Promotion – What Makes A Work Go Viral?

I suppose every author and musician, maybe every dancer or videographer, movie producer, or TV exec wants to know the same thing — what makes a work go viral?

In other words, why did Harry Potter become such a success? Why Eragon? The Passion of the Christ? Twilight? Hunger Games? Left Behind? Shadowmancer? The Da Vinci Code? The Shack? Is there something these books have in common that brought them so much attention?

The first thing I notice is that all except perhaps Hunger Games made the national news for one reason or the other. In most cases the reason was controversy. Harry Potter received criticism from Christians as did The Da Vinci Code. Christians debated the merits of The Shack. Shadowmancer supposedly angered a faction of Christians and came to the US under a cloud of criticism. And Jews objected to The Passion.

Some of the works received national attention because of a human interest aspect. Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon when he was fifteen, self-published, and traveled the country with his parents hand selling the book until it was picked up by a traditional publisher, and made national news.

The Left Behind books found their way in front of network viewers because of their success in the Christian market. (In the same way, Amish stories are now coming out of the ABA — because they continue to sell and sell and sell.) Twilight was a phenom because, of all things, the teenage lovers didn’t have sex.

But the question remains. How did these books garner enough sales to catch the public’s attention?

It seems something first captivated an initial group who started talking. Left Behind had a well-known non-fiction writer as one of the co-authors, and I expect that pulled in a number of initial readers. But I also believe it tapped into a fascination about future events.

The Shack took a different path. The book creators solicited promotion from its readers within its covers. At the end, there were specific action points that were designed to get satisfied readers talking about the book and buying more copies to give away.

Twilight caught the attention of a group of romance lovers with a strict moral code. Perhaps Mormons banded together to support the book initially (pure conjecture on my part).

Shadowmancer, besides claiming religious controversy, also took on the mantle of the “Christian” Harry Potter, possibly earning itself a niche following.

In contrast, The Da Vinci Code may have picked up fans from the new atheist crowd or from any anti-Catholic, and of course once the Pope spoke out against it, the controversy was on.

It appears that the first thing, though, was something within the work itself. The Passion of the Christ had so many unique aspects — a famous actor seeing the project through in the face of rejection from traditional sources (human interest), opposition from a religious group (controversy) which garnered national attention, a non-traditional approach to the subject matter, a highly religious film using Biblical material as its primary source, a select group of unknown actors. In other words, there was lots to talk about.

I already mentioned the content of the Left Behind books. Harry Potter had a unique story world. Hunger Games had a timely, intriguing dystopian concept that tapped into a current cultural phenomenon — reality games.

In other words, either the author or the subject seemed to set the work apart from others, which caused first readers/viewers to pay attention.

In each case, a big budget marketing plan didn’t seem to be responsible for the work’s success. People were. But the people who talked about what they read or viewed first had to have something to talk about, something unique enough that they wanted to pass it along to others.

And viral happened.

9 Comments

  1. I actually have never heard of Shadowmancer or The Shack until now. I haven’t read Eragon or seen The Passion of The Christ. Even though I knew about the author being 15. Just an FYI. The other books I have read and besides Twilight(hate it), I really love the books with complete disregard to their controversies.

    When it comes to religious controversies in books, I think it needs to be heard. No one wants to hear bad things about their religion but it will not change the fact that bad aspects exists in all religions. I think people are just too sensitive.

    I love The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and I’m Catholic. Do I beleive it? No. It is entertaining? Yes. Do I question my religion because of it? Yes but it could also be because I’m feminist and I disagree with how the Catholic Church treats women. But more importantly, Am I gonna stop believing in God because of Dan Brown? Absolutely Not.

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  2. Everything you mentioned is true. But what they all had in common is “the craft” the craft of writing,or producing a movie, or a game, etc. The craft with all it’s intrinsic aspects needs to be honored in its making to be respected in the field. For many, the craft is all too unknown in the league of entertainment. Therefore, many try and fail. Learn the craft, put it to the test and see what happens.

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  3. I’m not a Harry Potter fan nor will I allow my kids to read them, yet the woman can write! The first two book, by far, were her best. It got decidedly darker as she went on. I think the world she created and the details in it were fascinating: the every flavor beans, the flying car, the magic spells, all of Hogwarts….

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  4. I liked this post. Very to the point and very true. I believe that the reason some things go viral and others don’t is partially due to unique pov and originality. Half of the problem is that people are afraid of what others might say, so they work on appeasing a market, when in reality, they may write within the market genre, but they need to work on writing for themselves… the writer’s voice matters; people get interested in what the writer has to say when the writer doesn’t just repeat what everyone else is saying. 🙂

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  5. Scarlet, Shadowmancer goes back maybe eight years or more. It sold really well and it’s sequel even made the NY Times best seller list, I believe. But it didn’t stay there and nothing by G. P. Taylor since has been as big.

    I’m surprised you haven’t heard about The Shack because it’s still on the list, though it’s dropped into the twenties. It was in the top ten for the better part of a year and bloggers galore (myself included) wrote reams about the book.

    Thanks for your comment. And I’m glad to know there is one reader, at least, who will not stop believing in God no matter what (fictitious thing) Dan Brown writes. 😀

    Becky

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  6. Marilyn, I appreciate your thoughts. Actually I left “craft” off the list because a lot of writers argue that there are craft issues with … most of the books on the list. The Left Behind books receive such criticism as does The Shack, Shadowmancer, The Da Vinci Code, and Twilight. Even Harry Potter takes some hits for the writing from time to time.

    On the other hand, some really beautiful, well-told stories never get noticed by large numbers of readers. Consequently, I just couldn’t conclude that craft was one of the elements that made a difference in how well these books sold.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t think craft is important. I do! In fact I’ve written a number of articles on the subject here and at Spec Faith, most notably, Monday’s post there.

    Becky

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  7. Eve, I know a lot of readers didn’t like the darker Harry Potter books. She started writing middle grade stories, really, and ended up writing for adults, I think. But then, her audience grew up, too, so maybe that’s why the entire series was so successful.

    Nichole, thanks for your encouraging feedback. Much appreciated. I agree that originality is a big factor. If you look at each of those works, they did do something that writers hadn’t done before, or hadn’t done as well or hadn’t done in a very long time (I’m thinking of the Left Behind books — there had been fictional accounts of Revelation before, but this was much more thorough). Yet, publishing professionals will often say that works can’t be too original or readers won’t be able to connect. In other words, there has to be something recognizable and familiar and yet new and different. Just another one of the writing hurdles we who would like to publish need to clear. 😀

    Becky

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  8. Lol, I guess Left Behind was thorough!

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  9. Rebecca,

    I was finally driven to read The Hunger Games not by my kids, but by all the literary crowd among my Facebook friends. I found it important enough to review and discuss with my oldest, who read it for herself.

    My review can be found here, if you’re interested: http://crosswaysnet.blogspot.com/2011/05/darker-by-day.html

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