Learning from four viral events

March 2012 is a big month for viral ideas that change the way people think about more than just LOLcats. Here are four that happened in the last week or two and each brings its own lessons:

Marilyn Hagerty's review of the local Olive Garden was a huge Twitter sensation, an easy target for ironists in search of something to snark about. The octogenarian (as much fun to type as it is to say) was fabulous in her refusal to take the bait, and this is a classic Internet meme, here today, gone tomorrow. One lesson: you can't count on media stories to pop, and when they do, they are not worth much to the media companies that publish them. You need more than one to make it a business.

The Kony video is the fastest-spreading internet video of all time, and one that is much harder to pigeonhole than an Olive Garden review. The most important takeaway is that this overwhelming pop is unlikely to ever happen this way again. A video this long, on this complex (and previously little known) a topic, for a non-profit–no, this is the exception that proves a bunch of rules. I have no doubt that the success of the video (seen by more people than any single TV show this week) will lead many organizations astray in the naive belief that they can emulate this one. If a non-profit board decides to spend precious resources on a video hoping it will change the world in three days, I think they're misguided.

I don't have the stats of time watched, but my confident guess is that the vast majority of viewers only lasted a few minutes. It's also worth noting that 60,000,000 or more views led to significantly less than a dime donated (on average) per viewer, and that unlike Dollar Shave Club, there was no well-rehearsed method to turn a viewer into a fan into a donor into a repeat donor.

I'm hopeful that good causes and complicated ideas benefit from rapid viral spread among strangers moving forward. My fear is that this looks like an easy shortcut, and it's not.

One thing we can learn, I think, is that production values are rising. For an idea to spread, it's more important than ever that the sneezer (the one spreading the idea) feels comfortable enough to send it along. In the case of the Olive Garden, the sneering tweeter could do so feeling comfortably superior. In the Kony video, the production values were a clue that the story was safe to share.

Dollar Shave Club isn't just a clever online video, it's a business. Of the four, it's the one that was most intentional and was best designed to lead to long-term success. The key distinction: Use the viral spread to gain a permission asset. Then, turn that asset into a profitable business.

Here's how they did it:

First, realize that razors are boring and expensive and that buying them is a bit of a hassle. If you address all three of these issues for the consumer, you don't need to deliver a better razor in order to succeed–all that's necessary is a better way to get the razor in the hands of the buyer. The model of permission is at the heart of the project–the razor business can't possibly pay off if consumers only buy one or two times and then get bored. Instead, Dollar earns the right to send you a bunch of razors every month forever, making the value of a new customer very high. They can invest that value into a clever video and into aggressive pricing. Also very smart: The affiliate program doesn't encourage you to pimp your friends to make money for yourself. Instead, they politely remind you that if you share their affiliate link, you get free razors, the very thing you're encouraging your friends to buy. The symmetry is compelling and successful.

And finally, my free ebook Stop Stealing Dreams continues to spread, with tens of thousands of new readers every day. There's no doubt I could have dramatically increased the number of viral engagements if I had made a video instead, and if I had created some sort of deadline (free this week only!). On the other hand, one lesson from this sort of gradual viral spread is that while it doesn't happen overnight, it can spread for months or even years into the future.

Here are two books on the topic, a new one by Dan Zarrella and an older one by me.