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Share, Retweet, Repeat: Get Your Message Read and Spread

Author: John Hlinko


The Fierce Urgency of Going Viral

How many emails do you have in your address book? Hundreds? Thousands? More? Are you on Facebook? Twitter? How many hundreds or thousands more friends and followers do you have on those platforms?

The simple yet awesome truth is that the typical Internet user can now reach more people with a few keystrokes than Paul Revere reached during his entire ride. And he spurred a revolution.

Got three hundred email contacts? Send ten “cc all” emails a day, and you’ll make a million connections in just a year. Got Facebook friends and Twitter followers? For them, you don’t even need to “cc all,” since your actions are automatically fed into their feeds. “Telling friends” simply happens with each and every update. Thus, these social media platforms are even more important than email for spreading a message. And the power of those using them is growing.

Already, after just a few years, the average Facebook user has 130 Facebook friends.1 The average Twitter user has 126 followers.2 And these are numbers for the average users. When you look at the top few percent of Facebook and Twitter power users, the numbers are far higher. When you get to the real tippy top, the numbers are rather mind blowing.

Singer Rihanna’s Facebook page has tens of millions of fans. Yes, she’s hugely popular with or without Facebook, but she has the ability to reach tens of millions of people with a few keystrokes. Ditto with Lady Gaga, Eminem, and several others. Think about that. That’s something that the Beatles or Elvis never had.

On the political front, Barack Obama has more than twenty million Facebook fans. Sarah Palin has topped three million, and several other presidential aspirants are over a million. Again, with a few keystrokes, they can all reach more people than they could with all but the top national TV news programs.

Think NPR appeals to a narrow audience? Don’t tell that to NPR commentator Scott Simon, who long ago passed the one million mark in Twitter followers.

It’s not just the mega-famous who are reaching these numbers. In 2011, tech executive Wael Ghonim launched a page on Facebook called “We Are All Khaled Said” (a young Egyptian man who was killed by police) that quickly grew to hundreds of thousands of fans and helped fuel the historic revolution in Egypt. Justin Halpern, a young man living with his elderly dad, put up a Twitter feed that was nothing more than funny quips that his father came up with. “ShitMyDadSays” now has more than two million followers and even spawned a TV show. I myself have started several Facebook pages that engaged hundreds of thousands of fans with almost no marketing budget. One page, “Not having George Bush as President,” managed to gain over half a million fans based on nothing more than a very focused message—aimed specifically at Democratic activists—and a title twist that took advantage of the Facebook feed, that is, giving people the ability to have something show up in their feeds that was rather amusing: “John Hlinko just became a fan of not having George Bush as president.”

Not every page or email or tweet gets seen by millions of people—but some do. And in the age of friction-free spreading enabled by the Internet, every message now has the potential to do so.

What the Gutenberg printing press did for books, the Internet has done for “buzz.” It has dramatically reduced the cost necessary to get a compelling message out to a mass audience. Never before in human history have so many people been able to spread a message so wide, so quickly.

This is a huge shift, and one that has accelerated rapidly in recent years. Yes, the Internet has been a big deal since the mid ’90s. However, in the last few years, not only has there been a continuing increase in the number of people online, but there has also been an even bigger increase in the intensity of usage. The average American now spends sixty-eight hours per month online,3 far more time than a decade ago, or even a few years ago. And increasingly, that time is being spent in the hyper-viral world of social media—that is, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that allow for interactions between users and, thus, accelerate spreading. From August 2009 to August 2010, there was a 43 percent increase in the proportion of time online that Americans spent specifically on social networks (from 15.3 percent to 22.7 percent).4

And yet, too many people still create messages like it’s the old days. They craft messages to be read, rather than read and spread. To a large extent, it’s as if we’re in the early days of movies, when the first films were nothing more than cameras aimed at a stage, capturing a performance. Too many have not learned to shift their storytelling methods, taking into account the new tools at their disposal. They haven’t taken into account the fact that every recipient of information is now also a publisher. One with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of readers at their disposal, and one who can easily spread a message to these readers, if they deem the content to be spread-worthy.

Never before have the rewards been so great for hitting the Viral Trifecta.

The Single Biggest Myth About Viral Marketing

If you’ve been alive and not living under a rock for the last few years, you already know the power of viral marketing.. Some examples are just plain fun—millions of views for a video of a baby dancing to a Beyoncé song, for a squirrel on a water ski, or a particularly embarrassing Star Wars reenactment. Some examples, however, are quite profound, such as the idea a kid had in his dorm room that grew via viral spreading into the multibillion-dollar company known as Facebook.

And yet, many individuals who’d love to take advantage of viral power are held back because they believe a myth—the myth that you can’t really plan a viral campaign—that they “just happen” if you’re lucky. It’s a seductive myth, since it gives people license to avoid hard work and analysis, and instead just “shoot from the hip” and hope for the best. But this is about as logical as saying that hit songs are a matter of luck, so we should fire all the musicians and instead just have monkeys slam out a series of random notes to craft a song. Or pretending radio, MTV, and iTunes don’t exist, and just expecting the song to spread magically.

Yes, viral spreading takes luck. But there are most certainly steps that you can take to increase your chances of getting lucky. Those steps are encapsulated in the Viral Trifecta.

The Viral Trifecta: Message, Messenger, and Mechanism for Delivery

No plan can guarantee you that you will hit a viral home run every time. But you can dramatically increase your chances by focusing on all three components of Viral Trifecta:

1. Message: How can you craft content that is not just read but spread? What exactly makes content spread-worthy?

2. Messenger: How can you find the multipliers who will spread your message?

3. Mechanism for delivery: How can you take advantage of the highly viral nature of the Internet and social media for spreading your content?

This is an important lesson not just for the marketing, PR, or advertising professional, but for anyone seeking to get a message out effectively and with maximum return on investment: entrepreneurs, musicians, politicians, authors, and even just regular individuals seeking to promote their personal brand. Anyone who wants to understand how to stand out, how to be noticed, and how to get their messages read and spread is someone who needs to understand the components of the Viral Trifecta.

Message: Crafting Spread-Worthy Content

Even in the age of the Internet, content is still king. It is the message that is the virus, and ultimately, outstanding content is what fuels virality.

But the definition of “outstanding” changes when your goal moves from getting a message read to getting it spread. A message that speaks to the head is fine, if you want it read. But one that speaks to the heart too is more likely to be read and spread. As is one that provokes emotion, uses humor, or in some other way makes the recipient think it is worth putting their reputation on the line to spread.

Messenger: Finding Your Multipliers

Nearly everyone can spread a message, but only a certain subset of the population—the multipliers—actually does it, and does it effectively. They may have a larger audience, more credibility, a greater willingness to be overt about their opinions and actions—or a combination of all of these.

Multipliers are the people who will do your work for you. They will spread your message, as long as you give messages that are spread-worthy—that is, messages that are interesting and that make them look cool, savvy, or in the know. It really is that simple. Multipliers want to multiply things. And in a highly wired, social world, they have the ability to do so at a pace far greater than ever before. But you need to give them a reason.

Mechanism: Leveraging Highly Viral Technology Platforms

We will focus on the Internet and social media in particular as content delivery mechanisms, not just because of their size, but because of their inherently viral nature.

In the world of networks, “Metcalfe’s Law” has been a great way of demonstrating the power of a network. Attributed to Robert Metcalfe, an electrical engineer who co-invented Ethernet, it states that the value of a network is proportionate to the square of the number of connected users in the system.

In plain English, an example often used to demonstrate this law is that of the telephone. A single telephone is rather useless. If no one else has a phone, who are you going to call?1

Two telephones would be nice, since you can at least talk with each other. But when you get to ten, one hundred, thousands, or millions, the value increases exponentially.

The same holds true with the viral power of a network. The bigger it is, the more viral it is. If Facebook had a few thousand users, that would be nice, but the virus could only spread so far. But five hundred million? More than half of American adults? Well, that’s the difference between a virus that is .00001 percent contagious, and 50 percent contagious—the latter is going to spread a heck of a lot faster and farther than the former.

The same holds true for an individual. The more people in their network—Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and email contacts—the greater their power to viralize a message. Someone with two hundred connections, I would argue, is more than twice as valuable as someone with one hundred, given that truly viral messages spread exponentially. Thus, the bigger the initial base of infection, the wider the circle ultimately “infected.”

Putting it more simply, as networks have developed more and more connected users, and as users have developed more connections within those networks, the value of individuals as spreaders has increased exponentially.

Okay, now let’s move from theory to fact. Consider the following statistics: Facebook has more than five hundred million users. That’s nearly 10 percent of Earth. Twitter has over two hundred million accounts.5 While Facebook and Twitter might be getting the most buzz right now, at least in America, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wildly popular social media platforms. LinkedIn has over one hundred million members. Badoo, another social network, may be virtually unknown in America but has nearly one hundred million members (primarily in Europe). And remember Friendster? It’s still got ninety million members and remains popular in Southeast Asia.6

Bottom line, not only are these new networks incredibly viral by their very nature, they are absolutely enormous. Many seeking to market a message shy away from them, believing them still to be fringe in nature, or restricted to just the young or the early adopters. This is simply not true. Regardless of the target audience you are seeking to reach, the odds are overwhelming that your message will find them in large numbers within social networks. And when that message does find them, they will be in a setting that is incredibly conducive to spreading that message on to others.

Social Networks: The Awesome Power of Peer Pressure

There’s another reason why social networks are key. People base their perceptions of reality on the perceptions of those around them. If your friends or colleagues believe something, you’re more likely to believe it as well. Sometimes, the power of peer pressure can be truly mind-blowing.

In one particularly fascinating example, the Asch conformity experiments, psychologist Solomon Asch showed just how far peer pressure could go.7 He asked individuals a series of relatively easy questions, including which line in the right-hand picture, A, B, or C, was the same size as the line in the picture on the left:

Pretty easy, huh? And indeed, when they were answering on their own, the vast majority, more than 97 percent of test takers, correctly answered “C.”

Things changed, however, when Asch put them in a group. A group which, unbeknownst to the test taker, was actually filled with confederates of Asch charged with deliberately giving the wrong answer, doing it out loud, and doing it before the test taker could answer. In this situation, the percent of test takers giving the wrong answer rose to from less than 3 percent to between 35 percent and 75 percent in different trials.

Think about that. The percentage of people answering incorrectly—and incorrectly in an astonishingly blatant way—went up more than tenfold. Peer pressure works. It works really, really well.

Social media platforms, where the opinions of peers are front, center, and in the spotlight, are tailor-made for exploiting the power of peer pressure. When something is shared, it doesn’t just inform, it influences.

The Viral Trifecta at Work: Electing a President

Want an example of the Viral Trifecta in action? Look no further than the 2008 American presidential election.

It was early 2008, and the Democratic primary season was captivating the nation. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois had pulled off a stunning victory in the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of the primary season, and appeared poised to capitalize on that victory to sail to the nomination. Just as quickly, however, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, previously the presumptive front-runner, regained her momentum in a big way with a victory in the New Hampshire primary. A slim victory, to be sure, but one that appeared to establish her once again as the front-runner.

The Obama campaign was thrown for a loop. Had Iowa been a fluke? Was Hillary’s famous war machine simply too much to overcome after all? And what about the all-important Democratic grassroots? The committed Democrats who turned out in primary elections, and equally important, helped drive the narrative via blogs and other online chatter? Though Obama’s grassroots dominance might seem inevitable in hindsight, it was anything but at the time. Furious debates dominated the Democratic blogs, with many calling to unite behind Clinton as the “inevitable” nominee. Others argued passionately that the (then) highly popular John Edwards was in fact the logical alternative to Clinton.

The narrative had shifted in a big way. The Clinton campaign was once again surging. And with a torrent of primaries coming in the next few weeks, the Obama campaign needed something to shift the momentum—and shift it quickly.

Enter, one of the lead singers of the pop group the Black Eyed Peas. Inspired by a speech given by Obama following the New Hampshire primary, and feeling that an opportunity to make history might be slipping away, Will gathered together a group of celebrity friends and recorded a video—“Yes We Can”—juxtaposing their singing with Obama’s speech.

The video itself was quite sparse, shot in black and white, and comprised entirely of straight-on shots of the singers and clips of Obama. As Will himself would tell me later, the process was nothing like that of filming a video for the Black Eyed Peas. Whereas a video for the band might take months, this one was filmed, edited, and released in two days. And whereas the budget for the Black Eyed Peas video might easily be in the hundreds of thousands if not higher, the budget for this consisted of a few thousand dollars for rental of the studio.

In spite of the limited budget and lightning-fast turnaround, this video may have shifted the results of the 2008 presidential election.

Will released the song on February 2, 2008, posting it on YouTube and Within three weeks, it had been viewed over twenty-two million times.8 More important than the quantity of the views, however, was the quality of the viewers. It wasn’t just a random cross section of Internet users; it was highly concentrated among the Democratic base, and in particular among the “netroots,” that is, those grassroots activists using the Internet to drive their political efforts. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of Daily Kos, the largest Democratic blog, began posting the video multiple times a day (each time there was an open thread for discussion). The ripple effect was unmistakable, as other bloggers began doing the same, and the video spread like wildfire among Facebook groups, Listservs, and all kinds of other online gathering places for the Democratic faithful.

To say the video struck a “chord” would be an understatement. In one fell swoop, it served to deliver Obama’s core message—hope—in a way that was unbelievably novel, emotionally impactful, and resonant in a way that a straight-on political speech really couldn’t be. Even those who might have been cynical about Obama for any number of reasons had a hard time maintaining that cynicism while tapping their feet to the music, and marveling over the fascinating way the video juxtaposed Obama and the celebrities.

The message was delivered in an eminently spread-worthy way.

And the messengers responded. The video did do something that even the campaign itself had not been able to. It gave the Democratic netroots, the highly wired activists who lived, breathed, and pontificated online, a way to evangelize for Obama that they were not just willing to spread, but eager. It was cool, and made them look cool by association. There were many who might’ve flinched at the idea of forwarding a standard speech or press release or campaign email to all their friends. But they didn’t bat an eyelash at spreading this video, since they knew it would enhance their reputation among those who received it.

And the mechanisms for delivery—YouTube, blogs, email, and social media—were developed enough in 2008 to facilitate this in a way they weren’t in earlier elections. It may be hard to believe, but in the previous presidential contest, in 2004, YouTube didn’t exist. And Facebook? It was still just a dorm-room startup, mainly a tool for Mark Zuckerberg to try to pick up women.

You already know the rest of story, of course. Obama went on to score a string of victories in the subsequent few weeks. And while Clinton remained in the campaign, by the time early March rolled around, Obama had pretty much established himself as the overwhelming favorite.

Will managed to do all this for a few thousand dollars and a little help from his friends. No marketing budget. No Super Bowl ads. Not one CD or album printed. And yet, with the compelling message and the right messengers, he managed to achieve virality that surpassed that of anything produced by the Obama campaign itself.

The Video Hit the Viral Trifecta

Okay, I hear what you’re thinking:

Sure, was able to generate twenty million views. But he’s also a lead singer of one of the most popular bands in the country. And he had a gaggle of famous friends to leverage. Is this really an example of the power of the Internet, or just the power of celebrity?”

No doubt there’s truth to that. However, it’s also true that this was just one of many, many celebrity videos produced during the campaign. And yet, none were even close to it, in terms of virality.

Let’s ponder some of the other videos that exploded virally in the 2008 campaign. The Obama campaign spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars on TV advertising. But out of all the commercials and video content produced on behalf of Obama during that cycle, which ones got the most awareness? Three in particular jump out, and they weren’t actually done by the campaign. The first was of course the video. But what were the other two?

  • A parody of the iconic Apple “1984” ad, but aimed at Hillary Clinton. In the original Apple ad, an authoritarian figure bellowed out orders from an Orwellian telescreen to a sea of drones, watching helplessly. That is, until a lone rebel ran in, threw a hammer, and smashed the screen. In the 2008 version, the authoritarian figure was replaced by Hillary Clinton. And the rebel wore an Obama shirt.

  • Obama Girl,” aka Amber Lee Ettinger, a lovely young woman singing the song “Crush on Obama.” The video was a montage of scenes, all over the top romantic clichés of a young woman pining away for a man. It just happened to be a man running for president.

These were arguably the three most successful videos during the entire campaign. They each generated tens of millions of views, were catapulted into the mainstream media as news stories, and helped shift momentum toward Obama at critical moments.

While was able to leverage his celebrity, the same cannot be said of the other two videos. When I met with Phil de Vellis, producer of the “1984” ad, he told me he had literally created it in his apartment over the course of a few hours (appropriately enough, with an Apple computer). And while Obama Girl (aka Amber Lee Ettinger) had the assistance of, the producers of the ad, there was neither fame nor fortune behind it—just a great, clever idea. Well, and yes, an astonishingly hot star (you’ll learn more about the importance of this in Chapter 11).

None of these videos had any paid marketing budget. But they all hit the Viral Trifecta—killer message, eager multipliers, and delivery through a highly viral platform.

  • If the content had merely been “eh,” the videos would not have spread.

  • If they had not gotten into the hands of willing, eager, savvy multipliers, they would not have spread.

  • And if it were not for the Internet and social media, the viral highway by which this content traveled, they could not have spread.

The makers of these videos hit the Viral Trifecta and helped change the world.

Want to change the world yourself? Or just make your own personal world better? Read on and learn how.

1 Not even the Ghostbusters.

11. The Fierce Urgency of Going Viral

Facebook, “Statistics”:

2 Charles Arthur, “Average Twitter User Has 126 Followers, and Only 20% of Users Go Via Website,” Guardian (UK), June 29, 2009:

3 Christina Warren, “Average Internet User Now Spends 68 Hours per Month Online,” Mashable, October 14, 2009:

4 “What Americans Do Online: Social Media and Games Dominate Activity,” Nielsen Wire, August 2, 2010:

5 Tom Johansmeyer, “200 Million Twitter Accounts . . . But How Many Are Active?” Social Times, February 3, 2011:

6 Greg Kumparak, “Friendster: Asia’s Social Network,” TechCrunch, January 20, 2009: Also Wikipedia lists dozens of other sites at

7 S. E. Asch, “Studies of Independence and Conformity: A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority,” Psychological Monographs 70 (1956). Also “Asch conformity experiments,” Wikipedia: for more details.

8 “Yes We Can,” Wikipedia:

DMU Timestamp: January 13, 2012 00:39

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