“Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt.”
Dale Carnegie (Author, How To Win Friend And Influence People)
“The greatest ability in business is to get along with others and to influence their actions.”
John Hancock (Former President of the Continental Congress)
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Ernest Hemingway (Author, A Farewell To Arms)
Virality is what happens when you finally align your purpose with your audience.
I woke up in a panic and looked at my phone. Something didn’t feel right. I was traveling and jet lagged. Maybe that’s why things felt a bit off. I grabbed my phone and turned it on. There were 128 text messages. 128! They were all from people telling me to get up and look at my Facebook page. I opened up my Facebook page and looked at the post from last night. There were over 40 comments from people I didn’t know telling me how much of a loser I was.
This wasn’t a dream. I posted a motivational quote the night before, went to bed, and woke up to line after line of “this guy is a loser” or “this guy is an ugly clown with small feet.” Someone who didn’t like me very much had rallied a bunch of their friends to post nasty things (that were only half true) about me right as I went to bed on the other side of the world. I was sleeping like a baby on one side of the world while everyone on the other side of the world was slamming me.
I remember being really hurt and angry. And afraid. This all happened right after I launched my first online business, which relied heavily on Facebook. I only had 612 fans at the time and was sure I was going to lose every one of them.
I Freaked Out. No One Else Cared.
The comment box slaughter (as I now call it) was only a big deal to me. According to Facebook’s analytics, less than 100 people saw the post. But it was the most viewed post I ever had up until that point. Interesting.
Over the next few years, I continued blogging and posting motivational content on Facebook and other social media platforms. I started creating videos and picture posts and kept refining my message. Then, earlier this year, I posted another motivational post right before going to bed. When I woke up, the post had been shared over a thousand times. Weird. I checked it again later in the day and it had been shared over ten thousand times. Whaaa? By the end of the next day, it had been shared over 100,000 times. At one point, the post was being shared over a thousand times per second. I’d refresh my screen and the count would go from 213,598 to 214,712.
The post’s virality peaked after about a week and continued to spread rapidly for over 2 months. The final count was 739,085 shares. Then other websites and magazines picked up on the post and started sharing it. Just one of these reposts generated an additional 833,556 shares. The grand total is currently over 1.5 million shares, crushing anything on this and other virality lists.
More Viral Than The President
Did I mention this was an unpaid post? Facebook doesn’t let you boost picture posts where more than 20% of the picture is text. All of this activity was completely organic. No other paid or unpaid Facebook picture post has been shared by this many people. The next closest is a post by the President of the United States—shared only 573,193 times.
If you’re like me, you’re probably asking, “Who cares? What’s the real world result?” The real result is that within 6 days my book, Black Hole Focus shot up to number one on Amazon under Business & Money and within 2 weeks my team and I doubled our number of consulting clients and signed 5 new speaking gigs. This is an important consideration because without some kind of trackable conversion, post shares and similar numbers are just vanity analytics.
The fact that the book went to number one on Amazon is significant because it did so without any marketing tricks. We didn’t drop the price of either the paperback or Kindle version and we didn’t provide a book bonus or any other sort of incentive to buy. Most authors will temporarily offer their book for free on Amazon just to drive it to number 1 for a few hours or they’ll negotiate with their publishers to discount the Kindle price by over 50%. Others will put together contests with prizes or offer giveaways to get more people to buy their book. We did none of these things. The book stayed at $22 in paperback and $14 in Kindle and still hit number one.
Who Is Your Audience?
Many companies pay large agencies millions of dollars to run successful social media marketing campaigns, yet most of these campaigns will never even achieve 100,000 unpaid (or paid) shares in their lifetime. Most often, these agencies are just taking a shot in the dark. They’ll send out one large survey to people they think are customers or key opinion leaders and then use this one survey as the basis of every marketing decision they make. Meanwhile, the paying companies are following these agencies blindly.
There are two problems with this. First, it assumes that, as Daniel Kahneman quoted in his book Thinking Fast And Slow, “the agent of economic theory is rational, selfish, and his tastes do not change.” Clearly this is false. Humans are rational sometimes and emotional other times. They can be selfish or selfless, depending on their mood or on the situation they’re in. And they rarely know what they want in the long-term. In fact, studies have shown that most people have no idea what they will want a month from now let alone a year from now.
The second problems is that these one-off surveys completely ignore what is called the outside view. External factors like a competitor’s marketing campaign, a political shift, or even the weather can quickly effect the viewpoints of a company’s customers or key opinion leaders. Yet, the internal viewpoint, or what a particular company wants to achieve and what that company’s customers said on one particular day, is usually the only viewpoint that’s considered. Both of these problems are ignored so the agencies can keep making money and the company marketers can keep looking busy to upper management.
3 Prime Human Needs
People are only motivated by pain and pleasure. That’s it. They want to move towards pleasure and move away from pain. Due to an inherent and biological negativity bias, everyone hates pain about 12 times more than they enjoy pleasure.
The desire to avoid pain and pursue pleasure can be divided into multiple categories. In the 1940’s, Abraham Maslow created 5 such categories—physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. According to Maslow, meeting one’s physiological needs was the most important and at the base of this hierarchy. Self-actualization was the least important and placed at the top of the hierarchy.
In today’s world, more people than ever before have satisfied the first two levels of this hierarchy. The three levels that the majority of the population still struggle with is belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. This means that feeling a sense of connection, autonomy, and growth creates pleasure, while lacking these feelings creates pain.
Once you achieve a stable level of physical health and physical safety, you can only be motivated by Connection, Autonomy, and Growth. All human behavior is simply an attempt to meet these prime needs. Any pain you experience in life is the result of not having these needs met. Your pain may also be the result of your needs being off balance or in competition with one another. For example, the need for Connection and the need for Autonomy often conflict. When your Connection cup is overflowing—in romantic relationships, for instance—you may feel like you’re suffocating or losing your identity. When your Autonomy cup is overflowing, you may feel isolated and lonely.
Understanding these three prime needs will help you motivate other people to action. Content that inspires Connection, Autonomy, and Growth, or teaches people how to achieve these things, will be shared massively.
7 Keys To Creating Viral Content
Put a long underscore before your question marks. Post your entire blog article into a Facebook post. Schedule your Twitter posts for 8AM, 10AM, 12PM, 3PM, 5PM, 6PM, and 8PM EST. This is all advice that I’ve followed (and sometimes still follow) in the hope that my social media posts will be more engaging. But tactical tweaks like this don’t make posts go viral. If your content is boring, it’s not going to be shared, no matter how pretty you package it.
Lazy people love following tactical advice and then patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Even though nothing converts, they feel good because they made a change. They executed, which means they got a small hit of dopamine in their brains and, as a result, feel a sense of accomplishment. In reality, they accomplished nothing. The only way to be truly engaging is to know what your purpose is and who your audience is. Those are the only two things that matter. And they are the only two things that have ever mattered in the history of communication.
“What’s your purpose?” and “Who’s your audience?” Ask yourself those two questions over and over and over again before creating any piece of content. Otherwise, you’re just wasting time. Once you know your purpose and you know who your audience is, you can start to try out different ways of communicating your purpose to your audience. Your goal is to create content that gets shared massively and drives an action that’s in line with your purpose. Here are 7 keys to creating this kind of viral content:
1. Understand your voice.
You know you’ve found your voice when you love what you’re saying and other people love what you’re saying. This is not easy to achieve. Usually it’s one or the other.
Too many people create a message that they love but that no one else understands–they create a purposeful message that no one needs or wants. Other people create a message that other people love but that they themselves hate. Their message has an audience but is completely out of line with their purpose and who they are as a person.
The only way to develop your true voice is to package and repackage your purpose—the purpose of what you’re saying—over and over again until both you and your audience love it.
2. Find your purpose.
The first step to finding your voice is finding your purpose. Before you do anything else, you need to figure out who you are, what you want, and what you have to say. Don’t be like the millions of people online just spouting off on every topic under the sun. These people don’t have a voice. What they say doesn’t carry any weight because their message is constantly changing.
People don’t rally around flakes. If you want to create viral content then you need to build a large following. The only way to build a large following is to deliver a consistent message. Of course, your message can be rich and made up of many different fibers. It can be multifaceted, but it shouldn’t be unstable. Your goal is to have a theme, not to become a one trick pony who can never reinvent himself.
Your theme—your purpose—should be something that is in line with your identity. It should also be something that your audience responds to.
3. Know your audience.
Most people have no idea who their audience is. They write whatever they feel like and put it out into the world whenever they feel like it. Then, they sit back and hope that something magical will happen. What a waste of time. Other people sit back and act like they don’t care if their content goes viral. This is, of course, a lie. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be posting their content online for the world to see.
People create content because they want to make a difference. They create content because they want to be seen and heard and to have an affect on others. The only way to have an affect on other people is to know who these people are. This means paying close attention to the feedback that your audience gives you. It also means asking your audience questions—tons of questions.
Do you really know who your audience is? Do you know what keeps them up at night or what they spend their paychecks on? Do you know what songs are on their iPod lists? There’s only one way to find out—ask. For years I’ve asked my audience dozens of simple, friendly questions every week, either through social media, emails, or phone calls. Why? Because I want to get to know them. I want to understand their problems so I can actually help them.
Don’t act like a selfish robot and just ask for your audience to do things for you. Don’t merely ask for feedback about your book, product, or business. Take a real interest in the people following you. Show them that you want to build relationships, not just make a sale. Too many people skip this whole caring part. Instead of engaging with their audience and asking questions, they trick them into becoming Facebook fans with unoriginal advertisements and call it a day.
4. Believe in your message 100%.
If you don’t believe in your message, why should anyone else? Once you’ve found your voice—a voice that resonates with both you and your audience—you need to deliver it with complete conviction.
Great content backed by a weak belief is weak content. People can always tell if you don’t believe in your message. It’s part of human nature to search for cracks in other people’s beliefs. This is how we weed out charlatans who just want to make a buck from true teachers who want to make a real difference.
The first video I ever posted online was weak. I was just starting to find my voice and wasn’t 100% confident in it. As a result, the video didn’t perform well—it only received a few hundred views on Facebook. Now contrast that to this recent video, which delivers a very similar message but delivers it with complete conviction. This latter video received over 5,650 unique views on Facebook in two days.
The only way to consistently get your content read, viewed, or shared is to deliver it with panache. You have to believe in your message so strongly that you can communicate it without hesitation or apology.
5. Make every sentence count.
“Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.”
Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court said this in 1992 in response to a snobby jurist who was complaining that a first amendment clause was becoming so complicated and stuffed with administrative detail that it might as well be a form of interior decorating.
The point is not why this sentence was said, but how it was delivered. The sentence picks up steam and then crashes down hard on the listener’s head. Stanley Fish, author of How To Write A Sentence describes the above sentence as a zinger. And he’s right. The sentence zaps you into the present moment and makes you pay attention.
“If God didn’t want them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep.”
This sentence is said by Eli Wallach in the movie, The Magnificent Seven. Eli is justifying why he’s okay with plundering food and supplies from peasant-farmers. The sentence is powerful because it’s stated as if it’s a proverb. It’s a conditional sentence that’s chopped equally in half so it can be delivered sharply.
“Go out into the world in peace, have courage, and hold on to what is good.”
This is a sentence that paraphrases an ancient benediction. It’s powerful for several reasons. First, it gains momentum just like the sentence by Justice Scalia. Second, it uses the rule of three—instructing to be in peace (1), have courage (2), and hold onto what is good (3). Finally, it is an imperative sentence. It directs and commands you, telling you what to do with an official and authoritative voice.
When creating viral content, you must focus on how you’re delivering your message. You must sweat over every sentence. Make sure each line you write picks up steam and is delivered sharply, like a whip being snapped. Use conditional and imperative sentences to infuse your message with a sense of wisdom and confidence.
6. Tap into identity.
Emotion will make people like your content. Emotion backed with identity will make people share it. And sharing is way better. When creating online content, don’t go for likes, go for shares. Sharing only happens when other people believe so strongly in your content that they’ll put their own name behind it by reposting it for their friends and followers to see to.
Identity is the most powerful psychological force in the world. Imagine a real estate agent trying to sell a house by telling an interested buyer that the house has vaulted ceilings, is in a beautiful neighborhood, and is really close to a great school. Now imagine a real estate agent who tells an interested buyer that “this is a house that millionaires live in.” Which agent do you think will sell the house?
The top two most popular articles that I’ve ever written 99 Things Wildly Intelligent People Refuse To Do and 15 Benefits Of Being An Intelligent Misfit. I’ve tested several identity-based phrases like “confident people,” “action-takers,” or “type-A people” and found that whenever I used the phrase “intelligent people,” my articles are shared massively. People responded so strongly to this phrase that I was able to convince my publishers to change the subtitle of my book to How Intelligent People Can Create A More Powerful Purpose For Their Lives.
If you can get people to identify with you or your message, they will happily share it to the ends of the Earth. In fact, studies show that most people will do whatever it takes to stay aligned with their identity. They will make excuses, exaggerate actions, and even shift blame to stay aligned. They key is getting people to identify with your message and then driving them to take positive action–action that makes both you and them look good.
7. Arouse people to action.
Emotion drives action. This is because emotions are controlled by the limbic system, a primal part of the brain that also controls motivation and decision-making. If you want people to share your stuff, you have to get them emotional. Don’t just throw prescriptive jargon at them. Show them how to be awesome. Show them how to be happy, excited, and confident.
University of Pennsylvania researchers performed a detailed study of the New York Times list of most e-mailed articles. The researchers checked the list every 15 minutes for more than six months, analyzing the content of thousands of articles and controlling for factors like placement on the Webpage and publication timing. The study found that people share inspirational articles far more than other types of articles.
The reason my Facebook post was shared more than any other picture post in the world is because it tapped into the right emotion at the right time. I had been asking my audience questions for months and many of their responses mentioned that sometimes they felt guilty for being happy because the people around them weren’t happy. This feeling is what the post’s message tapped into and it’s why people took action to share it over a million times.