Going Viral: Is There a Formula?

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 12, 2013


(It’s All Luck!)

by Hannah Stonehouse Hudson

Maybe you recognize the photo of a man in Lake Superior, soothing the arthritis pain of his 19-year-old best friend. After all, it’s been seen by more than 5 million people in the last nine months, and changed a lot of lives, especially my own.

I have had a camera basically my whole life, and my subjects were always my dogs. So it wasn’t all that surprising when, as my business grew in Minnesota and Wisconsin, most Stonehouse Photography clients were dog people. But my photo of man and his best friend in the water—well, that was a whirlwind success I could never expect to repeat.

Photographing dogs was already “my thing” to a point before last summer, and now it’s how I’m known in countries across the world. I met John Unger seven years ago, when he was walking down the street with his rescue dog, Schoep. We started talking and just sort of came to know each other over time.

For 19 years, it’s just been John and his dog. I saw Schoep age, and knew he had developed a very bad case of arthritis. Nightly, when it was warm enough, John and Schoep would get into Lake Superior together. The water was the only thing that gave the dog relief and allowed him to fall asleep. The time had come to consider putting Schoep down when I saw the two of them walking last July 31, and realized the sense of urgency at that point. I met them at 7 p.m., took about three minutes and got the photo. It was obviously a gorgeous shot and I loved it, but while editing it, I thought, Aghh, this is just a little too underexposed. Not enough light. I’m so critical of my own work that it’s kind of ridiculous.

I shared the photo of Schoep and John on the Stonehouse Photography Facebook page, as I almost always do, and explained the circumstances that made it such a touching shot. The next day, while photographing a wedding, my jaw kept dropping every time I looked at my phone.

Before John and Schoep—before J.S., I say now—the most likes I had on any photo was probably 115. The immediate rush this time was something different. One week after it was posted, the original shot had been shared almost 150,000 times, drew about 25,000 comments and received over a quarter of a million likes.

I have no way to pinpoint what made it such a hit. A lot of people had an old dog they had to put down, so there was a personal connection, but also the dog and the person are not really identifiable, so it allowed people to tell their own story. People took from it whatever their own feelings held, I think.

There was some early media interest, starting with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which ran a short piece about a local photo going viral. After that, the next few days I was bombarded. My voicemail was filling up three or four times a day. I was totally overwhelmed in a really good way, but it was too crazy.

Maybe six days after the photo was posted, John’s sister-in-law, Julie McGarvie Unger, who is a public relations professional, asked John and me if we would like to share Schoep’s story with the media. The three of us sat down and had a heart-to-heart talk about what was going on—people were asking how they could help Schoep. I spoke to one woman who wanted to pay for laser therapy to soothe his arthritis, and I cried. It was a random person with good intentions. The unsolicited donations for Schoep’s care began to pour in.

At that point, we realized a lot of good could come from this, not only for Schoep, but for other animals, and we formulated a plan. I put Julie’s number on my Facebook page and as the auto-response on my email address. Literally, Julie would get up at 5 a.m. and be on her phone until she turned it off just before midnight, then get up and do it again the next day.

We all saw the potential of the photo, and understood the pace of the news cycle and the things that had to be done. A lot of coordination was necessary. Because I am self-employed, there wasn’t really a way to take off work. You can’t get distracted by whatever your viral sensation is—going viral is great, but it’s not necessarily going to feed you, so bringing in someone who can coordinate everything and take that stress off of you is the key. You have to seize the moment and manage time well if you want to leverage the opportunity that has emerged.

It was kind of a wild horse ride the first few days of national and even international attention, but after a couple weeks, it kind of had a crest to it. The interest in the photo is still alive, but not at the spike it reached immediately after it was published.

Now the story is all the good that has come out of this. Schoep has gone from being a candidate for euthanasia to having his life expectancy extended several more years. He’s able to go on long walks with John again, his pain is well-managed, and he doesn’t want for anything. But people still wish to help, so we’ve established Schoep’s Legacy Foundation, which partners with other organizations devoted to animal and human welfare. We committed to that and announced it, shared it with the media, and there was another huge spike.

Eventually we needed to take a breather. Instead of constantly feeding the Facebook pages (my company’s own and one we set up for John and Schoep), we slowed down our activity, and the growth of the pages has slowed considerably, as well. That said, the requests to print the photo worldwide are still streaming in.

I think videos, photos or social media posts go viral by themselves. You can’t necessarily orchestrate that. But if they do, and you’re nimble and ready to seize the moment, you can sew things together between the media, the web, the business and the story, and achieve continued attention. You have to be willing to invest a lot of time and resources to allow the sensation to materialize and grow. People need a place to go, a button to push to donate, a place to address their check. All that has to be prepared really quickly.

I was set up, technologically, to go viral. I’ve used Facebook to build my business, allowing people to share photos, with my watermark on them prominently. The sensation is so organic that if you don’t have some things in place, and the ability to seize upon it immediately and build quickly, it’ll be over before you know it.

Really, really cool things have happened for Stonehouse Photography since the photo went viral. It’s always been my dream to take animal photos, to document interactions between animals and people. I’m getting more clients and I’m talking to other photographers who want advice.

But I also get to bring joy to other people’s lives.



(Here’s the Recipe)

by Taylor Aldredge

Duplicating success with viral videos is no easy task. It’s like trying to hit a home run to the same spot twice, or making the same game-winning touchdown pass over and over. The argument can be made that so many great catches, home runs and viral videos are just dumb luck, that they just happen with the right combination of elements to produce the maximum impact.

But, the argument can also be made that without a certain amount of practice, a wide receiver’s great touchdown catch wouldn’t be possible, and a slugger wouldn’t be able to hit home runs time and time again. Getting people talking about your business through viral sensations is no different, and as “Ambassador of Buzz” at Grasshopper (providing business communications via mobile phones), I’ve worked several viral campaigns. Those who have repeat success do so because they put tons of work and preparation into it on a consistent basis.

I concede there are viral hits that just tap into something mysterious that we, the public, are hooked on immediately. South Korean singer Psy hit it big with his Gangnam Style video (over 1 billion views), by tapping into humor, easy dance moves and a popular song that, even without the video, is still pretty catchy.

The chances that your video will be the next Gangnam Style are probably very, very slim, but you can take steps to ensure viral success in the long run. Just be creative, willing to try crazy stuff, and work hard.

Videos have been a part of our Grasshopper brand for years. We empower entrepreneurs to succeed with the help of our mobile telecomm solutions. So we created a YouTube channel to engage with our target customers and inspire people to go after their dreams. Over the years, we’ve created a few videos that were great successes, and they operate within the same framework of others that have been web hits.

Three basic qualities make up a great viral campaign and have the potential to generate success much of the time:

• Look ahead to emerging trends.

• Get people talking.

• Don’t be cheesy.

Were you hoping for some great secret to the mystery of viral success? I’m sorry to say that there’s no magic bullet here. Great filmmakers take years to complete a movie, and even then, they’re not successful a lot of the time. But you should note from their process that taking your time to think things out, planning and executing your plan will help make a great product.

We think our experiences at Grasshopper can provide some takeaways for any company looking to have success in the viral world.

Back in 2009, we decided to rebrand our company from GotVMail to Grasshopper. To do this, we needed something to really drive the message of what Grasshopper meant to our entrepreneurial customers. So we created a video called Entrepreneurs Can Change the World.

It was nothing fancy: 2 minutes and 20 seconds of text and animation that anyone with the right software could’ve pulled off, set against some inspiring music. But most important, it tapped into a feeling that is there for all entrepreneurs: Anyone can change the world. Timing was on our side, in part because we were looking forward—the video debuted right after the recession hit America, and it encouraged people to think ahead to what’s out there for them. We saw there were entrepreneurs everywhere, and we wanted the video to speak to them and their passion. Over 1 million hits later, the video is still being shared.

The takeaway is to think about your audience. How do you fit within that group and how can you speak for them collectively?

Of course, it’s important to always have a method of delivery when it comes to creating viral sensations. You need a way of sending your message to people so they know it exists and can share it with the world. Buzz and word-of-mouth referrals are the keys to leaving positive online impressions time after time.

To deliver the Entrepreneurs Can Change the World video and reintroduce our company to customers, we shipped packages of chocolate-covered grasshoppers (real grasshoppers, by the way) to 5,000 influential people across the United States.

The packages were very vague, simply encouraging the recipient to try these grasshoppers. We included a web address offering more information, and curiosity prompted people to go online and watch our inspiring video about entrepreneurship.

It worked, and our newly branded company quickly had the attention of its target audience. With this first large-scale viral marketing effort, it was important to go big, different and buzz-worthy. Challenging your viewers with something actionable will get them talking to their friends about you. Every marketing campaign needs a delivery method, and ours happened to be 25,000 chocolate-covered grasshoppers.

Replicating the success of that first YouTube sensation time and again has been about patience and planning.

Our videos have always been honest, and we want to connect to something deeper in entrepreneurs. Over the course of a year, after the success of our first big viral move, we observed how the definition of a small-business person had expanded recently, and cooked up another video to empower young business-minded individuals, a generation of geeky tech entrepreneurs.

It was a parody song playing off the immense success of “Empire State of Mind,” the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys single. Instead of their chorus, “Let’s hear it for New York,” our video championed The New Dork (Entrepreneur State of Mind). Social networks, what dreams are made of, there’s nothin’ you can’t do, now you’re The New Dork!

We never had to hide the fact that this was an advertisement for Grasshopper, because we weren’t cheesy or over the top with pointing people to our website. More than anything, this emerging trend in entrepreneurship was a message we wanted to convey. It now has about 1.4 million views.

Since then, we’ve had some smaller successes—S*** Entrepreneurs Say, which piggybacked the popular Internet meme, and our third-largest hit, Women Can Change the World, both in 2012. We’re always brainstorming ideas for our next viral sensation. We aim to create videos that inspire the people watching them. You have to be honest with your audience. If you’re not, they’ll sniff it out immediately.

If you keep in mind that viral hits are always slightly ahead of the curve, get people talking and aren’t cheesy, you’ll have a great foundation to work from. Use a delivery method for your videos, be honest, work with your audience and ask yourself if you’d tell your friend about the video.

If you can’t say that, then it’s back to the drawing board to create something you would want a friend to watch.

Want to know more about going viral? Read the article about Contagious: Why Things Catch On on SUCCESS.com.

Christy Wright is the #1 national best-selling author of Business Boutique, host of the Business Boutique Podcast, a Certified Business Coach and a Ramsey Personality with a passion for equipping women with the knowledge and steps they need to successfully run and grow a business. Since joining Ramsey Solutions in 2009, she has spoken to thousands across the country at women’s conferences, national business conferences, Fortune 500 companies and her own soldout live events.