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ACHIEVING SCALE

How a Vintage Ad Inspired a Viral (Nova) Sensation

Here's how the wildly popular ViralNova crafts instantly clickable headlines and tips for business owners looking to get their messages before a wider audience.
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Until recently, ViralNova, a site that's known for its wildly popular emotion-tugging headlines--such as "The Best Friendships Are The Least Likely Ones" and "This Gripped My Soul From The First Moment. And It Still Hasn’t Let Go…Wow"--has been a bit of a mystery.

Not only has the secret sauce behind writing instantly clickable headlines been a curiosity for marketers and entrepreneurs alike, the person behind the site has long been unknown. Last week however, Atlantic Media's The Wire, revealed that the man behind the skyrocketing website is Scott DeLong, a 31-year-old web developer based in Ohio. 

It's good to demystify the source of those killer headlines, naturally. But we're most curious about the site's success--and how, if possible, business owners might similarly bottle lightning.

So what's his secret?

DeLong’s blunt and personal headlines are inspired by the late John Caples’ ad entitled, "They laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano but When I Started to Play!" Caples, a direct marketing expert, wrote the headline in the hopes of attracting students to the U.S. School of Music in the 1920’s.

DeLong told Business Insider that the ad is framed on his desk and he looks at it every day. “I think it’s the most perfect headline ever written, and those same psychological reasons for that working is why ViralNova is, so far, working today," he told Business Insider. 


Here are two reasons why this nearly century old headline served as inspiration for DeLong, and might also be instructive for business owners:

1. When you look at the ad, you immediately want to know what happens when the man illustrated starts to play. You also want to know why the audience was laughing in the first place. Caples was trying to attract music students with the headline and encourage them to go beyond reading the text included in the ad, and also become interested in playing a new instrument.

Business owners can use the combination of teaser and an inspirational message, to first attract new customers, but then encourage them to become voices of their brands. More than ever, businesses are involving customers in decision making by crowdsourcing, testing products in beta and spurring conversation through social media. Entrepreneurs must go beyond attraction, and offer inspiration to customers so they become advocates too.

2. Understanding why the man receives a satisfying response to playing the piano is alluring to readers. They want to know why he felt good because it might make them feel good too.

With search engines personalizing almost everything people view online,customers expect to reap emotional gain from most ads they engage in. Entrepreneurs must learn to connect their business to a larger meaning in order to strike a chord with customers and leave them with a lasting impression. That's the hard part. Writing short, snappy headlines about that connection is something entrepreneurs can work on in the short term by brushing up on their writing skills.

Last updated: Dec 9, 2013

CAROLYN CUTRONE | Staff Reporter

Carolyn Cutrone is the assistant managing editor forInc. She has previously worked at Business Insider and GQ. @carolyncutrone




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