- Going Viral — 6 Lessons From My Article That Got 134,000 Views
That’s how many views I’d expect to see in an average week on my 127 (ish) articles. Yep, 500. A modest number. A respectable, slow-burning, but a none-the-less encouraging number. Yet, in the last 7 days, I’ve had 134,000 views. No, I’ve not accidentally added an extra zero to that number. It’s a 22,000% increase.
So I thought, as I more frequently do these days, ‘this would make a good story’…
‘Viral’ is a word we are all far too familiar with. Luckily for me, this was the good sense of viral, this was the sense of virality that we all seem to chase. 7 days ago things got a little weird. I mean really weird.
“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure. ”― Mark Twain
Recently I’d gotten out of the bad habit of checking my stats obsessively. I’d made a pact with myself and well, myself. “Checking stats is bad Eve, it never ends well so just stop it”. So after a few stern words with myself, I’d stopped. Weeks had passed and I hadn’t checked my stats. Happiness, I thought.
And then I did it, I checked my stats. Amazed and confused I pressed refresh. Surely something has gone wrong here must be a glitch with Medium. If I was reading things correctly, which I’m sure I wasn’t, I had 6,000 views in the last day. Now I’ve been writing on Medium for the last 9 months and I’ve been writing things people can actually read for maybe the last 2. But somehow, I’d gone viral.
And so, what did I learn? Well here are 6 things.
For the first few months of writing, nobody would look at my work. Every post on LinkedIn, every submission to a publication, every attempt would be met with rejection. Every. Single. Time. I couldn’t even convince my friends to read my work in the beginning.
And yet it taught me the best lesson of all. The best thing you can do if you want to write consistently is to have zero expectations. All measures and metrics should go firmly out of the window and you should concentrate on everything that can’t be measured or what I call the ‘intangible value’.
What are things that can’t be measured?
- How writing makes you feel.
How clear your mind feels after downloading your thoughts into a blank space.
How many times writing has picked you up when you felt like rubbish and couldn’t face the world.
The sense of excitement you get when you read something that inspires you to write.
How much you’ve learnt about communication.
The number of times you’ve learnt a new concept, a new piece of information or a new insight that you’d never thought of before.
The sense of wellbeing you get from reading other writer’s work.
The feeling of ‘flow-state’ when you wander into your writing haven.
The sense of satisfaction when you read your old articles and realise how far you’ve come.
Angela Duckworth is the world’s leading expert in the field of ‘grit’. I’m actually not entirely sure that ‘grit’ is a field but if it was, Angela would be Chief Gritting Operator. Duckworth is a psychologist and author who has defined grit to be a concoction of hard to cultivate traits.
“Grit is passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way.”
It’s a hard pill to swallow so you may as well close your eyes, grab a big glass of water and get to it. You could write your best work for 365 days straight and no one will see it.
Lesson 1: Get some grit.
A game of probability.
I’m convinced most of life is sheer randomness. And that conviction comes from a book by the famous Nassim Nicholas Taleb ‘Fooled by Randomness’. Taleb is a mathematician by trade and his international best-seller aims to shed some light on what we deem to be ‘lucky’. In quoting from his book:
“This book is about luck disguised and perceived as non-luck (that is, skills) and, more generally, randomness disguised and percieved as non-randomness (that is, determinism). It manifests itself in the shape of the lucky fool, defined as a person who benefitted from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason.”
Taleb essentially argues that we humans are very bad at acknowledging luck and randomness. A classic example is a millionaire entrepreneur. It’s so often that you hear of an entrepreneur who has demonstrated such ‘skill and vision’ and has talents that surpass the average human. Those features are the sole reason he or she has reached the pinnacle of success. Yet, Taleb argues, their success is often down to pure luck.
Probability, in this case, is the total number of quality* articles you publish out into the world. Every time you hit that publish button you are stepping up to bat, swinging at the ball, connecting with the ball (or not as it may be) and seeing what happens. Sometimes you miss. Sometimes you hit it and you get to first base. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll hit it and get a home run. Each time you miss is one step closer to hitting and every time you hit, you are one step closer to that home run. The more times you step up, the more likely you are to hit a home run.
In the words of Babe Ruth:
“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game”― Babe Ruth
*If you publish article after article each of which has no substance and are poorly worded, horribly formatted and a chore to read, you’ll find you’ll never be lucky.
Lesson 2: Show up. Show up consistently with good content.
Eric Ries, American Entrepreneur and Author created the concept and methodology of ‘lean startup’ from his days working at various companies throughout his twenties. He’d observed the sluggish approach to getting a finished product out to the customer and observed the inefficiencies. Why am I telling you this? One of the fundamentals of Eric Ries’s methodology is iteration.
I heard a great story once:
“I asked my pottery class to split into two groups and listen carefully.” said the teacher “Group A, was to be graded solely on quality. The pottery teacher asked for one, high-quality pot. Group B however, was asked to make as many pots as possible by the end of the day. After the day concluded group A placed a singular pot on the table in front of me and group B placed around 50 on the table.” The pottery teacher smiled. “And as it turns out the group that had been asked to produce the most pots, in fact, produced the highest quality pot too. You see whilst group A was busy planning and fanaticising about the best way to produce a high-quality pot, group B was busy doing. They were learning from their mistakes, they were doing the work to get them to improve, that’s the secret you see.”
This isn’t about the never-ending argument between quality and quantity, this is about what it takes to get to a quality product. It’s an important distinction. Quality is found in the flaws of something with lesser quality. In other words, if you want to know what a good product is, look at a bad product and point out all its flaws. The only way you will get to know about the bad is to practice, practice, practice.
It’s perhaps not the advice you want. We tend to fall into a trap of thinking there is a silver bullet, a quick trick to get us rich or something we are missing to make people see how good we are. There is no trick. There is no bullet. There is no secret sauce. All there is a process. And stealing from Eric Reis for a second, that process is as follows:
Build → Measure → Learn
Steve Blank a professor as Stanford University talks about the ‘the lean startup changes everything’. And really, he means everything. In his 2013 article for the Harvard Business Review he said:
Lesson 3: Iterate.
Now we’ll get into the bones of the actual article, what specifically was it about this article do I think made it go viral. Well, apart from the fact that the chances are it was complete luck. Before that though, here are my stats.
To put it into perspective I’ve been writing for 9 months on this platform. On average I would receive about 2,500 views per month, a grand total of roughly 22,000 views in 9 months. In the alone last 7 days, I’ve received 6 times that. That’s a 22,000% increase.
Stats from the author
If you think of Medium like an Olympic-sized swimming pool full of ping pong balls and imagine people standing at the edge of the pool with a net (bare with me, this will make sense I promise). You have readers who want to learn something new, feel good about something or want reassurance — in this case, they are on the edge of the pool with the net. And you have writers who want to tell the world something or teach the world something, in this case, every story is a ping pong ball.
There’s a catch though. Every evening, the balls at the bottom of the pool get taken out (imagine a vacuum that sucks 10% of the ping pong balls out the pool). That 10% reduction allows a whole load of new ping pong balls to be added into the mix. Writers have the opportunity to do whatever they want to their ping pong ball (within reason). Paint it, draw a face on it, whatever they can think of to stand out.
Now, of course, the inevitable happens and you have a sea of ping pong balls in every colour imaginable to mankind. And thus it’s hard to make out what is what.
So how do you stand out? Aim for novelty.
Take a sentence that everyone thinks is true. A good one that comes up time and time again is habits. Let’s take a typical headline:
“How to Create Good habits will lead you to a successful life”
Now think how you can flip that on its head, by taking each word in turn.
- ‘How to’: Definition: “Giving or pertaining to basic instructions and directions to the layperson on the methods for doing or making something, especially as a hobby or for practical use.” Spins? What about totally impractical advice? Or how about a ‘how-to-not’ guide?
‘Create’: Definition: “to cause to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary processes.” What about fake habits — can you fake a habit? What’s the opposite of creating? To dismantle, Oh… dismantling habits that could be cool.
You get the idea. The point is, the article I wrote was a new approach to an old idea. It wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill article that everyone had seen before. It stood out because it was different.
Lesson 4: Stand out.
This lesson is a lesson I have to constantly learn and relearn. It’s a habit I’m trying to master. It centres around patience. For a long time, I would just press publish as soon as I finished writing. It felt like the crowning moment for my hours worth of work, I was writing to get to moment I could hit the publish button and let the world see my work.
The title, so I thought, was just structural, a tickbox exercise if you will, it didn’t matter too much, what really matters is the writing. What matters is how compelling my arguments are, how deep my thoughts are and how grounded my data is.
None of that matters if no one is seeing it. And the only way anyone will ever see your work is if your title is good enough for them to click on. It’s like you’re at the bar and you’re waiting for your blind date. If you’ve dressed in your scruffs and having showered in a week, they’ll most likely turn around before they even get to meet you. You (as I am sure you are) could be the nicest person in the world with reams to say and you’d both get on like a house on fire. Yet you’ll never meet them if your first impressions are rubbish.
That’s much like an article.
- Write out 20–30 versions before settling.
Numbers are the key, for some reason people like headlines with numbers in.
Tell the audience what you are giving them.
Be specific, generic doesn’t work because it’s not novel.
Marry together two opposing ideas to spark interest.
Lesson 5: If you’re going to spend time obsessing about anything, obsess about your headline.
I’ve never been in a position to write an article like this and to be honest, it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because going viral sometimes feels like the ultimate goal. You know, having the masses see your work, more views means more, more, more.
Yet, I’ve noted two important things in the midst of my recent, and no doubt, short-lived, virality. First is that it’s not the goal. Sure it’s nice to watch the numbers climb and quite fascinating to see how a story moved through the internet after months of the opposite happening. A stagnating story doesn’t provide much in the way of excitement. But check the numbers every day feels hollow. Over the last few days, I’ve checked my numbers more than ever. It becomes obsessive. It’s also contradicting. My goal isn’t to be a one-hit-wonder, to only write a few viral articles to bump up my views to feed the Medium algorithm. My goal is to write because I love to write.
Secondly, nothing changes. You don’t feel any different, the world doesn’t swallow you up, you don’t become anything. Having a viral article is just a viral article. Nothing more, nothing less, it just is. I remember a funny anecdote from Ryan Holiday that went something like this:
I was mowing the lawn one day and I got a phone call from my publisher. They told me that I’d just hit the New York Best-sellers list. After the conversation, I put the phone down and went back to mowing the lawn.
It’s similar to the line Jim Carrey wrote:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”― Jim Carrey
Lesson 6: Focus on lesson 1.
- Get some grit — harness your expectations exclusively around intangible value: the intangible value is the value.
Show up to bat: consistency is king.
Iteration is the secret sauce: write, see what works, iterate, grow.
4. Novelty is good for the brain: skip the generic, go for the novelty.
5. If an article is worth $1, the title is 80c: headline, headline, headline.
6. Nothing changes — refer back to Lesson 1: don’t write to go viral, write because you love it.
- Date of publication:
- Tue, 01/12/2021 - 20:13
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