Going Viral Twice Really Paid Off Once
You Never Forget Your First Time
In 2005, one of my silly hobbies was selling items on eBay and writing funny auctions for them. It was a creative outlet, a way to sell stuff I didn’t want, and a means to generate material for my then-fledgling weblog Banterist.
Over time I sold a leather gin caddy as a “child’s lunchbox,” a box of corks, hideous Versace flatware and a copy of Playboy in braille. Ironically, eBay pulled that auction. They deemed it “pornographic” even though it was nothing but brown paper with bumps on it.
An auction where I offered to send, from Europe, bizarrely-written postcards to a friend of your choosing, landed me an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered.
But it was my listing for leather pants that went viral.
You are bidding on a mistake
I wanted to sell an unworn pair of leather pants that I’d once bought to impress a girl (don’t ever do that, by the way). I took a terrible photo and wrote the ad. It’s archived here.
It began with “You are bidding on a mistake” and told the story of the pants and why I didn’t wear them. Turns out it was a catchy opening line. The auction ended, but the listing continued to get sent around. Mind you, this was 2005 BZ (Before Zuckerberg). Facebook wasn’t available to the general public. Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter didn’t exist. Game of Thrones was just a book.
In the BZ era if you wanted to share something, it took effort. You had to copy the URL, paste it into an email, add a subject line, a note to your friend and send it. People did. The listing reached nearly 4 million views before it expired and eBay stopped counting.
I received more than 900 emails from people who loved the ad and just wanted to say so, people telling me I should write a book, women curious if I was available. A sprinkling of weirdos.
There were also emails presenting opportunities, introductions and a chance to open doors: Literary agents. Producers. Creative directors. An NPR game show proposed have me be on their panel. It may have been Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. I don’t recall. They never followed up.
I was contacted by several news outlets, including the New York Post and the BBC. Women’s Wear Daily asked designer Donna Karan about the pants. She said she’d have me come in to DKNY for some free clothes. She didn’t, but that was a clever thing to say because it made her look cool.
Meetings were scheduled. Lunches were had.
A Hollywood producer emailed to ask if I had any scripts or screenplays. I did! She got a sitcom pilot of mine into a meeting at Fox. They liked it but saw it as animation. No problem. I changed it to animation. They liked it but had more changes. No problem. I made more changes. In my desperation to land a deal I accommodated every change they had.
They ultimately passed on it — like people who take a great recipe, change all the ingredients and then don’t like how it tastes.
Regardless, it was a great opportunity that had only arisen thanks to my viral eBay ad. It was also a valuable lesson in not bending over for every note TV execs throw at you.
A large ad agency came calling. Would I be interested in coming in to meet? Sure I would! We met. They’d imagined I was in my twenties, starving and looking for an entry-level writer gig. I wasn’t. I’d already done the ad thing. Nothing came of it, but again it was an opportunity that wouldn’t have arisen otherwise.
A television production company contacted me. They had a project I might be good for. I was. I wound up working with them on it.
I clicked with one of the literary agents who took me out to lunch. I proposed a few ideas to her. She liked one in particular and had me write up a proposal with some sample chapters. She sold it to Harper Collins. Just like that, I had my first book deal and then, my first book.
That was followed by a second book and a third book. Hopefully a fourth if my agent can get those darn middle-grade fiction editors to read my manuscript. Come on guys!
Ultimately, going viral paid off. Now, fast forward ten years.
Happy Birthday to Me
October 2015. Over dinner at my favorite restaurant, my 8 and 11-year old boys handed me their homemade birthday cards. This tradition started after I realized that blank cards and a set of markers would encourage creativity and, importantly, save me money. Surely there’s no point in buying oft-corny, always overpriced cards for every occasion when the kids can express their true sentiment for pennies. Sorry Hallmark.
All parents are genetically programmed to adore their child’s handiwork, so I tweeted pictures of the cards and returned to my birthday martini and artichoke dip.
A day later my Twitter lit up, seemingly out of nowhere. I checked and saw that my 11-year old’s card was being shared at an astounding rate. I’ve had tweets catch fire briefly, but I’d never seen anything like that. I went to bed.
When I woke the following morning, the likes and retweets were in the many thousands and still coming.
A reporter at Metro UK contacted me for a story. Immediately after that, Huffington Post UK picked up the story. In the tradition of today’s journalism, they got it wrong and turned my son into a daughter.
UK newspaper The Independent carried the story too, and managed to spell my name wrong. This is absolutely hilarious to me because I used to write for them.
It wound up in many other outlets, to such an extent that I stopped paying attention. Someone Instagrammed it for hundreds of thousands of likes or whatever they call them there. It got Pinterested, naturally.
The 8-year old was a bit disappointed that his card — essentially a contract asking for more computer time — didn’t go viral. I assured him it wasn’t the content but the lack of captivating visual elements. That didn’t help.
The 11-year old was amused but unfazed by all the coverage until it was featured — unattributed, of course — on his favorite website, iFunny. I’d never heard of them but that finally seemed to impress him.
Just yesterday — eight months after the tweet — it was picked up by two more news outlets in the UK. They managed to get my son’s name and my age wrong. Come on guys!
As of this writing, my 11-year old’s birthday card to me has been seen over 12.4 million times. From that came 3.3 million engagements — meaning people didn’t just look at it, they took action; they replied, retweeted, mentioned me or clicked a link.
More than 191K looks at my profile. Almost a thousand new followers.
My favorite statistic is that out of 3.3 million people engaging, only 13 actually used the “email share” feature. Thirteen people. Contrast that with the 4 million who had no choice but to manually “email share” my eBay listing in 2005.
I guess email sharing isn’t a thing these days.
A Tale of Two Virals
While out with a group of tech-sector friends I showed them the tweet and the crazy statistics. They huddled around the phone, laughed, looked at the stats and asked: How do you monetize this?
Good point. That’s why they went to Harvard and Yale while I went to film school.
They’re tech guys. They’ve used the Internet to make a fortune with their websites and techno-whizzles and patented algorithms. The bastards.
I saw a funny ha-ha thing, they saw a squandered opportunity. It wasn’t monetized and they monetize things. That’s why they fly Business Class and drive Teslas.
So, don’t show tech guys your viral thing or they’ll ruin it for you.
But they were right. The first time I had something go viral it monetized itself in the form of landing me some projects, free lunches, an agent and a book deal. It was really nice.
This time around, despite reaching millions and millions more people, all I have to show for it are a hundred-thousand retweets. And 13 email shares.
Not that I’m disappointed. I’m thrilled. I love that my son’s dark birthday card has amused so many people. Seeing the “LMFAO” retweets warms my heart the same way hearing live laughter did when I performed improv. By nature I love to entertain, and that card does a great job of that.
But, how do you monetize it? Bah. I don’t think you do. Unless I can get 12.4 million people to buy my books or send me a nickel.
Come on guys!