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What I Learned From Going Viral

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Back in December I wrote this blog and it went viral.

To date, there have been close to 700,000 views and countless other re-productions on other sites. Thousands and thousands of people have commented and tweeted about it. Al Sharpton criticized me on MSNBC and NPR discussed the blog on multiple shows. CNN and the BBC covered the controversy. Everyone from the American Thinker to technology web sites weighed in on the issue. Dozens of lesser known pundits on internet talk shows argued over what I wrote. Time magazine included my blog as number 2 on its list of the Top 10 Opinions of 2011, along with Warren Buffett and Alan Greenspan.

I'm not going to re-hash what I wrote here. I want to share with other business owners what I've learned from going viral. Because it could happen to you. If you're out there using the internet to market your business then something you say or some video you make could also go viral. And if that does happen to you, like it happened to me, then my story will interest you. And what I learned may really help you too.

Be serious about what you put out there. The blog I wrote was written with the best of intentions and from the heart. And except for the one thing I mention below, I wouldn't change a word. Because I believe what I wrote was right. And still right. And that's the first lesson I learned. When you write or produce anything that you intend to be viewed by the public, make sure you really mean it. Make sure you're willing to defend it. Don't just put it out there. Because for all you know it may become viral. And then you'll be forced to respond to it. Read what you write, watch the video you made, again and again. Review it. Have someone else review it. Look at each paragraph or segment and ask yourself if it makes sense to you and if you would feel comfortable explaining it if asked. When you produce something for the Internet, whether it's a blog, or tweet or video, take it seriously. It's a permanent reflection of you and your business.

Have a very thick skin. I do a lot of writing and anyone who writes online will tell you there are plenty of haters out there. It's very easy to hide behind your computer screen and write hurtful comments or tweet nasty things. And you can do this anonymously. You should try to respond back to those people who comment thoughtfully and constructively but unfortunately you may have to wade through lots of abusive remarks to get there. And this isn't easy. Just remember these people don't know you and have never met you. And remember that people interpret things in different ways based on their own experiences. Respect the fact that people are passionate. Focus on the people who want to engage in a discussion. Ignore those who just want to hurt.

The commenters are not a meaningful representation of the public. As mentioned earlier, I had 700,000 views to my original blog. About 1,500 people have left comments. That means that .002 percent of the people who viewed my blog commented on it. And let me ask you -- do you comment on all (or any) of the things you read on the Internet? I respect people that (courteously) comment on what I write because they're inspired enough to do that. There are many, many smart people who contribute valuable insights through their comments. But these people unfortunately are not a representative sample of readers. Ninety-nine percent of the people that read your blog or view your video won't leave a comment. Comments are not a reliable gauge of opinion.

People everywhere will say untrue things about you and your business. After my blog came out people claimed that I wrote it to get hits for the money (I'm unpaid), I'm rich (wish I was), I'm a liberal (nope) and I had no background in the subject matter (untrue again -- although if I were to change one thing to my original blog I would've included one more paragraph more fully describing my experience and background. But then again, would it have mattered?). How do politicians and celebrities deal with all those people saying incorrect stuff about them all the time? I guess they learn to tune it out. And so did I. And so must you. You know the facts. That's why you wrote what you wrote. You're going to have to ignore all the others out there who think they know what they're talking about... but don't.

Other people will want a piece of the pie. When my blog came out a proliferation of other bloggers wrote responses, most attacking me. My favorite was this blog by a comedian on CNN.com who (can you believe his luck?) was about to launch a new book and speaking tour on a similar topic when my blog dropped like a gold coin from the sky. Ka-ching! People will be jealous that you went viral and want a piece of the pie. They'll try to use your same headline. They'll be angry and outrageous. They'll try to figure out what the public wants to hear and then join them. People in the media are looking for attention. Your viral blog or video might be just the thing for them. Until they find something else.

You're not as famous as you think. For a while I thought that the entire world was talking about me and what I wrote. And then I did a crazy thing. I turned off the feature on my blog that notified me every time a comment was made and I stopped searching for my name on Google. And lo and behold... all went quiet. We all live in our own little virtual realities and if you want to spend your days searching for yourself online after your blog or video goes viral then you'll think it's all about you. But it's not. I found that most of the people I know and work with never read or heard about what I wrote. And if they did it was fleeting. Because... oh my God... the world does not revolve around you or your silly blog or video. No one cares. They might hear of it and then move on to something else in their life that's more important. Like everything. Don't take yourself so seriously.

Don't go on TV. Thank God I didn't. Sometimes I have the opportunity to talk about what I write on TV. But not this time! I was asked by all the major networks, NPR and the BBC to appear. And you know what stopped me? Imagining myself arguing with Al Sharpton edited into a bit for The Daily Show. That terrifying image made me turn down all offers. Once your image is out there, TV people can do all sorts of creative things with it. And you have no control. If you believe in what you produced in your blog or video then let it stand on its own.

If you have an opinion, be prepared for the consequences. I have opinions. I write about them. Lots of people disagree. In this case I wrote about a controversial topic. But I didn't lose a single client. I did have one setback: sadly and because of what I wrote I was fired from an unpaid job writing for a local business newspaper. But by the next week I was hired for a paid job writing for a local magazine. I received a few (but not as many as you think) emails who disagreed with me. And I received a dozen others inviting me to speak at their schools and groups to discuss what I wrote. If you write or produce something that goes viral expect people to take sides. You have to take a side too.

Your fifteen minutes goes fast. Within two weeks of writing my infamous blog I was yesterday's news. And four months later it's as if it never happened. I occasionally get a new comment posted (I turned the notifications back on). But people have moved on to other things. Like every event in your life... it's not about the event. It's about how you handled the event. Can you look back on it and say that you took the high road and behaved professionally, even when so many others didn't? That's the most important lesson I learned from going viral.

For many, like the baker in Pittsburgh whose cookies were recently compared by Mitt Romney to a 7-11, becoming instantly famous or going 'viral' can not only be good for business, but also a lot of fun. For others, like myself, it can be tempestuous. Would I want to go through the same experience again? Not really. But if your business, like mine, relies on blogging and other social media as part of its marketing then this is what could happen. And I'm ready if it happens again.

Another version of this post appears on The Philly Post.