In a perfect world, everything we share on the web would be a huge hit. In reality, it’s super rare. There are tons of blog posts offering tips on “how to improve your chances of going viral” or “what not to do.” Instead of going that route, this article is a specific case study. Vague advice is ok, real-world examples are better.
Context: The CentUp team produced two different web experiments in the last couple of months. One went viral, the other didn’t.
Project 1 (Viral Sensation): Headlines Against Humanity
Project 2 (Not as Huge of a Hit): Valentines.gov
Observations and Insights from these two projects
1) Manage expectations. We set the bar insanely high with Headlines Against Humanity. In hopes of creating an ongoing series of web stunts, we didn’t think the first one was going to be so successful. The fact that it was has now distorted what we want to achieve each time we do something new. Valentines Dot Gov only got 7,000 hits. Not bad for a day, but pretty mediocre compared to the 70,000 we earned from our first project. As we look to our third act, our expectations have been properly realigned. As you think about your own upcoming launches, assume the first will do poorly and do not let that dissuade you from producing more in the future. Expect that your first release fails and that it will help you improve your next iteration more quickly. Our first project didn’t teach us a ton because we “won” that battle. People do most of their critical analysis when they lose.
2) Real Time Marketing isn’t your friend. In terms of timing, we constrained ourselves way too much. First of all, Valentine’s Day is only one day. The project wasn’t timeless, and therefore we had to rush to get press while also competing against other people trying to promote their own V-Day shenanigans. With Headlines, we didn’t suffer from either of these issues because it would have been funny at any time. Secondly, because we decided on a Valentine’s theme, we had to launch this product on a Friday. For those of you that haven’t worked in public relations, FRIDAY IS A TERRIBLE DAY TO LAUNCH ANYTHING. The news cycle is dead, and people are already thinking about the weekend (including reporters). There’s been a huge surge in interest from marketers in real-time marketing. It certainly can work for a cheap hit, but if you’re trying to promote your work in a lasting way, you need to tap into cultural memes that go beyond a day or two.
3) Cerebral humor doesn’t get shared often. The reason that so many Buzzfeed links get passed along frequently is because they’re really dumb. I don’t mean that in a disbarring way (after all, I used them to propose to my wife), but rather in the sense that they don’t take much deep thought to understand. They’ve mastered the repeatable methodology of making something “viral” by sticking with humor that is funny within seconds. With VdotGov, we went for the long punchline. First you had to realize that we parodied a famous national website (Healthcare.gov) then you had to go through the quiz to get more humorous copywriting. Every single second longer it takes for someone to grasp an idea online decreases its share-ability exponentially. This is why you don’t see a lot of viral videos featuring Bill Maher.
Here’s the reality we face today: When people are seeking out content on the web, they’re looking for “what’s new.” It doesn’t matter that there’s a virtually infinite amount of timeless reading available (99.9% of which they have never seen), we’ve been conditioned to seek freshness. Twitter and Facebook have pushed us all towards wanting to be the “first” to share something, and because of that our attention skews towards new.
At CentUp we value “old news” a lot, but also realize that many writers seek timely content to weave into their latest posts to keep new readers coming. If that’s the route you want to go, here are a few tools that may help you stay “on trend.”
Facebook and Twitter are critical vehicles for helping any single piece of content trend online. RadURLS is a simple aggregator that looks at the most shared links on both networks and updates the list every 15 minutes. Is this feed going to show you the best content online? Probably not. Will it show you what’s the most relevant at the moment? Indeed it will.
People frequently ask me what digital tools I use for business and personal endeavors. Here’s a brief list of the ones that have captured my attention over the last six months. It’s a varied collection that should help you learn, create, and promote efficiently.
Quibb: I tend to enjoy social networks when they’re new. Typically there’s nothing remarkably different about them, it’s just that before they scale-up, the quality of participants is higher. This was true of Twitter a few years ago, and it’s once again the case with Quibb. The big appeal to me (for now) is that Quibb’s founder Sandi has pledged to sustain a more curatorial approach and try to keep out the folks who spam, troll, and anything else that eventually degrades the quality of a community. The reason I like Twitter over Facebook is that it’s exponentially more simple and focuses on the news feed. Quibb is to Reddit, what Twitter is to Facebook. Clean threaded conversations from smart positive people. Quibb is still invite only, so use the link at the beginning of this paragraph (it’s my personal invitation).
StayFocused: You know what really bugs me? Spending time on Facebook. In theory it’s a great way to stay connected with friends and family, in reality it’s a waste of f***ing time. So in order to combat all the notifications and hooks that Facebook has built to draw me in (I can’t delete my account because I use it for work) I installed a browser extention for Chrome that literally limits how much time I use Facebook. There’s a little clock that I can set up and as soon as I burn through 20 minutes, Facebook simply won’t load. It’s smart too because even if I have other tabs open, it only counts down when the Facebook tab is being viewed. You can use the extension for any site that messes with your productivity. At least for me, it’s made a dramatic difference for my daily habits.
You’re a permanent freelancer or an early stage entrepreneur and you don’t have an office to go to. Your options are usually one of these three things:
- Work at home
- Work at a coffee shop
- Work at a coworking space
In my own progression as an entrepreneur, I’ve gone through the above stages in that order and here’s my insight into how you should evaluate your own space:
Working at home
The big perceived incentive for working at home for most people is the savings. Spending money to rent a desk or buying coffee/food is cash that could otherwise be used on your business.
It’s a valid assumption, but it’s important to think about how much value you could be getting by not using your home as a workspace.
For starters, tools like Airbnb have made it much easier to monetize an extra bedroom. You might spend $300 to $500 for a coworking space like Grind, Office Nomads, or The Icehouse but you could also rent out your bedroom three to four times a month to make a lot more to offset that cost and make a profit as well.
In Chicago for example, there’s a big demand for renting rooms versus hotels. If you can use your extra room to make $500 to $1,000 versus using it as a home office (even with tax incentives), the decision is a no brainer.
Working at home also has some significant intangible costs. Your mental state when you’re at “home” versus when you’re at “work” should be different.
When you overlap the two you often suffer from either not putting in enough effort while you’re working, or putting in too much work time when you’re supposed to be at home. Some people can manage this dissonance, most can’t.
Lastly, if you’re running a business that requires occasional meetings, you’re stuck doing them in public places or at the location of your client. That works, but it potentially hurts perceptions around your business and the amount of money your customers think they should be paying you.
You’re knee deep in a project and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. You’re excited to share your work with the world, but you’re also approaching the dreaded part of the journey…the promotion. Adam DeVarney an artist friend of mine eloquently describes this…
"Creation is life and death at the same time. It’s putting yourself on the bleeding edge and risking failure and rejection on a daily basis. It is your most vulnerable and yet most confident self. Promoting it is sticking a feather in your hat like Yankee Doodle and flogging it to death through town."
People like Shephard Fairey, Steven King, and Ira Glass have entire teams helping them spread their work for them, but for most of us, we’re our own sales person. While promoting our work is one of the least fun (read: painful) aspects of the creative process, it is a necessary one. It’s what keeps the cycle going and lets you move on to your next post, song, podcast, or video. If you create something in a forrest and no one is there to hear it or see it, then sometimes you have to set up a laser light show and attract people come to the forrest.
Headlines Against Humanity was a side project my team created in less than 24 hours. It went viral shortly after, but let’s back up.
Running a startup can be a grind. Unless you’ve figured out a way to make lots of money while drinking beer and playing lawn darts, then your days and weeks can be taxing.
Side-projects can be a quick mental vacation from that tediousness, but how can you divert your resources to something that is non-essential to your primary business?
Gmail and Adsense came from Google’s “20% time” (the program is sadly no longer around). Blogger was created in Evan William’s down-time while at Pyra Labs, while Elon Musk put together actionable plans for a 700 mph train, bringing more visibility to Tesla and SpaceX.
The point is, side projects can be both fun and somehow beneficial to a business – especially when you’re talking about a startup.
How did we do it?
One of our co-founders Tyler Travitz approached the group with the idea to build a simple game that poked fun at the recent rise of click-baity headlines you see on sites like Viralnova and Upworthy. We all had noticed the uptick in these headlines being shared in our Facebook feeds, as well as more news outlets covering this copywriting trend.
The game basically asked visitors to guess which ridiculous headline were real, and which were fake. The best part? Most of them were real.
Everyone on the team knew there was a great deal of potential in this exercise, but how could we make sure that it A) was visible and B) drove our business goals?
There’s never a guarantee that something will go viral, but there are ways to stack the deck so the chances increase. In the case of HaH, we knew journalists would want to cover the project because they’re keenly aware of the rise of page view journalism.
The next step was wrapping it in a package that was immediately recognizable. Cards Against Humanity ended up being a perfect fit. Not only has it been one of the top selling games on Amazon the last two years, but it also has a simple Helvetica aesthetic that’s easy to replicate (Hooray! Less time to produce).
Lastly, we employed the very same tactic that click-seeking sites use themselves. We let game players tweet out the absolutely ridiculous REAL headlines they were discovering on our site.
You won’t believe what happened next
Was building this game fun? Did it pay off for the business? Hell yes.
The CentUp team spent approximately 20 hours on researching headlines, designing the game, and developing the site. We spent less than an hour pitching/seeding the site; it basically took off organically.
The output was far greater than we expected. We saw a 450 percent increase in traffic to our site and a 150 percent increase in customer sign-ups over a three-day period.
Also it’s hard to ignore all the wonderful SEO juice we squeezed which will help us in the long run. Perhaps most importantly, our game was able to make a subtle point that resonated with our mission to improve how talented creators are compensated
Startup founders love talking about growth hacking and optimization. That’s all well and good for the day-to-day, but if you’re not investing a bit of time on left-field side projects you’re doing yourself, your customers, and even your investors a disservice.
Sometimes these things fail; sometimes they have a huge pay-off. Having a diversified portfolio of side projects gives your business wider visibility and keeps your staff continually energized.
The “high” of doing something new is something that almost all founders thrive on. It’s a big reason they decided to start a company in the first place. The key is to direct that urge towards small, frequent, fun, and relevant side projects.
You’ll never believe how amazing THIS practice can be…
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