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Viral Marketing

by Nathan Kontny

Running a previous business, I needed a way to generate a lot more press. More traffic. More awareness. More eyeballs. I needed a viral hit. But viral content is hard, complicated and unpredictable. We all know that.

Casey Neistat, filmmaker, entrepreneur, and YouTuber who has some of the most success creating viral videos, essentially says that in his video My Viral Video SECRETS.

I've watched Casey's videos. Maybe more than most. I've even just now finished another rewatching of his entire "daily vlog" from start to finish for at least the third time. My 4 year old daughter, Addison, has been asking to watch Casey videos while we brush her teeth since she was able to start talking. Her favorite being Bike Lanes where he dutifully rides his bike in New York City's bike lanes without waver, only to crash repeatedly into obstruction after obstruction.

Addison erupts in fits of giggles each time.

There's something interesting you start to notice about Casey and a pattern to his ability to create viral videos. Viral videos aren't complicated at all.

In 1971, Murray Davis, a sociologist from Northern Illinois University, wanted to figure out why some scientific theories seem to take off while others are relegated to obscurity. It struck Murray that most people think of science as a search for truth, but scientific papers and theories don't spread because one paper or theory was more "truthy" than others. What is it then?

Imagine the last story you told a friend. I'd bet most of the time the reaction to that story was some form of "Oh, that's interesting." And if you didn't get that reaction, you were hoping for it.

We spread things that are interesting. Same goes for scientific papers. Therefore, the search for why some theories take off is really a search for what makes them interesting. So is there a science to labeling scientific theories as "interesting"?

Murray Davis found one.

In every single widespread theory, he found a commonality.

All of the interesting propositions I examined were easily translatable into the form: 'What seems to be X is in reality non-X', or 'What is accepted as X is actually non-X'

Each one made a proposition that negated an already widely adopted position. What appears ordered is actually a mess. What seems to be unique actually happens all the time. What's reported as healthy is in reality killing you.

In other words, they broke common sense.

Let's go through some of Casey's most viral videos.

  1. Snowboarding with the NYPD. New York is covered in a blizzard. A driving ban was issued across the state. Casey went out using a car to Snowboard anyways.
  2. Bike Lanes. Police officer gives Casey a ticket for NOT riding in the bike lanes. So Casey demonstrates how dangerous it is to ride in the bike lanes. He then repeatedly crashes into everything including a cop car.
  3. Make it Count. Nike hired Casey to make a video about their new fitness tracker. Casey blows the budget on a round-the-world trip with his friend Max.
  4. Bike Thief. Casey and his brother Van film a video of themselves stealing bikes (their own) around New York City. No one stops them. Not even a car of police officers who drive by.
  5. iPod's Dirty Secret. Casey's iPod battery dies after 18 months. Apple won't fix it. Casey launches a graffiti campaign letting folks know iPods only last 18 months.

Do you see it? In each and every case of these videos, Casey breaks what we take for granted.

You aren't allowed to snowboard in New York City streets, especially not while the state bans you from it. - Casey does.

You can and should use New York City's bike lanes to stay safe. - No. You'll kill yourself following the law.

You have to be incredibly careful with your client and their budget. - No, you can just do whatever you want.

You can keep your bike safe with a strong Kryptonite lock. - No, you can powertool through a lock and no one cares.

Apple makes great products and stands by them. - No, Apple made something you'll have to throw away next year.

Each and every time, Casey shows you an example of something you didn't expect. Something that broke your expectation of what could be be done.

Murray Davis shows us that the recipe for "interesting" is actually incredibly simple. And though it is still hard, and potentially risky, if you filter your ideas through this lens, you'll get much more impact from your own ideas. When I started applying that lens to my own work: more things took off.

I was in the business of CRM and bulk email newsletters, and so one expectation I saw folks had was what constitutes SPAM. Most people think SPAM is of the casino or viagra variety, but doesn't include the times when someone buys a list of journalists and sends them constant follow-ups about their funding round or product launch.

So I built Trick a Journalist. It's a website promoting software that will automatically barrage 'sucker' journalists with communication until they succumb to writing about you.

It's obviously a satire on what "biz dev" has become, hopefully getting people to reconsider this practice they take for granted. I didn't think people would actually sign up for it. Then they did.

So I looked for another expectation to break: We as a company should always grow. How about instead we start firing customers? The bad ones. The ones who'd sign up for something like Trick a Journalist. Those folks shouldn't be allowed to use email.

What if we break another expectation: you can't possibly advertise a service like Trick a Journalist. Well, maybe you can at a place like Reddit where anything goes. So I took out ads on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, Reddit. And unexpectedly, Reddit banned me from the ad. Everyone else let it through.

What ended up happening was the most viral marketing campaign I've executed in my entire career. All these broken expectations became their own article or video or blog post, and they all took off with numbers far outpacing other things I've produced.

Now, coming up with this campaign wasn't easy. And as I think about trying to repeat another "viral" Murray Davis type effort, I stress about some of the details I want to execute on.

But if you take your own marketing work and ideas and pass them through a simple filter: "does this break expectations", you'll see a lot more virality out of your efforts.

Going back to Casey, if you take a wide look at his entire channel you realize it's all devoted to breaking people's expectations. Video after video has situations of Casey doing things that other people think you aren't able or allowed to do. Casey even made a video that I think truly describes his viral filmmaking secret.

Do what you can't.

P.S. If you're looking for more help building or marketing your projects, please reach out. We've been doing this a long time. We'd love to help.

Nathan Kontny is the CTO of Rockstar Coders. Previously: CEO of Highrise, 2 time Y Combinator alum, created Draft. You should follow him on YouTube: here.

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