The Fallacy of “Going Viral”

Many individuals and businesses approach the web and social media with the hopes of ‘going viral.’ What this means is that they hope for a sudden and huge amount of attention to something they release – be it a company, product, blog post, video, Tweet, etc.

They hope to build in a day, what it takes even the most successful – YEARS – to do. Sure, it happens, but today I want to chat about why going viral is not the best strategy for moving your career or business forward.

I have talked to so many young people over the years who desperately want to be a famous singer, musician, or band, so I want to use the music industry as an example here. They are convinced that if the right person sees their talent, that they will be signed to a label, and then if the world sees their talent, they will be adored and famous.

Some writers feel this way too, that if they could just get an agent or publisher to stop for a moment and recognize their talent, that it would lead to a book deal, and instant success.

But it doesn’t work that way, at least not 99% of the time. Here are a few examples from the music world:

  • One of my all-time favorite bands is Blur – they were HUGE in the 1990’s in England, and experienced a fair amount of success in the US. Awhile back I heard an interview with their bassist Alex James, as he reflected on their success, surprised at how much work it took to get known, and then once they were famous, how much work it took just to stay on top. Constant interviews, radio spots, gigs, and appearances. They had to struggle in the beginning, and he felt that it never got much easier. It was always WAY more effort than he would have expected for the simplest step forward.
  • Lady GaGa: “We’re supposed to be tired. I don’t know who told everyone otherwise, but you make a record and you tour. That’s how you build a career.”
  • Another favorite band – The Swell Season – took a similar approach. The band won an Academy Award for a song they wrote for the film Once. Singer Glen Hansard has said that the award merely gave them an opportunity to convince people of the value of their work. Their success was not ‘done’ when they won an Academy Award. They have been touring the world for the past two years, playing show after show, trying to convince people of their value. The award alone did not establish their future, it simply gave them an opportunity to try to do so.
  • I was listening to a radio broadcast from this year’s Glastonbury Festival, and they interviewed Jesca Hoop, one of the performers. She said that last year she played one of the smaller stages in the tents, and there were two people in the audience: her manager and (I think) her manager’s friend. Then, when the manager & friend came ‘backstage,’ she was playing to no one. This year, she played again, and had an audience. It makes you think – after such a poor experience last year – it’s somewhat amazing she showed up. But that’s what you do to build your career. You keep showing up.

You build your fan base one fan at a time (see Debbie Stier’s article on this.) You build your credibility one day at a time. Why is everyone so hung up on ‘going viral’ – what is wrong with a lifetime of growing, of connecting, of succeeding?

When people win the lottery, or a musician suddenly gets huge, or someone does ‘go viral’ – what happens? They are surrounded by people who seemingly adore them, but didn’t even know who they were a week ago. The world is seen through rose-colored glasses, as success was easy, and every new expense seems like an investment to help fortify this new lofty position.

Plenty of lottery winners end up broke, end up unhappy, and confused. Many zero-to-hero musicians become one-hit wonders, spending decades trying to recapture that very brief moment of success. They become trapped in that moment, a lounge act.

Likewise, the loyalty of a fan base built over time is stronger than sudden success. When you go viral, everyone becomes aware of you at the same moment, they are all fans with a loose connection. Easy to get, easy to lose.

One thing that has changed, is that many can build their credibility and fan base via the web. A musician or writer doesn’t have to leave the house to engage with new and existing fans.