Why a Legendary Album and a Viral Hoax Should Inspire You to Create Content That’s Worth a Damn

image of Peter Green playing guitar

It’s the usual story.

A poor Jewish kid, guitar player from London’s East End. Black curly hair blossoming around his head. T-shirt tucked tightly into his flared jeans.

He’s leading one of the most popular bands of the late 60s. He’s touring the world, playing large concerts, making acclaimed records, dropping acid. He and his bandmates are living the life most musicians only dream of.

But not this kid.

He’s Peter Green. Anxious and unsettled. He’s got a vision for something substantial. Something different. Something that is “worth a damn.”

That something would ultimately be one of the greatest albums ever created.

It was because of Green’s intensity that B.B. King said Green was the only guitarist who gave him cold sweats when he played. And it was because of that intensity drummer Mick Fleetwood said, “We were all about following our friend and our musical mentor into the fire.”

We’ll get back to Peter Green and his legendary record in a minute.

The viral geniuses

But first, there’s this guy from Gawker.

He’s an editor. A mix between machine and magician because the headlines and articles he writes often get more page views in a month (30 million) than the rest of the writing staff of Gawker combined.

Month in, month out.

His secret? True, it starts with viral headlines — headlines that convince even the hardest of hearts to click. But it’s the stories he shares that are the key. He “understands the emotions that might compel someone to click on an item” and then share it.

This is the trick behind Upworthy, too.

Last summer Fast Company called it the “fastest-growing media site of all time.” It generated 8.7 million views in its first month. Monthly page views are now near 100 million, unbelievable for a site less than two years old.

Upworthy has taken a page from the playbooks of Buzzfeed and Gawker and upped the game. The site has nailed the science of curiosity-inducing headlines, though they say that is not their secret sauce. The content they share must pass these three tests:

  1. Is the content substantive, engaging, and maybe even entertaining?
  2. If 1 million people saw it, would the world be a better place?
  3. Does the content actually deliver on the promise of the headline?

At Upworthy paid curators comb the web looking for that super-sharable piece. Then they write 25 headlines, test them vigorously, and roll the post out.

It’s a successful formula for page views, but that’s not the only trick in the viral magician’s bag.

When lying goes viral

Some would call 2013 the year of the internet hoax.

Hoaxes were big, with the biggest being Elan Gale’s “argument” on Thanksgiving Day with cranky airplane passenger “Diane.” That crude, misoginystic exchange garnered 1.5 million page views and blew up his Twitter account.

Talk about putting your name on the map.

The sheer shock and audacity of that exchange kept us glued to his feed and to this article. (No doubt this was a superb example of internal cliffhangers.) We couldn’t keep our eyes away from that wreckage, even if we were completely disgusted and even if, in our hearts, we knew this couldn’t possibly be true.

What is wrong with us?

Nothing. We just love stories, whether they are true or not. We want to be entertained. Enthralled. We want to escape, which is why we float on the stream that is the Internet for most of the day.

But some argue that the stream has crested, and that change is in the air.

Should content marketers do viral?

As content marketers this excitement and attention makes us pay attention. We are asking ourselves: “What can I learn from Gawker? Buzzfeed? Upworthy? Even from an epic fake note-passing war on a delayed flight?”

Do we do the outrageous to get attention? Do we dish out eye candy to lure the eyeballs home?

We know this: online marketing is driven by content. But what kind of content?

Ezra Klein at the Wonkblog, commenting on Gawker’s viral genius, thinks we need to be thoughtful about our reaction to these examples. He shares four lessons traditional content marketers should learn from the popularity of being viral:

  1. Don’t ignore the traffic potential of social media sites.
  2. You can learn how to write for social media.
  3. Don’t be overly impressed by these page numbers.
  4. Re-package boring content to spread on the social web.

Number three should stand out to you like a Buddhist monk armed with an AK-47. Let’s explore it.

The problem with high page views

People live for the immediate, the now. But here’s the deal: people also want substance. They want solid solutions to their problems.

This is why Google rolled out in-depth article search results: to reward long-form content. And this is why Google rolled out Panda: to punish weak, shallow content.

High traffic is like a drug. You want more of it. And so you must push the edges. You must constantly innovate, which is risky and unsustainable.

Our Director of Content, Jerod Morris, knows high levels of traffic all too well.

His site Midwest Sports Fans jumped in traffic and notoriety after Jerod wrote a controversial article that ultimately landed him on ESPN. The only problem is he couldn’t flip that traffic into significant sustained revenue. Display advertising is a hard way to make a living (a point Ezra Klein also made on the Wonkblog).

Just ask Gawker. They’ve switched their business model to a proven one: affiliate marketing. Not unlike Maria Popova and her website Brain Pickings.

So where does that leave you? Somewhere between The New Yorker and Gawker.

Think: Copyblogger.

Back to Peter Green

Peter Green was losing his mind.

Loads of LSD probably had a lot to do with it, but drugs only elevated what he already felt: uncomfortable with stardom. At least the superficial part of it.

Yet, this can’t be missed: The album that followed Green’s anxiety was Then Played On, about which Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke said, “I think it’s one of the most beautiful records and exciting records ever made.”

Now that’s substance.

When it comes to your business, you need the intensity of a Peter Green. This is no different than Sonia’s G.A.S concept, Google’s emphasis on cornerstone content, and Beth Hayden’s argument that content marketing is a long game.

We don’t need to go overboard like Green (he never recovered), but we need to give the world something more than just the quick and dirty.

So create something worth a damn.

Provide real value to the segment of society that wants it right now. That needs it right now. These are the people who are looking to learn how to play chess, strengthen their core, climb out of debt, complete college, and find love that will last.

There is no shortage of needs and wants you can satisfy. We all long for something.

This is your next move

That doesn’t mean you abandon viral content. Better yet, you can mix the viral with the substantial. For example:

  • Hire a designer to create a cheat sheet for the 11 most common chess openings and allow people to embed, share, download, and print the poster. (We just did something similar.)
  • Record a handful of documentaries on people who’ve climbed out of debt using your techniques, then publish it on YouTube.
  • Publish an ebook on the habits of insanely successful college students and give it away.

But make the bulk of your content substantial.

See, when it comes to finding solutions to our problems we want something that is meaningful and practical. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional quick fix, but the bulk of your content should have long-term value.

This is nothing new to Copyblogger.

Our advice? Green himself summed it up in the first line of “Closing My Eyes,” the second track on Then Play On: “Now it’s the same as before.”

We’ve been preaching quality over quantity for years, and we have lots of resources to help you create substantial content.

Or you could grab this free series of seven ebooks on content marketing: How to Build the Audience That Builds Your Business.

They will give you a jump start on the only content marketing strategy that works: building something that is worth a damn.

The image atop the post shows Peter Green in March of 1970, roughly six months after the release of Then Play On. He would leave Fleetwood Mac in May. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Reader Comments (38)

  1. says

    Why does something go viral? Because it makes a superficial connection with a large number of people, rather than an in-depth connection with a few.

    Peter Green was trying to make that in-depth connection with the few. He was intent on living up to some heroes. Adding something special of his own. And – a little bit – outdoing the other top people out there driving blues into something new – Messrs Clapton, Beck and Page.

    He didn’t want it to go viral. It was the last thing on his mind.

    And it tells you how to make something viral. Best summed up by Hitchhiker’s Guild to the Galaxy on Flying – “To fly, you must throw yourself at the ground and miss”.

    If you aim to go viral you won’t. If you communicate passion and create something genuinely new, then you might.

  2. says

    The epic battle between writing for traffic or writing from the heart. Traffic is great until it blows up your server and you find out it goes away the next day. Writing from the heart is a great way to connect with readers, if they can find you ever, at all.

    Thanks for giving us a way to mix the viral with the substantial. Now to just make it work… hmmm… Viral headline, substantial content…

  3. says

    I so appreciate the message in this piece. I’m at the beginnings of growing my online business and it is tempting to do “quick and dirty” because so many others APPEAR to be successful that way.

    The only thing is that I want integrity, not just followers. I do get a little anxious when one of the few FB followers I have drops out, but I’m determined not to let that distract me from creating real content — whether on my blog, my workshops or even my FB posts.

    I’ve always appreciated Copyblogger’s stance on quality content. Thanks for all the great links here. I’ve got a lot of studying to do!

  4. says

    Demian, great piece. Intensity + creativity = legendary :) Creators need to break the “emotional sound barrier” to break through the noise.

    As the supply of content grows and outpaces the demand, these traits, along with substance, will become even more important.

    Content marketing can and should go beyond blogging to take advantage of emerging social and computing platforms. With smartphones, we all have a content “Tasmanian Devil” in the palm of our hands.

  5. says

    Right. The viral stuff that’s entertaining will travel far and wide, but once you’ve read it and time moves on, you pretty much move on to other things as well.

    With the substance content, you want to go back to that content and read it again and again. It might give important information that you need now and you know you’ll need again later, so you save it – bookmark it or whatever – to go back to later.

    That’s what this site is for me – full of substance that I’ll probably never get entirely read, but I will come back to over and over to solve problems, get motivated and get ideas to write posts about.

    Thanks for the great content here!

  6. says

    Yes Demian, affiliate marketing is a great way to earn income, and it still requires all the work you teach here. No short cut about it.

    In the Jerod Morris example you said “he couldn’t flip that traffic into significant sustained income.”

    So what are some things we can do to get the most out of a viral home run? Can you expand on this a bit here or post a link to other teachings on this?

    Thanks Chief,

    • says


      I’ll tell you one thing I could have done back then that I so, so, so wish I had done — but I just hadn’t learned it yet: build an email list. (Oh, if only I’d been a Copyblogger reader back then!)

      Sure, I had it set up so people could subscribe to an article digest, but that was it. If I’d been really smart, back when MSF was getting hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of views each month, and lots of repeat comments, I’d have developed an email list to give me a closer touch point with readers (as well as do more to develop community on the site). That, plus a content strategy that took a more long-term view as opposed to the short-term view that becomes so easy and addictive to have when revenue is based on ad impressions, would have really helped out.

      • says

        One of my top priorities in 2014 is the email list, Jerod. Thanks for the reinforcement on this point. Can I go ahead and make a request for Copyblogger to write more about email marketing? :)

        And I’ll be sure to include long term planning on my content. Another great point, Jerod. Gracias

  7. says

    Hi Demian,

    We are always, or should always be, entertaining. Each blog post or newsletter or video or any content requiring a title should tell an entertaining story. Good note too about getting to the place of being compelling; brilliant minds achieved great things without destroying the body attached to the mind 😉

    Thanks for the awesome read!

  8. says

    Going viral is an interesting thing and I think you highlighted some very good points for and against virality. My favorite takeaway: creating some substantial and mixing it with viral. If you can go viral AND have content that is worthy of coming back to months, even years later, you’ve definitely won. Nice!

  9. says

    Finding that balance between viral and substantial is key. Thanks for this post. Video is a great way to do that, I think. One of my most successful posts was a video of an Amtrak train. It became popular among my friends and even now when I share it, it still gets clicks/views. Substance is key.

  10. says

    Damn good content is damn hard to create but often the best kind.

    I completely agree with your viewpoint on combing the two: viral content and substance.

    I personally need to create more eBooks and give it out for free.

    Often, the legends of music and other industries are legends because of what they produced and created.

    Viral content can be compared to Miley Cyrus’s music or Justin Bieber’s. It gets huge amounts of views, but is it necessarily full of substance? No, not all.

    Now compare it to the Beatles. Some of their songs are full of connection and substance along with viral songs mixed within.

    With the combination of the two, you can become an unbeatable content producing machine.

    – Samuel

    • says

      Those are great examples between substance and stunts … we know Miley because her stunts. Same with the new Beyonce album … once the stunt is over, are there any worthy songs?

  11. says

    It depends on your desired outcome. Is that about making money or getting read by a lot of people? Of course both outcomes might be nice. But often, aiming for one and hoping for the other as a nice little add-on brings disappointment.

    The best way to go viral is to write to the hearts of your target audience. Its they who determine whether your writing merits viral status.

  12. says

    I’m just sitting here wondering why I’ve never heard of Peter Green or this Fleetwood Mac album, Then Played On. Forget all the other shit. Never mind the hoaxes and cliff hangers, I can’t believe this album got past me.

  13. says

    Great article! I am a huge Peter Green fan. Of late I haven’t been publishing more than one post a month on my blog because I have been involved with other projects (including John Morrow’s guest blogging course). I usually publish one post a fortnight on average.

    This bothered me for a while. But because I am a regular visitor to the Copyblogger Website I decided that rather then publish an average post every second week, it’s better to publish an epic post every month.

    Thanks for writing a fascinating article as always Demian.

  14. says

    I like the fact that Demian made a strong division between substantial and viral – aiming at both is simply suicidal! Still viral doesn’t mean worser, no way – it’s just temporary and that’s all. Yes, it would drive you enormous boost in traffic, but for a period of time – so aiming purely at virality is like shooting in a forest chaotically for sake of hunting – nonsense. But publishing solid content consistently and being driven for it solidifies you and raises your chances for public acclaim and success.

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