tell you the difference between two things, regardless of other factors. Little tiny design things do matter a lot, what’s annoying to one may be used by hundreds, and if it’s numbers you’re after, then that’s what you do.

    1. “while many commenters here have found the pop-overs annoying, many others must undoubtedly think that they’re wonderful”

      Your analysis is ungrounded in reality. I accidentally click on obtrusive ads, but that doesn’t mean I find them “wonderful”.

    2. There’s nothing “gorgeous” about A/B testing. It’s a crutch for the indecisive, unskilled and/or cowardly.

      1. AB testing means the difference between 10,000 people seeing a piece of content endorsing gay marriage and 1,000,000. Every time I pick a headline that I think will win, I usually lose.

  7. Compare those to HuffPost’s rules which seem to mandate the use of “Slams”, “Destroys”, “Again” and/or “said WHAT?” in every headline.

  8. My employer blocks this site as a ‘personal storage’ site so I’ll have to look at this later. But my (naive?) question, if you’re running a business, is ‘why would you try to create a viral anything? Sure, nice if  you succeed, but it seems like a lot of work and risk for a small chance of reward.’ Why isn’t “create a successful advertising campaign” good enough? Is going the viral the only way to do this?

    1. Yes, they have it backwards. Viral popularity isn’t created, it happens.

      They’d like to bottle random chance. Good luck with that.

      1. “Viral popularity isn’t created, it happens.”

        I usually think the opposite. For the most part, it’s engineered, and only rarely does it not have a corporation behind it these days. I can avoid commercials on television, but the only way I can avoid commercials in my social networking feed is to disable all of them.

        1. Did Rebecca Black create her “Friday” video with the intent of having it viewed a billion times? No. That’s why they call it viral. It’s unexpected.

          1. Yea, we can’t make anything go viral. It has to be the right place, the right time, the right framing, and a completely unpredictable unconscious decision on the part of the public. We only have one tiny piece of the larger set of variables, so we are in no way telling people it’s an exact science. There’s just things you can do to help, and then pray really hard that the rest of that stuff falls into place.

    2. Conceptually yes, but we’ll have to hit the ground running and take this Viral ideation to the next level. Let’s circle back and synergize with our temporary experiential contractors’ fresh IP to think outside of the box, utilizing web 2.5 learnings to upcrease our ROI by EOM.

    1. Exactly! They got themselves on BoingBoing didn’t they?
      On page 20 they presume everybody’s mothers are middle aged!! Aww, bless their little cotton socks!

    1. You need to fix your link; it’s coming up as a relative URL rather than an absolute one. (Disqus parses any link that doesn’t start with “http” as a relative)

  9. Well, yes. Annoying. Promotes distraction, 3sec attention spans, is bad for the culture (what’s left of it, anyway… just heard the MOST depressing bit of culture news – a school system wants children to read technical manuals INSTEAD of fiction).
    ALL THAT BEING SAID, their principles of headline writing also apply to all writing: hero, villain, conflict, happy ending.
    For more on this (if you have the attention span to read a longish essay after F’book has burned out your cortex), check out Tolkein’s “On Fairy Stories”.
    So, dismiss this for what it is, namely minor evil, but take from it what is valuable.

  10. I have a bit of an interesting perspective on this, since last year something I made was in BoingBoing, which caused the project to go viral. It got just north of 12k downloads and insane amounts of views/shares and articles in dozens of media outlets.

    Here is what most people miss when they think of virality — whatever you’re promoting *MUST* be both high-valence AND worthwhile.  If it’s not highly useful, it must be highly entertaining. The discussion around it must also be highly useful or highly entertaining.

    All media tends to favor extremes, and the internet favors novelty, hope, outrage, and cats. Never forget the cats.

  11. Boy, this really inspired me to work really hard on a video in the hopes that someday Upworthy can post ads on it. 

    Seriously, why do people share this stuff?  Why not click through to the original source of the cool video/story/project/whatever and share THAT?

    1. Well, that works, however, we are often able to amplify it by a factor of 10 or more. We haven’t had anyone ask us to not use their stuff. They usually start sending us MORE, because we can make sure a ton more people see it. And we always attribute that content and give them credit. If you look at the case studies, it will explain it clearer. A witty headline is great, but you also need your site to be optimized to make people share, and your facebook presence to make people click (since everyone already is on there, they won’t just come to you if your content is good, unless you are extremely lucky.) We’re working on making our popup interface less annoying.

      Once everyone is able to frame things in a compelling way and focus their site on optimizing on that, we’ll be irrelevant. Until then, we’re here to make sure those good ideas and videos get seen by a lot more eyes. 
      We’ve helped people prevent their houses from being forclosed on, helped women’s organizations push their messages about the horrible ways the media perpetuates horrible ideas about body image, helped a toy company get girls more interested in engineering, etc… We’re not here to steal other people’s stuff, we’re here to help elevate it and get their entire org more attention that it deserves. Look at slide 25. The exact same piece of content, two different headlines. 1 version was seen by 8000 people, the other version has now been seen by 800,000. The original artist, depending on their location still gets traffic, and if you look at their youtube stats we can bump them exponentially. That’s their traffic, not ours.

      So framing the content is just as important as the content itself. And if we can help get those ideas out there, we’re gonna sleep fine at night. 

        1. Write 25 headlines. Your’s is pretty good, but you might find a better one. I’ll start:
          1. They’re Using These Kids As Pawns To Do What?
          2. I Can’t Believe They Got 7 Year Olds Addicted To This
          3. Challenging Your Kid To Think Could Make Them King
          4. How To Pawn Your Children For Love And Profit

          1. That’s amazing Adam:) Thanks!
            So the trick is in having the disciple to hold yourself to actually writing out 25 headlines! I’ll be doing that first thing in the morning on the way to work:)

  12. They make “going viral” into a set of tricks like Search-Engine-Optimizing.  A game?  I don’t want to play that game, but I suppose that there are plenty of other people ready to take up the challenge.

  13. so, why exactly are those pens sexist? 

    also, i tend to believe that any longer, once something becomes the latest “thing,” it’s time to find the “new,” thing (i.e. “viral,” anything, “xtreme,” in any product name, the changing google “doodle,” and any of the douchy descriptors used in job postings (ninja this, rock-star that, guru whatever…))

    if you’re leading rather than following, you’re doing your own “thing…”

    1. I generally tell people I’m a writer, just sounds fancier that way. The pens are condescending because the only thing they changed was the colors and then stamped them “For ladies!” Ellen’s routine resonated with everyone who hates vapid advertisements. Which helped.

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