How To Create And Develop A “Mass-Market” Idea That Goes Viral
My formula for three stories that pulled in 708,393 page views
In less than six weeks, I wrote three stories that received views ranging from 154,257–373,511. These successes don’t come often, and rarely in such proximity, so I took some time to analyze what made them popular.
The success of these stories had little to do with my writing ability.
Good writing matters, sure, but you can write well and still end up with a story that tanks. And go to any publishing platform on the internet. You’ll find horribly written articles that go viral in spite of their flaws.
We should all strive to write well, but it’s not enough to create a winner.
Your idea matters most: How you develop it, how you position it, how you demonstrate to your reader why it matters to them, and how they can apply it.
I can’t guarantee your story will pop from following these guidelines, but improving your skills at idea development will benefit you throughout your career as a writer.
The Mass-Market Idea
Back in 2012, my copywriting mentor recommended I buy the book “How To Write A Good Advertisement” by Victor Schwab. Every writer should read chapter two of that book (Show People An Advantage) at least once a month. In that chapter, he lists dozens of mass-market appeals — desires most humans share.
I borrowed from that list and have been adding to it since then. It now totals 68 different desires that appeal to mass-market audiences.
Read each of these headlines. You’ll find the appeal either stated or implied.
To Become Super-Likable, Practice The Ben Franklin Effect (154,257 page views) — appeals to our desire to be likable.
The Golden Rule Of Relationships Nobody Talks About (180,625 page views) — appeals to our desire for better romantic relationships.
How To Make Someone Feel Extraordinary While Saying Very Little (373,511 page views) — appeals to our desire to be indispensable, make others feel good about themselves, and to take pride in our accomplishments.
Connecting your idea to a mass-market desire
When you read the finished product, it’s easy to see the connection between the appeal and the core concept. But finding that connection requires patience and resolve. It takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks before you discover the link.
Begin with a story, fact, or theory. Write it out as best you can. Read it over a few times. Ask yourself these two questions regularly, and scribble down whatever answers come to you.
- How might this benefit someone?
- How might this harm someone?
Your reader cares about nothing else. Don’t add complexity to this.
During the idea formation stage, scan through your list of mass-market appeals frequently. You never know when a connection might reveal itself. If you don’t have a list to work with, start with the basics (see below).
Look through it once a day. It will take you all of one minute, and it makes it easier for your subconscious to find the link between your concept and mass-market appeal.
You’ll also need to conduct open-ended research — read various bits related to the topic without looking for anything specific. Write down thoughts as they come to you, but don’t force-fit a connection.
When I wrote the Ben Franklin Effect story, I started with a straightforward cognitive bias. Likability might seem like the obvious choice, but it took several days to make the connection.
The Golden Rule of Relationship story followed the same path. I wrote a narrative about falling in love. I then read other stories about relationships and listened to podcasts about love until the golden rule idea clicked.
The connection will come when you least expect. You can’t rush it. I’ll admit, I violate that rule at times because of a self-imposed deadline to publish a story, but a half-baked idea never resonates.
You’ll know when it’s ready. You’ll feel a rush of anticipation to sit down and bang the thing out. Like any other story, you’ll need to persevere through several revisions, but once you’ve nailed the core concept, the rest is easy.
So many great ideas die because of a lack of focus. A writer starts strong, presents a compelling premise, and then does one of three things to ruin it.
- They go off on a tangent.
- They try to expand on the idea, making it more complicated.
- They fluff up their piece with self-indulgent navel-gazing.
“I’ve been thinking long and hard about this topic, often while sipping wine in my backyard. It bothers me when…”
None of that crap belongs in your story. Stay on point, and never divert attention from your central concept. Each sentence should help the reader understand the idea, why it matters to them, why you’re the one to communicate it, or how they can put it into practice.
If you open with a personal story (recommended), it should demonstrate your concept. Readers should be able to glean the lesson as they read, and if they cannot, it should make sense once you transition to the lesson.
Each of the three stories had their share of detractors. My most popular story seemed to split between those who loved it and those who hate it (and hated me).
I hadn’t intended this to happen, but I’m happy it did. Everyone loves it when a reader praises them. We fear critics and trolls, but if your writing provokes a strong reaction, it will do so on both ends of the spectrum.
And your idea must provoke a reaction. That’s what makes it compelling to readers.
Love the praise. Tolerate the critics. Ignore the haters. Fear indifference — your real enemy.
Don’t try and force controversy. State your idea with force and clarity. Don’t weaken your opinions with qualifiers or upfront apologies. If it’s thought-provoking, it will generate its share of supporters, critics, and haters.
Intense emotion, both positive and negative, drive a story’s popularity. Indifference is the one response every writer should strive to avoid.
Pulling It All Together
Following all three guidelines won’t guarantee you a viral story. For every story that tops the charts, you’ll produce your share of solid performers, and of course, a handful of clunkers.
But the ability to form an idea, develop it, and position it to appeal to a mass market will bring you success and serve you well throughout your writing career.