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Want to Go Viral? Aim for the “Viral Trifecta”

By John Hlinko, author of “Share, Retweet, Repeat: Get Your Message Read and Spread.”

This blog post is cross-posted at Game Changer You’ve probably heard the term “viral marketing” so much that you’ve grown tired of it. Maybe you’re even rolling your eyes right now, right? But it’s not the concept that’s tiresome, but rather the ratio of hype to success. The reality is, for most folks, viral marketing is the functional equivalent of a unicorn that poops diamonds. Sure, it sounds awesome, but how the heck do you actually make it happen?

Getting something to go viral is hard, and many who have tried have ended up throwing up their hands in frustration. This frustration has in turn stoked the fires of the single biggest myth about viral marketing: “You can’t plan it, it’s all luck.” Which is about as logical as saying that having a hit song is all luck, so you should fire all the musicians and instead have a group of monkeys randomly slam out sounds on random musical instruments.

Yes, viral marketing takes luck. But you can dramatically increase your odds of “getting lucky” if you focus on hitting all three parts of the “Viral Trifecta.”

The Viral Trifecta: The Right Content + The Right Spreaders + The Right Place

Hitting the Viral Trifecta entails the following: 1) Crafting spread-worthy content; 2) Finding those most likely to spread it, and 3) Giving it to them in “spread-friendly” places.

Sounds obvious? Perhaps. And yet, when it comes to planning a viral campaign, even the most seasoned marketing professionals tend to focus disproportionately on just one of the three components. Some obsess on the content, some on the spreaders, and some on the technology. But if you want to increase your odds of going viral, all three are critical.

The Right Content: Making it “Spread-Worthy”

Want to make your content spread-worthy? Think of your message recipients (supporters, customers, etc.) the way you’d think of news reporters. You don’t tell a reporter a story just to inform them, you do it because you want them to spread it to their readers, listeners, and viewers.

The same holds true with individuals. Remember, we’re in an age when the average Internet user can reach more people with a few keystrokes than Paul Revere reached his entire ride. Every one of them really is a reporter, or at least a potential one. Your goal shouldn’t just be to give them information, it should be to give them something that will make them look good if they spread it.

Here’s some things to keep in mind:

  • Use the “118th email” test: Before you send a message to your list, remember that very few of them are waiting with bated breath for your message. You’ll need to break through the din. Imagine a recipient just back from a hard day at work, with 117 emails in their inbox. Yours is number 118. Would it get noticed? Would it get read? Would it stand out from the others? If it doesn’t break through in the first place, it can’t get spread.
  • Make it new: People like to spread new and novel things, since it make them look good. Everyone wants to be ahead of the curve, and in the know. Try to include something new or novel that accomplishes this, whether it be the message itself, or the form in which it’s delivered.
  • Ride a wave: Anyone who’s ever surfed or even just seen that classic Brady Bunch episode where the gang goes to Hawaii knows that it’s far easier to ride an existing wave than to make one by splashing your hands. Is there something big in the news? An Internet meme? Something else that your recipients are already talking about? Take advantage of it, and let your message ride that wave.
  • Get funny: Think of the last 5 emails, tweets, or Facebook posts you spread to others. If you’re like most people, the odds are that a majority of them – and possibly even all of them – were humorous. Humor spreads, and if you can do it well (or get help), your message is more likely to be spread-worthy as well.

Finally, remember to test, test, test. There’s no shortage of readily available data on the Internet, so make sure to take advantage of it. Test your messages to subgroups of your email list. Take note of which social media posts generate the most shares and retweets. See what works, and lather, rinse, repeat.

The Right Spreaders: Finding the “Multipliers”

It’s true that nearly everyone online can spread a message to others. But only a small percentage actually does it on a regular basis, and does it effectively.

How can you find these “multipliers”? How can you hone in on the 5% that will likely do 95% of the spreading? Here’s a few tips to get you started:

  • Look for those on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. These platforms are naturally viral, so someone who hangs out in them on a regular basis will simply be more likely to spread a message. Plus, those who are active on social networks are also more likely to be multipliers offline as well, given that they’re more comfortable with being public about their actions and opinions.
  • Look for those with a large “readership.” If you were pitching reporters, you’d give priority to ones with larger audiences, so why not do the same with your customers and supporters? Prioritize ones with large email lists, Facebook and Twitter followings, etc.
  • Look at the data, and see who’s multiplying. There’s no shortage of data on the Internet, and this is especially true when it comes for sharing. Make note of who is sharing your posts on Facebook, and retweeting your updates on Twitter. If your email system allows for it, look for evidence of spreading there as well (typically indicated by when an individual recipient’s personalized link shows up with multiple clicks, most likely meaning he or she has forwarded the email).

Once you’ve identified your multipliers, take steps to make them more “spread-willing.” Start to skew your messages towards them, and take steps to make them feel special (giving them sneak peeks at new products, inviting them to special events, etc.)

The Right Place: Deliver Your Messages via Viral Platforms

It’s no secret; the Internet is the ideal mechanism for delivering a message if you want it to go viral. Social media platforms lend themselves particularly well to viral spreading, since the “tell a friend” process is automated. When someone takes an action or expresses an opinion, it is automatically shared with friends and followers – no proactive “forward” action is even necessary.

90% of getting a message to go viral to occur isn’t about trying to convince people to spread it – it’s about making it easier for those who are already willing to do so. So use the Internet, and focus in particular on social media – and make it easy for your multipliers to actually multiply.

No Guarantees, But You Can Increase Your Odds

Does going viral take luck? Of course. But if you focus on all the components of the Viral Trifecta, your odds of getting lucky will be much, much better.

John Hlinko is author of the new book, “Share, Retweet, Repeat: Get Your Message Read and Spread,” (Prentice Hall Press, 2012), which ranked as the number 1 “hot new release” in its web marketing category. Hlinko is also the founder of “Left Action,” a community of over 1 million activists, grown primarily through viral marketing. John can be reached at and

Topics: Marketing