What's the Secret to Viral Success? It's So Obvious

When you're in the hit-making business, the only thing you know for sure is what has already worked

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How does BuzzFeed do it?

The Web's crown prince of social media has an uncanny knack for churning out posts that eat up the Internet. One week ago, BuzzFeed's Jack Shepherd pressed the publish button on "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity," an undeniably faith-restoring collection of inspiring pictures that I read and shared, along with more than 7 million other people. For those of you who don't dream in traffic numbers: Seven million page views for one post is astounding. It's the Internet equivalent of "The Hunger Games," or a walk-off Game 7 grand slam.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo was one of the 7 million. He was also curious: How does the Web's hit-maker make its hits? Over the last couple weeks, he "spent many hours and opened hundreds of browser tabs in an effort to reverse-engineer posts I found on BuzzFeed." What he found came as a disappointment. BuzzFeed's writers weren't baking from scratch. They were hunter-gathering. "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity" was basically a long riff on a shorter post at NedHardy.com. Every big hit at BuzzFeed seemed to follow the same template, Manjoo wrote. A writer would find popular stuff somewhere on the Web ("most often at Reddit"), find other images and examples from the rest of the Web, and publish a more comprehensive piece.

"The secret to [BuzzFeed's] viral success is to find stuff that's already a minor viral success and make it better," Manjoo wrote. "Repeat the process enough, and you're bound to get a few mega-hits.

"That's not genius. It's a machine."

***

Speaking of genius: How does Lionsgate do it?

Fifteen years ago, the film studio behind The Hunger Games wasn't even American. Formed in Vancouver in 1997, it took three years to even get on the map with cult classic American Psycho, and for the next ten years, it was much more famous for controversy (Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911, Gods and Monsters, Dogma) than for box office success.

Then it started to get hot. Between 2000 and 2005, the studio had two $100 million hits besides Moore's blockbuster: Saw and Saw II. In the next five years, it hit nine more $100-million home runs. Four contained the word "Saw" and three were other sequels/adaptation/reboots: Transporter 3, Rambo, and The Forbidden Kingdom. This year, The Hunger Games has already notched the fourth-biggest movie opening of all time and grossed more than $600 million worldwide. Lionsgate is currently the fourth-highest grossing film studio in America -- above Paramount and 20th Century Fox -- with The Expendables 2 and a distribution deal for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 coming later this year.

How is Hollywood's weird little brother beating up on the competition? The secret to its viral success is to find stuff that's already a minor viral success and make it new. Manjoo wrote that of BuzzFeed. But it's just as true for Lionsgate and movie companies, who are rightly obsessed with sequels, reboots and adaptations, since the top 39 movie openings in history are all sequels, reboots, and adaptations. "We're creating an affinity audience of young adult franchises," CEO Jon Feltheimer explained at a panel I attended at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles this spring. Movies are are a tricky business. Turning blockbuster books into blockbuster movie franchises isn't so risky.

Hollywood doesn't know many little things, but it knows one big thing: If it worked before, it will probably work again. BuzzFeed reads the Reddit front page. Movie studios read the NYT best-seller list. That's a machine. Is it genius, too?

***

Manjoo deserves a lot of credit for painstakingly reverse-engineering the most popular BuzzFeed posts. It's always fun to see how the sausage is made -- especially when an audience the size of New York City buys the sausage.  But today's micro-backlash against BuzzFeed is misplaced. BuzzFeed is a hit-maker making hits the only way reliable hits can be made: By figuring out what's already popular and tweaking them to make something new.

We'll end with a brief anecdote. Two years ago, a monthly magazine published a successful article about women and society that launched a national debate. Last year, it published another article about women and society that launched a national debate. Last week, it published yet another article about women and society that launched the loudest national debate of them all. The name of that magazine? If you don't know what magazine I'm talking about, scroll to the top of this page.

The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and Lionsgate are really different companies with really different cultures and really different definitions of success. But they share this in common: When you're in the hit-making business, you only know one thing for sure: What has already worked.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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