Fanning the Social Media Flame
for Viral Exposure

image of lit match

Are you a content marketer? If so, you have a choice to make.

You can sit around and wait for your content to go viral.

You can hope you’ll get sudden bursts of traffic, hope your readers will spread the word, hope your content will catch fire.

Or you can bring your own matches and lighter fluid to set the dang thing aflame yourself.

As bloggers and content marketers, which will you choose?

Sure, sometimes the passion you have for a subject will be enough to ignite a spark and compel your audience to share your content with their network. Being able to unleash something with such conviction and power that it combusts on its own is great.

Over at my SEO consulting firm Outspoken Media, we’ve been able to do it several times.

Sometimes we post something like The Power of the Unexpected, something that goes hot without us lifting a finger. As content writers, we live for these moments.

However, they almost never happen.

What is more common is that marketers need to fan their content to help it ignite and go viral. And sometimes that means stepping in when an accidental hit shows signs of life. How do you recognize those signs to take advantage? Here are some methods we use at Outspoken Media.

Identifying the spark

You know what’s normal for your community. You know how many comments an average post gets, how many tweets, how many shares, etc.

When you start to see activity that is double/triple what you’re used to seeing, act.

For example, early on we published a post called It’s Not The Recession, You Just Suck. Almost immediately after hitting the publish button I noticed the post being retweeted and passed through social media at a velocity that dwarfed anything we had seen prior.

Once we noticed we had a spark, we jumped in to add fuel and fan it.

Adding fuel to the fire

As soon as you notice a post showing signs of life, it’s up to you to keep the momentum going.

On the social Web, that means keeping the conversation alive. Find people who are talking about your post and encourage them. Respond to comments, engage, fan the debate, and keep the conversation on a healthy note.

When we called out Robert Scoble last year for spreading misinformation, he was the first person to come and engage on our post, and he did so negatively and aggressively.

The tone he set could have killed the conversation right there and caused people to be fearful of jumping in. But we weren’t going to let that happen. Instead, we went in there to engage Robert and show the community this was just the beginning of the conversation that would ultimately take place. We made it obvious that we were still in the post listening, and that everyone who commented would be heard and responded to.

No one wants to hang out at a party that’s dead or on its way out. Its important people see you’re still there.

Another way to add fuel is to allow readers to subscribe to comments so that they’re alerted each time a new voice enters the fray. This will keep them in conversation mode. It’s good for debate, but it’s also good in terms of SEO. The more page views the post receives, the more time people spend reading comments, the more it’s going to give off positive toolbar data to the search engines and help the post appear on an Alexa hotlist.

Fanning a positive flame

So, let me fill you in on something you already know — it’s really hard to have an intelligent conversation on the Internet.

Things always start out okay. Someone chimes in to offer an intelligent opinion and then, almost before your eyes, it devolves into threats, accusations and commentary about who still lives with their mother.

While it’s 100 percent entertaining to watch people have emotional breakdowns in public, conversations that get too far off track hurt your chances of going viral.

As the owner of that community, you’re responsible for fanning the flame in the right direction. When you see personal attacks being made, it’s up to you to steer the conversation back. If you think people are going too far, moderate.

Be careful, though. Viral conversations are typically rooted in debate. So you don’t want to discourage or squash it, but do keep things productive. You need to be the adult in the room, regardless of how good it feels to throw things.

Hitting the social streets

Once you’ve helped fan the flame, hit the streets!

Make sure your piece has been properly submitted to all the right social media sites, that it’s been Stumbled, that it’s on Reddit, that niche social sites are aware of it, and that it’s hit all of the communities and blogs you know are friendly to you.

Once you complete that, look outside your bubble to find other networks that may find your content interesting. What you’re trying to do here is pull people in from other networks so they’ll go out and talk about it with their community, one that doesn’t currently follow you.

It’s great that your own readers are passionate and involved in the conversation, but you want to use the natural sparks to pick up on other readers to help grow your blog and authority.

Tipping off mainstream media

You’ve covered your bases on the social networks, now look toward news sites and blog aggregators that may be interested in the conversation happening around your post.

If you’re part of the marketing community, you want to watch aggregators like TechMeme and TweetMeme. If you have a hot social media story, you want to tip off someone at Mashable. If it’s Google or heavily tech-related, tip off TechCrunch. If it’s a broader tech story, tip off more mainstream outlets, as well.

For example, our post about what we perceived to be brandjacking by Seth Godin received coverage from Business Week. My partner Rae Hoffman’s post on Google’s Real Time Spam Problem was noted in USA Today. And my other partner Rhea Drysdale is often featured on CNN.

These don’t happen by accident. They were opportunities created by tipping off the right people at the right time. This is where having a linkerati list comes into play. It helps you know who to contact for what type of story.

Making sure the post is optimized for SEO

The final thing you want to do is properly SEO your post to capitalize on search.

Going back to our Robert Scoble example, when we saw that taking off, we went back and edited the title tag to include Robert Scoble’s name. It was a small tweak that allowed us to take advantage of Google’s freshness factor and appear in his News results.

It’s a temporary rank, but it made sure that anyone who searched for Robert Scoble that day found our post. Sometimes that’s all you’re looking to do, to help keep the momentum going and get eyes to the page. You have to build awareness.

Content marketers don’t have the luxury of sitting back and hoping something goes hot. It’s up to you to help things take on a life of their own, whether it was planned from the start or you picked up on early signs of success.

Savvy content marketers always have the matches and lighter fluid ready for when a spark presents itself.

About the Author: Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer and social media strategist. She’s most known for saving brands (most often from themselves) and for her voracious tweeting. You can follow her on Twitter at @lisabarone or find her blogging about her own struggles with voice at VoiceInterrupted.com.

P.S.

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  1. Lisa:

    These are excellent examples of using SEO and social media, to help increase blog popularity. Your ideas like subscribe to comments, monitor comments, jump on what is a hot post, etc., are sound ideas.

    Sometimes it’s hard to predict what takes off – as you eluded to.
    Let me add a couple stories on Viral Marketing (i.e. YouTube).

    A musician had his guitar broken by United Airlines. Since he couldn’t get it paid for, he devoted a series of 3 music videos to the event. If you Google “United Breaks Guitars”, the three videos will come up. I especially like the first one at http://is.gd/gp7pT.

    For the record, the most popular YouTube video I encountered is SpongeBob SquarePants in China at http://is.gd/gAecV.

    Your idea about tipping off the right people at the right time, holds merit. I think this is how they got the word out about the Harry Potter theme park in Disneyland. While they had a marketing budget and approval to go in any direction – guess what? They leaked the idea to 7 popular bloggers.

    If you use the WordPress blogging platform, there are some good SEO and Social Media Plug-ins. I won’t mention names – just Google them.

    Good thoughts throughout your blog post!

    Randy

    • The source for the blogging story is HubSpot. I think the webinar was entitled “The New Rules of Viral Marketing.”
      Randy

      • I did an original comment showing three viral examples:

        A musician had his guitar broken by United Airlines .Since he couldn’t get it paid for, he devoted a series of 3 music videos to the event. If you Google “United Breaks Guitars”, the three videos will come up.

        the most popular YouTube video I encountered is SpongeBob SquarePants in China

        Here’s how they got the word out about the Harry Potter theme park in Disneyland. While they had a marketing budget and approval to go in any direction – guess what? They leaked the idea to 7 popular bloggers.

    • Randy,

      How is your comment first?! I saw with my own eyes that Raul posted first, and I posted second. You must be a magician!

      Joseph

      • Joseph:

        They must have set approval on for comments and Lisa didn’t get around to turning it off. My original comment said, “approval pending.” So I just appended to my original comment, to clarify it. Both appended comments showed up in separate threads.

        I assume I’m not being singled out for being “too intellectual” or “too controversial”. It’s not like I make comments that mock the author or their ideas, cut everyone down, etc. If that were the case, I would ban myself. I assume it was a glitch and I fell through the cracks. Right?

        Randy

        • I don’t have access to approve comments, but I imagine it’s something like that, yes. :)

        • Right Randy! And good for you…

          Like you said it is pretty hard to predict what is hot or what would be hot next; but thus far I think Youtube is almost the most viral thing out there – like your example showed. And I tried googling “united breaks guitars” and you were absolutely correct!

          Just one spark…

        • Randy,

          Your first comment today is great. I’ve never heard about the Harry Potter leak before. Good to know.

          My guess about the “approval pending” situation is that if you include links in your comment, it gets reviewed. This guards against spamming and other such things.

    • Thanks for the comment, Randy. The Harry Potter is a good one. As you mentioned, they only leaked that announcement out to seven people — but they leaked it to the RIGHT seven people and the result was a whole lot of buzz. That’s why it’s so important to build your connections and know who’s lurking in your comment. It helps you pinpoint who you should contact and when.

    • Thanks Randy for your mini-blog. I’ve said this yesterday, I am looking forward to read your comments.

      I do not do how you do this thing. It seems that you are on the net 24/7 searching for something to share.

  2. Just one spark starts a fire!

    • Raul,

      I’m not sure if you were taking part in my challenge from yesterday, but congrats on getting the first comment in. It looks like yours is the one to start the fire.

      Joseph

  3. This helps to know it’s important to stoke a viral fire once it’s started.

    So far I’ve had one post that took off more than I ever expected. Basically a famous blogger tweeted it, and it took off from there. Once it did, I didn’t really know what to do to fan the flame, so I mostly watched and hoped more people would pass it on.

    This post helps to know what to do to fan a small fire into flame. Next time I’ll be more active in pouring on the lighter fluid. As long as there is a next time…

    Thanks Lisa!

  4. I believe a picture of Lisa belly dancing in knee socks would have made this post go viral much faster ;)

    I loved those Outspoken posts you mentioned. I had fun watching them as they took off.

  5. Wow! Thank You Lisa! You give us an enlightening article and then
    set sparks along the road so it’s easier to follow through … how generous of you!

    I feel encouraged to write more posts with potential for going viral and begin to test your suggestions!

    Fran_C :)

  6. Lisa. Love this article! Gee, all your work just makes me want to be a better writer and this is a perfect example of why. I do agree with Shane Arthur, the socks and belly dancing may have set this viral but with great content like this, I think we may not need a flame, just a small spark :-)

  7. Great article Lisa.. I get lazy sometime and start hoping stuff just happens, and they rarely do.

    We have to take it upon ourselves to make sure that we’re being heard in this crowded space. thanks for this post

    Hector

    • I think a lot of us start out “hoping” things will just happen but, unfortunately, it doesn’t tend to work that way. It’s up to us to keep an eye out for signs of life and then make sure we’re fanning the flame even bigger to build it up. It takes some work, but I really think the rewards are worth it.

  8. Nothing can be taken for granted, and the supposed “unexpected” results are not unexpected because you didn’t work for them, they are unexpected because you were hoping your efforts would pan out, and they did.

    The attention to detail that Ms Lisa here has given to ‘following through’ on your content is just ONE example of how focused, smart work – but work nonetheless – is required to be great, to be memorable and to be viral.

    Good, thoughtful post, Lisa!

  9. There’s always a next time as long as you’re committed to writing quality content with little or no agenda, other than providing value to your readers.

    Thanks, Lisa, for the additional information on how to keep the momentum going after we get that viral boost. Most times it can be so unexpected that we spend all our time gazing at our Google Analytics graph that we don’t pay any attention to how we can help it grow even more.

    Jon Thomas

    • The trouble with watching your Google Analytics is by the time it shows up in there you’ve MISSED the spark and it’s already out. You really want to be watching the real-time signals so you can capitalize while the spark still has time to grow.

  10. Some good points here, please don’t just rely on twitter and the like.

    We actually had one of our posts tweeted by the man that is Tony Hawk yesterday, over 2.2 million followers but as with such large numbers on twitter the CTR is very very small. It just managed to get our top content of the day, but only just (you will read about the story on a well know blog soon, don’t worry).

    Stories than gain more momentum in a smaller, more niche community often are more engaging and longer lasting.

  11. When I read this, I almost cry.

    We tried hiring people to do this job several times, and always failed.

    (at least in our niche) our service is pretty popular and loved by every single client. We tried to increase exposure to go beyond our close circuit by someone who would write and promote the writing.

    We recruited people from:
    1) Elance
    2) LinkedIn
    3) Personal references

    Always a disaster.

    First week is full of energy and excitement.
    Second week it starts going slow.
    Third week, all energy is out.

    Where would be a good place to find a truly energetic person for this kind of work?

    • If you’re hiring someone off Elance or something like LinkedIn, you might want to tie in bonuses with how much visibility the content gets. If they’re being paid the same amount for a piece that gets 5 visitors as one that gets 5,000, there’s no much motivation to help promote it. You also may want to look into bringing in an agency to either help you promote or to consult and TEACH you how to do it yourself.

      • Thanks Lisa. I appreciate you taking the time to help with advice.

        I’d love to be able to do this work myself, but running a business doesn’t leave enough time to do everything I want.

        Performance based is definitely the way to go.

        And, like any other field, most people talk a lot and a few act. It’s always a challenge to find the ones who are talented and hard-working. As the boss, that’s what I should be doing.

  12. Great post Lisa,

    I’ve considered fanning the flames socially on a blog post to be very similar to getting a traditional fire going, from a spark, to a small fire, to a blaze.

    I feel like this effort really starts months and years before you have a hot post. You need to build relationships with big name bloggers and writers, so when you tweet them or e-mail them, they actually pay attention to what you sent. I for example got a blogger this morning with 37,000 followers to RT a blog post of mine. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done that, had I approached him cold. But the established relationship helped sell the post.

    Thanks,
    @Garmoe

    • You’re right on the money! It’s really important to build relationships with bloggers and news outlets before you need to use them. It’s a lot easier to get them to cover something when you’re coming at them as someone they know instead of a stranger. Earn the favor before you try and call it in.

  13. Hi Lisa,

    Great advice here! I just posted a slightly off-topic and definitely controversial post on my blog. I thought about it for a while but decided ultimately it was something I believed in so went for it.

    Definitely wasn’t trying for viral but it has generated some really thoughtful comments so I now feel it was the right decision.

    I intentionally didn’t do any SEO optimisation because it was off-topic but take your point that it’s a great strategy for marketers (content or otherwise I think).

    Cathy

    • Even if the post is off-topic you should still SEO it to help people find the content and, by association, your site. Remember, a rising tide lifts all ships. The content doesn’t have to be 100 percent on topic to help build links/exposure to your site.

  14. Lisa some really great tips on what to do onece the viral flames get started tro make sure to really capitalize and make the most of it. Now just to get to the point where it gets started!

  15. Ooh Lisa this is great stuff! I have had a few posts get hot, but for the most part I wasn’t sure what the next steps were. Now I know about creating a list of linkerati, and although I’ve been thinking of doing something similar for awhile you just gave me the motivation to do it now.

    Thanks my dear! :)

  16. Beautiful ideas! I never really thought before about letting folks subscribe to the comment stream but it certainly does make sense in that instance.

    Love the title regarding the recession…have to see how I can apply that to my niche as well.

  17. Lisa, these are great examples and tips. I normally read the post and rarely leave a comment. I especially like the “tipping off mainstream media”.

  18. Hey Lisa, Thanks for a great post! Sometimes it feels like I’m sooo far away from fanning the flames as I desperately rub two sticks together to start the goddammed spark! :)

    Two things I need to do immediately: a) Get the Comments RSS button and b) go on a link trip! I love going outside my ‘bubble’ and wandering off around the blogosphere looking for interesting blogs to link with. Mind you it’s time consuming, especially when you forget to come back to base and write the occasional post…:))

    Rosemary

  19. Lisa,

    Thanks for your advice today. I thought a recent post of mine had gone dead, but then I promoted it in the comment sections on a couple of blogs today and realized that I just need to fan the flame a little. People are still interested in the post. It’s just a matter of keeping the flame hot.

    Thanks again for your tip.

    Joseph

  20. Perhaps I am throwing a damp blanket on your post — or perhaps I am fanning the flames — we’ll see.

    First, I want to challenge the whole notion of the value of “viral.” I have had several posts go “viral.” One post got 10 hits a second for hours. What did it add to my business? Zip. How many new blog readers? Also close to zero. With rare exceptions, viral visitors are simply tourists. Unless you are getting paid per ad impression — viral is meaningliess.

    Second I want to take exception with the Robert Scoble incident. The way he was provoked and then promoted smacks of an intentional stunt. Perhpas it was all legitimate, but that is the way it appears and i’m not sure you can get by with too many of those and build an authentic community.

    I don’t think there are short-cuts to building a community.

    Lisa, I think this is the second post of yours I have commented on today : )

    • I totally get what you’re saying, Mark. When I began making videos for YouTube I spent some time examining the really popular ones. After my initial horror subsided, I wondered how I could every come up with something that would go viral — let alone maintain my integrity :lol:

      People want Sensation, which I’m not sure I can deliver. And I don’t have it in me to attack someone. And I don’t see the point in investing time and energy to create something that will attract a large segment of randomly targeted visitors.

      I would require a very special skill to go viral with something that will produce any kind of lasting results. Kudos to anyone who can do that.

      Rick

  21. Thank you Lisa for sharing your thoughts. Fanning the flame of conversation will really help one’s website.

    It happened to me last night in Facebook. I posted a shout and somebody responded. It helped that every comment to my facebook page is sent to my yahoo email account. I think I can apply the same to my website too.

    I think I should add something like that of the “followup comments via email” below this comment form.

  22. This is a very interesting post and I have re-tweeted it now. We are new to Social Media for our business and just learning the ropes, I like what you say about fanning the flames and steering the conversation positively, and how to make a negative reaction spiral virally for a positive outcome. This is very smart advice and an intelligent post.

  23. Great post–as an example, fanning the flames is definitely something that makes a huge difference when it comes to Facebook, because of the way that the news feed is structured. Sure, your post has to get one comment to begin with, but as soon as that one person comments, you have an opportunity to comment back–and bump it up in the newsfeed yet again. I’ve seen a long comment chain, even if it’s only between the author and one other person, result in huge clickthrough numbers. And engaging with the audience you do have, after all, is just as important as expanding your audience.

  24. Lisa,

    Good SEO, titles and little help can make you blog post go viral! I have seen it happen in my other blog. Stumble upon is one of the better social media in my experience compared to any thing else.

    How about you and others? what social media works the best for you all?

  25. This was a really good read. I like the concept of seeing something catch a little interest and then fanning the flames. Jumping in and adding to the conversation or stimulating more conversation to make it go viral. I haven’t yet had a post with that spark, but will definitely follow your tips when I get one.

  26. Hey Lisa — what a refreshing perspective on yesterday’s somewhat brash ‘Mad Men’ post. You’ve made it a lot easier for the Copyblogger community to embrace the tenets of self-marketing.

    I also really dig your writing style. It’s rich, smooth and it sparkles ;)

  27. Lisa, thank you for great post. Its more than helpful.
    Its not a first time i visit here. I discovered so numerous fascinating stuff in copyblogger particularly its discussion. From the plenty of comments on copyblogger articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment right here! keep up the great work.

  28. A minor point, your blog titles are excellent. As I read through this post, I just started clicking on each one. It shows the power of controversy in your titles.

  29. Anyone just sitting around “hoping” it goes viral is in for a big disappointment.

    @Mark W. Shaefer….you may not have gotten a sale, but hopefully you went up in the search engine’s eyes!

    I love the blog titles, too!

  30. I like the proactive, hands-on approach of your post.

    We rarely think of timing as an important factor in promoting content on the Web but it is, with social media, something to definitely keep in mind. Thanks for pointing that out and providing a method through the madness.

  31. Hi Lisa,
    Great informative post. I think it is useful because as you pointed out, it is not always possible to predict when something is going to go viral, but when it does, it is best to be prepared.
    Amazing how many of these things are orchestrated too!
    Thank you.

  32. Great article.
    You never know what blog post will be the one that will get the most tweaks, likes and comments. Sometimes I’m very surprised by it. But it is important to take an advantage of that like you describe in the article. Awesome information.
    VG

  33. This social technique is something I need to research more to get my head around it to learn how to effectively use it. As I read this article it put in the right direction.

  34. Hi Lisa,

    This is the first time I’ve heard of the “linkerati.” I know what they do but I never really thought of them collectively in that way.

    This post of yours is just rich with information. I also like the fact that you placed SEO last in your outline. As content marketers, we should focus on content and substance before anything else.

  35. Interesting. But at the same time I’m a bit shocked by the obvious irony. Maybe it’s just me? The contrarian?

    That is, you specifically mention about pushing the buttons of “the right people” to fan the flame but then define success by how far and wide your blogging {bleep} is splattered against the e-wall? Frankly viral doesn’t mean {bleep} if it doesn’t drive some other bottom line metric. Viral for the sake of viral is just plain silly. Or did I miss that part of the discussion?

    In a split second it seems as if quality visits gets tossed out the window in favor of bragging right. Sure a spike is nice to have but isn’t the ultimately goal quality views and visits? Or maybe this discussion is limited to pay for sheer impressions, and not one looking to attract high quality clients?

    My point is, that if the purpose is to engage clients and deepen engagement, that’s not synonymous with getting a viral reaction to an occasional post. One can’t help but wonder what would happen if the energy spent to fan the fire was instead focused on a couple of prospects.

    I’m just sayin’ :)

  36. Thanks for this amazing article Lisa. I have shared it on my blog for my readers.