How To Go Viral: The Art of Planned Virality

I’ve decided to publish my first self-development book, Self-Made Success: Ivy League Shark Tank Entrepreneur Reveals 48 Secret Strategies To Live Happier, Healthier, and Wealthier. You can order it here. I will release an excerpt from the book every Sunday as a series of blog posts called “Self-Made Sundays.” Below is the second blog post. Read the first one here.

At 2400 Expert, we use three principles in our SAT & ACT prep courses: Strategy, Example, and Practice. So I’ll follow a similar format below.

Strategy: Practice Planned Virality
Everyone wants to go viral. Viral growth can bring you wealth and fame. But it’s difficult to predict what content will go viral. Or is it? Although most content goes viral organically, there is content that goes viral due to calculatedly planning by the producer. Planned virality requires the content producer to anticipate how traditional media and social media will react to a certain piece of news. In essence, planned vitality requires two-step thinking: the first step is to understand how human emotions would be drawn to a certain piece of content and the second step is to create content to capitalize on those emotions. The general public only engages in one-step thinking, i.e. believing the first headline it sees. Don’t believe everything you see, especially internet headlines.

Example: Practice Planned Virality
Here are three excellent examples of planned virality:

(1) Steve Harvey & Miss Universe
On December 20, 2015, Steve Harvey, the host of Miss Universe, announced the incorrect winner of the competition. Harvey announced that Miss Columbia, Ariadna Gutierrez, had won. However, just a few minutes later, Harvey came back on stage to point out his mistake. Ariadna Gutierrez was actually the first-runner up in the competition, and Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, was the winner of the competition. Harvey blamed this mistake on himself, stating that he simply misread the card. But was it really a mistake?

I believe the Miss Universe “mistake” was actually planned virality. The internet went nuts when it heard about Harvey’s misstep. Miss Universe ratings had been falling for years. This was the perfect way for producers to drum up publicity for its dying franchise. In addition, the Miss Universe pageant is a live event. Typically, the winner isn’t announced until the last two minutes of the program. In 2015, Harvey announced the winner with six minutes left — leaving plenty of time to correct the error and for the internet to make Miss Universe go viral.

You might be thinking…why would Steve Harvey want to look like an idiot in front of millions of people? The answer: publicity. How many more people now know who Steve Harvey is after the incident? All publicity is good publicity. In addition, Steve Harvey was of course invited by producers to host the Miss Universe pageant again in 2016.

The producers and Steve Harvey clearly thought two steps ahead of the rest of the public with their planned virality of “mistakenly” announcing the incorrect winner to the Miss Universe pageant.

Self-Made Success Book by Shaan Patel

(2) Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock
On September 14, 2015, 14-year old Ahmed Mohamed wanted to bring a homemade clock to his high school in Irving, Texas to show his engineering teacher. Later that day, teachers and school administration called the police because they thought the clock was a homemade bomb. Mohamed was put in handcuffs and sent to a juvenile detention center. This was clearly discrimination against Muslims — at least that’s what all of the headlines read. Or was it planned virality?

Mohamed and his family benefited hugely off of this publicity. They were invited to Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg, got invitations to top colleges such as MIT and Harvard, and even President Barack Obama tweeted “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.” Mohamed did meet the President at the White House.

But let’s take a closer look at what happened. Mohamed claimed to have built the clock from scratch. But experts who examined the clock determined that it was simply a store-bought clock that Mohamed had placed in a silver pencil case that looked similar to a small briefcase — the kind that would house a home-made bomb. After showing the clock to his engineering teacher in first period, Mohamed was advised to put the clock in his backpack for the rest of the day since it looked like a bomb. Not listening, Mohamed continued to show the clock to every teacher throughout the day. As a last ditch attempt, Mohamed decided to turn on a timer on the clock in his last class of the day. Only after the timer started beeping did his English teacher call the principal for further investigation. In addition, Mohamed was uncooperative, silent, and passive aggressive when the principal and police asked him questions about his homemade clock.

Then there’s Mohamed’s family background. His sister was suspended from school a year earlier for a similar bomb hoax. And the Washington Post wrote in 2011 that Mohamed’s father “wears a cleric’s flowing white robes and claims hundreds of followers throughout Egypt, Sudan and in the United States,” and he often goes back to Sudan to run for President. In addition, after Mark Cuban spoke to Ahmed Mohamed, Cuban said, “I ask him a question, ‘Tell me what happened,’ because I’m curious, right? His sister, over his shoulder, you could hear, listening to the question, giving him the answer.”

So this was likely a family plot for fame. And when the picture of poor Mohamed in handcuffs came out, the family had struck gold. Mohamed’s family thought two steps ahead of the general public. First, they knew that the national media would love a story about an “innocent” Muslim teenager who was discriminated against. Second, they knew if they built a contraption that looked similar to a bomb that would later be revealed to be nothing more than a clock, they would go viral.

Interestingly, after more media began to pick up on the clock likely being a hoax, Mohamed and his family moved to Qatar.

(3) Drake Hotline Bling Video
On a much lighter note, planned virality can also be used for entertainment and fun rather than national controversy. On October 19, 2015, Drake released a music video for “Hotline Bling.” The entire video is shot on a white background with Drake dancing by himself, both ridiculously and confidently. Immediately, there were memes all over the internet of Drake’s dance moves. The hilarious memes ranged from Drake making pizza to playing tennis. Although social media thought it was just making fun of Drake’s dancing, it was actually making Drake’s song go viral. Five days after the video came out, Drake’s song peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts.

Of course, the memes were easy for the internet to make because the whole video was shot on a white background. In addition, the goofy hand movements that Drake did throughout the video made it easy for social media to troll. This certainly makes you wonder whether Drake and his team had known that the internet would create memes out of the video. This was later confirmed by Drake’s choreographer, Tanisha Scott, who said, “And all those memes and mashups — he knew that was going to happen.” Drake masterfully used planned virality to blow up his chart-topping single in 2015.

Practice: Practice Planned Virality
Now it’s your turn to capitalize on planned virality. If you’re going to use it, there are two other rules you must follow when practicing planned virality.

First, your planned viral content can never be about you or your business. People don’t care about you or your business, but they do enjoy seeing something funny, controversial, or ridiculous. Notice how the Steve Harvey mishap was not about the Miss Universe pageant. It was about how ridiculous Harvey’s mistake was. The Ahmed Mohammed clock wasn’t about his family, it was about prejudice against Muslims. Finally, even Drake’s Hotline Bling memes weren’t about his song, they were about how ridiculous his dance moves were.

Second, you can never reveal that you planned for your content to go viral by thinking two steps ahead of everyone else. People will feel manipulated, or worse, lied to. Steve Harvey will never admit that they purposely announced the wrong winner of Miss Universe. Ahmed Mohammed’s family will never admit that they created a clock that looked very similar to a bomb in order to grab media attention (hence, they moved to Qatar once people were catching on). Finally, Drake won’t admit that his ridiculous dance moves were intended to trick the internet into doing the marketing for him.

Planned virality is a powerful strategy that can be used to make you famous or even wealthy. Use it carefully!

Shaan Patel

Shaan Patel is the founder of Prep Expert Test Preparation (formerly 2400 Expert), a #1 bestselling SAT prep author, an MD/MBA student at Yale and USC, and winner of an investment deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC's Shark Tank. He raised his own SAT score from average to perfect and teaches students his methods in an online SAT prep class.