Going Viral: Lessons From a Joke That Triggered 6,000 Tweets
BY John Greathouse
You can't force something to go viral. But you can help it along.
A few weeks ago, Divshot turned a simple April Fool's Day joke into a marketing coup, generating nearly 6,000 Tweets and over a thousand new beta customers. Talk about going viral.
Make no mistake: This was not luck. This is a company that knows how to make content spread.
So how did they do it?
Divshot's is an innovative website development tool which automatically generates professional-grade code during the design process. The company's goal is beautiful, functional websites that take less time to create.
Knowing their customers' penchant for design and good taste, the company announced on April 1st that it had created a new "Geo" website template--a lightly veiled reference to Geocities. Remember Geocities, that 1990s service that allowed users to create hideously cheesy sites, using a variety of garish templates, buttons and animated images?
The announcement was embraced by Hacker News' notoriously cynical community, many of whom chimed in with a variety of congratulatory comments. From there, it took off--to the tune of 6,000 tweets and countless other mentions across the web.
To learn how other start-ups can emulate Divshot's marketing win, I spoke with Michael Bleigh, the company's co-founder and CEO. (The team's ability to drive significant customer interest without spending a dime on marketing was one of the reasons Jim Andelman and I invested in the company.) Here are his five lessons.
1. Don't Force It
"We didn't sit around for hours brainstorming what might make a great April Fool's gag," Michael says. "I randomly thought of the idea, pitched it to the team and got an immediately positive response. My co-founder Jake took a couple hours and threw together the beginnings of it and it still seemed funny, so we decided to go for it. Most of the failed April Fool's jokes that I've seen seem to be trying way too hard. If it doesn't come easily, don't force it."
2. Don't Be Afraid To Offend (Some) Customers
When I asked Michael if he was concerned that some of his customers might not "get it" and instead be repelled by the hideous sites, he laughed, noting, "Our customers build web apps for a living and many of them remember just how awful websites used to look. In fact, many of them built some pretty awful sites themselves back in the day.
"My first website was a Geocities-hosted Duke Nukem 3D fan site. It had bright green text and animated GIFs of radioactive symbols all over the place. Bringing web nostalgia together with Bootstrap hit a sweet spot of positive reaction for our gag. However, any time you make a joke you take a risk: Humor is an inherently subjective medium."
3. Don't Beg People To Share
No matter how you clever your marketing stunt, it won't be shared unless you make it is nearly effortless. You can't force people to spread something. As Michael notes, "While we wrote a blog post about the theme, it went viral thanks largely to the tweet button front and center on GitHub. We didn't ask people to tweet it, they just did. Twitter was by far our largest referrer, outpacing even Hacker News by a large margin. What's the fun in a joke that only one person knows about?"
4. Don't Oversell It
Divshot walked the fine line between getting good exposure and appearing overly self-promotional. Per Michael, "While we put our name on the theme, we didn't embed secret marketing messages or try to optimize a conversion funnel from the traffic. People have become jaded about April Fool's online because it's seen as a marketing gimmick. If you try too hard to turn a bit of fun into a business objective, you're likely to destroy the 'fun' part.
Of course, the lovely thing is that at the end of the day it is a great marketing gimmick. Thousands of people who hadn't heard of Divshot on March 31 have heard about it now because of our gag. Be content with a little bit of raised brand awareness and don't try to milk it too much."
5. Don't Overthink It
Michael believes that one of the reasons Divshot's April Fool's joke worked so well is that it was conceived and executed organically. It wasn't derived as result of an offsite, focus group, or PR consultant's strategic plan. Rather, "All told, Geo was less than a day's worth of effort from start to finish for our team. It was a fun thing to collaborate on and watching the reaction was rewarding for the team.
"We didn't bet on Geo succeeding, but we're very happy that it did. So next year when April 1 rolls around, I hope we pull off another fun gag. But if we don't, we don't, and that's OK too."
JOHN GREATHOUSE is a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, an early-stage VC firm. A serial entrepreneur, John led Computer Motion’s $110 million public offering, and the $236 million sale of Expertcity (creator of GoToMeeting) to Citrix. Check out his hands-on start-up advice blog at Infochachkie. Or, follow his start-up oriented Twitter feed, where he promises not to tweet about koala bears or killer burritos. @johngreathouse