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How to write a viral blog post and deal with the aftermath.

fermented soda bottles
Image © Julie R. Neidlinger. All rights reserved.

A 2013 blog post about Diet Coke went truly viral (millions of views), and I lived to tell the tale.


But here's the trick: anyone telling you how to write a viral blog post is pulling your leg.


No one knows. (See Lesson #3 below).


True virality is not controllable, nor is it predictable. People talk about viral content today in a way where the word doesn't really mean all that much. Basically, if someone other than your mom looks at what you've created, influencers tell you to tout your viral status.


It used to be, back in the day before social media, that you went viral because Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit mentioned you (called an Instalanche, of which I had two) or you truly went organically viral because bloggers kept linking to your post and it spread that way.


The Diet Coke post went viral because of Twitter. I didn't realize it was happening until, during a holiday weekend, I checked my stats and realized my comment section had exploded.


Lesson #1: The response from a viral blog post sucks


Comments were beyond ridiculous. There were positive, negative, perverted, spam, foul, totally off topic—as we've learned in horror movies, nothing good comes from making noise that attracts attention.


Sure, I had stuff to sell on my website. But viral posts bring in people who are there for the show, not to buy.


Roughly, comments looked something like this:


  • 65% "Thank you thank you, I get so tired of the food police."

  • 25% "I can't believe how ignorant you are, let me school you in all of the unhealthy things you shouldn't be consuming."

  • 5% "You must work for Coca Cola."

  • 3% "Ha ha you're an idiot."

  • 2% "Check out my sex toys website" (for reals) or some variant of "I have a great business opportunity that you can make hundreds of thousands a year"


I turned the comments off around 500. I got 1000 new followers on Twitter which meant hours to manually remove because I didn't want a bunch of strangers interacting with me. I had east coast radio stations wanting me to pop into their talk show to stir up dissent or who knows what.


Every once in a while a person emails me still, to this day, about that post.


I traced zero sales, new clients, or business from it. Now, that's not the only reason to write; if I encouraged someone, that's extremely important to me. But from a business standpoint, viral posts aren't necessarily bank. They might just be headache.


When I worked at a startup, I wrote a blog post about the psychology of color and after I was let go, that turned into a little war to retain my name on the post instead of assigning all credit to a different employee. I also found podcasts where the startup founder dismissed the post as a kind of red herring because it brought people in to read the post but didn't transform them into customers. Some became blog email subscribers, but we didn't (at least initially) track any turning into paying customers.


When you can pay your rent with other people's eyeballs, virality might have some value. Otherwise, it often doesn't.


Lesson #2: The material from a viral blog post haunts you and tempts you


A few years later, after similar food police incidents both in person and online (hint: don't post a photo of holiday Lucky Charms on your Instagram because they cannot resist) prompted a conversation with a friend about how people now seem to not only feel no shame in approaching people and correcting them about food and nutritional beliefs, but almost feel it is their duty.


"You should run that Diet Coke post on your blog again," my friend said, shaking his head after I told him about those more recent incidents.


"I don't know. It seems to really set people off."


"You should run it."


"People are religious about their health and food and lifestyle beliefs," I said.


"I think you should publish it again."


That stupid post, which is not my best thinking or writing, ends up on every blog I run in some form because it Was The One Big Viral Success I had and there's a small hope it might do it again even though virality cannot be manufactured and requires a specific moment in time with the right person to share it in the midst of that zeitgeist. It's like a millstone, your blogging glory days that you can't forget.


God forbid my greatest internet achievement be about Diet Coke and color theory psychology (another viral post I wrote working for a startup). But it seems that way.


Lesson #3: In a world of opinions, a viral blog post is going to require major attention


Viral engagement also sucks.


Everyone has opinions on you, your content, your assertions, your mom. The cost of bringing traffic to your site to find customers has a much higher cost than dollars. It costs your attention, and a viral blog post takes that to the n-th degree.


Every yahoo in the world wants to email, message, comment, and get ahold of you to let you know that they think you're wrong.


OK.


The best thing I did was shut comments off and walk away and stop looking at stats and comments elsewhere. Just let it die a natural death and move on. Trying to capitalize on the virality in the hopes of prolonging it and turning it into subscribers or income or fans might work but it's going to be a seriously unbalanced time/ROI ratio.


Lesson #4: The best ROI from a viral blog post is from sticky content


Evergreen, sticky—all of the buzzwords I learned to despise when working at a startup still have truth even if oldsters like me would have used words like "timeless."


In other words, content that will age well does best in the long run because people will be interested in the ideas for months and years to come.


A post about health-obsessed people has seemingly aged well, but a post about Diet Coke probably won't age well.


I mean, personally, I drink Coke Zero now.





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