Once upon a time I worked as a marketing director for a startup. I was severely limited in what I could do - no advertising, no promotions, just word-of-mouth customer acquisition.

That made my job very difficult.

We'd built a pretty solid product, one of the first of its kind in the industry. We had a solid platform beneath it and appeared ready to make a solid return on our investors' money. We pitched the product at trade shows, had some corporate partners promoting us to their customers, and were ready to just watch the subscriptions roll in.

All two of them.

My boss called a meeting of the entire team. This included my, my boss (the newly-hired Vice President of Marketing), our entire engineering team, and even a few external marketing advisors loaned to us by the business incubator. We all gathered in the conference room while our CEO wrote a simple question on the board:

How do we go viral?


This was one of my first permanent jobs after finishing graduate school. I was nervous about working for a startup (the majority of my salary was either stock or options, so I didn't have much flexibility at first). I was very excited about being able to direct the marketing efforts of a young company and prove myself in the industry, though.

Except I was betrayed by my youth. Every recommendation I made was shot down because I was "to young to know better" or lacked "enough experience to really know what [I was] doing."

This came to a head before our first trade show appearance where I was asked to put together a marcomm flier for our product. I worked hard on the right messaging, voice, and imagery for the piece[ref]It's very difficult to find a photo of vaporware ...[/ref] and put together a draft as requested for my boss.[ref]At the time I reported directly to the CEO.[/ref]

He didn't like it, said it felt amateurish and demonstrated my lack of practical experience, and forwarded it on to the rest of the team for edit and review.

Seventeen drafts later,[ref]I know, I kept copies of each and every revision.[/ref] and he forwarded the piece to an outside consultation - one of the marketing experts on loan to us from the incubator. This gentleman was experienced in every way I wasn't: several successful startups, at least a decade directing marketing from C-level positions, etc. He took an hour or so to tweak the flier and sent it back to us.

"See, this is the kind of work I expected the first time around. If you could pull this off, then I'd be more open to those other marketing ideas you've had. But really, you don't have the experience to make those kinds of calls yet."

I put the new copy side by side with the first draft I'd proposed. With the exception of one word,[ref]Our outside consultant switched to a European spelling of a word - you know, "ou" instead of "o" for vowels, and had capitalized it.[/ref] they were identical.

"Oh... Well... I guess... Maybe you do know a bit about marketing..."


That all-hands meeting in the conference room was the first time I'd been asked my opinion about our marketing direction directly. I was the only one on the team who blogged, the only one who used Twitter and Facebook regularly for professional work, the only one with experience building a brand from scratch from an agency perspective.

How do we go viral?

I said point-blank: "that's not up to us."

Content going viral has more to do with timing and community sentiment than it has to do with your product, your content, or your efforts. Sometimes, your effort one day won't even be noticed by your target customer (i.e. your advertising to the wrong channel, they aren't actively paying attention, or perhaps your customer base isn't available in large enough numbers yet) until years after your initial push.

Seeing movies and TV series "flop" one day, only to become burgeoning cult phenomena later is a great example of this. Watching specific pieces of music only become popular years after they're published is another.[ref]One interesting example right now is Darude Sandstorm. Originally published in 1999, the song didn't really take off until it became popular on YouTube in 2010, then again as gamers started using it as background music in 2013. There's absolutely no way Darude could have anticipated this boom in popularity or engineered it through their own efforts.[/ref]

Content goes viral when it appeals to a mass audience at a specific point in time. You can push a blog post to Twitter, but if the right person isn't looking at just that instant, you might only get a few visits. On the other had, if the right person is looking, and they re-tweet your link, and the other right people are looking, traffic can take off.

My point here is that you can't force content to go viral. What you can do is always put out your best work and keep an eye on where the community's sentiments lie. Focus on your audience's interests and remain consistent in both content production and content quality and you have a higher chance of your content achieving viral or close-to-viral status.

Just don't put "go viral" on your to-do list.