The factors that enable you to go massively viral among the audience you're trying to reach
Over the past two weeks I’ve successfully launched a Tik Tok mini series. Maybe you’ve seen it. It involves a set of silly skits about life at a law firm, and a blowhard Harvard Law grad (you can watch Part 1 here). Over the past two weeks, the series has received over 1.7 million views across multiple platforms.
As many of you know, I’ve been experimenting and innovating with social media content over the past 6 years. And I’ve seen some success. When you create super compelling content, something magical happens.
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It finds a way to reach all of the people you want to reach. I’m not just talking about going viral, which some of you may have experienced. I mean, I’ve gone viral before but it had such a limited impact because my content just ends up reaching a bunch of audiences I don’t really have an interest in.
No, what I’m talking here is about targeted virality. Going viral with the people you want to reach.
When you create compelling content for your key audience something truly magical happens. It generates like, a visceral reaction from the viewer or reader. They feel compelled to share it with their friends.
So in today’s article, I’ll discuss the three key factors behind creating targeted viral content.
1. Distribution - How will people come across your content?
Remember how in the old days, there were only like 3 channels on TV? That meant to gain access to your audience, you needed to go through a bunch of different middlemen at places like CBS, NBC and whatever that third channel was (ABC?). Over time the number of TV channels increased. Then came the Internet, which created even more channels to reach your audience. You could create your own websites, newsletters, or videos easily, and have them seen or read by people all over the world.
So theoretically, you would think that today, distribution doesn’t really matter. There’s a belief that every single social media post, or Internet article has the potential to reach some unlimited number of views:
That’s true but there are nuances. There still are middlemen—whether it’s the black box algorithm that decides how much reach you’ll get; or Google’s secret formula for deciding where your webpage ranks on search.
The middlemen who control distribution still have a lot of power. They still control who gets to be seen by millions.
The good news is, it’s much better today. Because the audience has more of an impact on what the middlemen decide. You could imagine decades ago, the decision makers were studio execs who might be out of touch with what’s happening with the world. They’d green light shows that were unsuccessful, and it would take multiple episodes on TV (or articles in a newspaper) to realize that people didn’t actually like the content.
The feedback loop today is much quicker. On social media, you can tell if what you posted was good within minutes. The content first goes to a select group of your followers, whether that’s 1000 people or 10 people. How this group responds—by which I mean engagement, like reshares, likes, comments, or watch time—determines whether the algorithm will send your content to more people, or if it’ll just stop being shown.
There are a few implications of this faster feedback loop. The obvious one is that the world can absorb far more content than we ever have—the algorithms will only surface the best content to the audience. (This by the way is why silly 15 second Tik Toks are often superior to the best TV shows.) The more content that’s created, the bigger the opportunity there is to create that one magical one-in-a-million video or article.
The second, less obvious implication, is that distribution is more dependent on content quality than ever. Before, you could produce a shitty TV showby being a good salesman. If you could find a way to align the right producers, actors, etc. and talk your way into getting the green light, you could get your content out to the masses. Now, there is a lot less gamesmanship. The decisionmakers are algorithms that don’t care about all that—all they care about is how your initial audience responds.
This second implication is how I became an overnight success.I’m not good at convincing the higher ups of anything. Which is why I never succeeded in a law firm environment. But as it turns out, I am pretty good at entertaining my friends. Which I’ve known all my life. I never imagined that I’d do creative work. But a combination of factors led me to try out posting content on social media, and I produced high quality stuff—which is why the algorithms rewarded me with so many views and followers overnight.
So what does “quality content” really mean? If distribution depends on producing great content, how do you do that?
There are two components to great content, relatability and aesthetic. I’ll talk about both next.
2. Relatability - Does your content make people feel seen?
Have you ever come across a meme, Tik Tok, or just any piece of content that made you say, “wow they really get me!” If you have, you’ve found relatable content. This is an incredibly important part of the recipe for creating targeted virality. And it’s also why you kind of need to have a target audience that’s somewhat homogenous to spark that initial traction that might lead to virality. Let me explain with my own story.
One of my most popular themes across my social media accounts is the tension between legal and sales. Anyone who’s ever worked in a legal department knows—sales reps are annoying. They bother you with last minute contract review requests and can be unreasonable. But here’s the thing — no one really talks about it. There’s no upside in discussing it publicly. You don’t want to get in trouble with work, and I mean, what’s the upside of complaining?
I first discovered this “tension” with my own job. I was selling software as a sales rep, and I kept sending our lawyer contracts to review at the last minute. I could sense that he was very annoyed. Separately, I started to have more conversations on sales calls with legal departments. I’d ask them a lot of questions about their day to day, and I realized that this conflict between legal and sales was very, very common.
When I eventually started making Tik Toks, I thought I’d try to make a joke about this theme. The video itself wasn’t my best work. It wasn’t super polished and it just looked pretty rough. But when I posted it on LinkedIn, the response from the corporate legal community was fierce. It was like I’d scratched an itch that had never been scratched before.
As I thought through why the reaction was so strong I realized that it’s probably because no one else had ever made a joke like this before. There are too many niches out there. Remember when I mentioned the handful of TV channels? In that world, where you have such a limited number of slots, the content you produce must absolutely be appealing to the broadest audience possible. Which means while you do get generally good content—it’s so generic that you won’t hit someone super hard with specificity.
It’s just not relatable.
The implications of this second point are pretty important. If you’re looking to build an audience, they have to be homogenous at some level. Because otherwise, you can’t tap into that relatability. My target audience started off with a very narrow audience of lawyers—corporate legal departments and Biglaw associates. My niche jokes rarely went viral, but they always made their way to the people I was trying to reach.
Now for me, I focused on the legal community—and specifically, certain subsets within the community. Not everyone has to do that. You could create your own relatable content on a wide range of categories. It could be about being a parent of young children, being Asian American, or being a New Yorker who lives in California. Personally I would find all of those themes extremely relatable.
This theme is closely related to why many creators who went viral once — ie. one-hit wonders — struggle to replicate their success. They made something super relatable and compelling once, but they were unable to extract the core of what brought their community together. If this is you, I would look back at my old posts, especially those that were most popular. Identify the target audience it likely resonated most with, and then make another post that speaks to the same issues.
Are there exceptions to this general rule about relatability and homogeneity of viewers? Absolutely. Two broad categories come to mind.
The first one is the cult of personality. If you experience some early success, you’ll start to develop a community that has come together because of you. So the commonality among your target audience, is that they are familiar with you. Maybe you have a schtick, or motto, or maybe you make the same kinds of references again and again. This is the underlying force behind why supercelebrities, like actors and actresses, no longer need to rely on this relatability factor. They are the relatability factor.
The second one is something that I’m still trying to understand. It’s incredibly powerful because if you content has this feature, the sky’s the limit. Relatability matters a lot less; you can even go viral on content that has nothing to do with anything. I call this mystery factor “aesthetic” and I’ll attempt to break it down in the next part.
3. Aesthetic - Is there something about the way the content is presented that makes it irresistible?
This is the magic factor that determines what your ceiling is. I mean, if you have good distribution (via the Internet, anyways) and solid relatability, you can probably get enough traction to potentially go viral. But what exact level of virality will you achieve? Will it be 10,000 views? 100,000? 1,000,000+?
The answer to that question depends on what I call “aesthetic.” I have a hard time defining this characteristic because it appears in a lot of different forms. For example, humor is a big one. Have you ever watched a video where you didn’t really understand the joke, but it was clearly funny? Or maybe it’s obviously not relatable to you (e.g. for me, wives making jokes about their husbands; niche jokes about the finance world) but they’re still compelling?
But humor isn’t the only way to do well aesthetically. There are multiple formats or themes you can interlace into your content that achieve the same goals. Telling a good story, for example, works really well. Mixing in some suspense, climax, or a surprise ending or plot twist can be very effective. Or in the case of video, great acting or facial expressions can have a huge impact.
I’m still trying to define this “aesthetic” thing. It’s like what Potter Stewart said about pornography—I’ll know it when I see it.
Why does it work so well? My theory is that when you create something that transcends your core audience, that’s when you enter the “algorithm superhighway.” It’s when you start getting like thousands of views per minute or something. Take me for example. I create content for lawyers, but sometimes my jokes can be appreciated by people outside of the industry.
That often happens because I’ve tapped into a universal theme, did a great job acting or making funny facial expressions, or put in a big plot twist.
Our content is always going to be limited by the size of our audience. Similar to the concept for startups where the size of your addressable market determines how big you’ll ultimately grow.Having great aesthetic to your content means you can rocket past your own market. Like how all of my legal jokes about paralegals not being respected by junior lawyers often gains traction in the medical field, where the same dynamic plays out between nurses and new doctors.
How does this help targeted virality though? I mentioned earlier that going viral generally is not helpful. You want targeted virality. How do your audience building goals get achieved when you’re just going viral among people you’re not necessarily interested in getting in front of?
Well—if you do achieve massive virality, it is very, very likely that you will also achieve saturation within your target audience. For example, if you are making content for lawyers which has a total audience size of 100,000 (making up numbers here) and normally your content gets to 10% of them (ie. 10,000 lawyers) when you go massively viral, it is very likely that you’ll be seen by far more of your target audience (ie. 30,000+). The things that make your content universally attractive, make it super compelling for your community.
This stuff is all very hard to engineer. Like conceptually it all makes sense, but it’s hard to make something that hits all three buckets. For example, let’s talk about my latest Tik Tok series. The plot is basically that a first year lawyer who graduated from Harvard tries to humblebrag about his alma mater by saying he went to school “near Boston.” This is relatable to many people, and not just to lawyers because lots of people have had this experience interacting with Harvard grads.
As for aesthetic, the videos are generally humorous and have a bit of suspense. What will the Harvard kid say next? In the third episode I also added a plot twist—in trying to brag about his alma mater, the Harvard kid insults the partner who went to a lower ranked school. Also, all of the videos rely on the same catchy song—another factor in the aesthetic. The videos just have a good vibe.
I’ve tried to engineer targeted virality multiple times. Most of the time it fails. It’s easy for me to explain why this series did well, but other series have not and I can’t always explain it. Maybe I just didn’t execute well. At the end of the day we gotta keep experimenting and trying different things.
Anyways. I hope this breakdown was helpful to you. I have no idea how many of you are content creators but since it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, I thought I’d write it all down so I can clarify my own thinking.
Experienced social media posters know this but this is essentially how all algorithms work. They broadcast your content to a small group first, and depending on the engagement metrics (whether it’s likes, reshares, reteweets, comments, or watch time) for this “test” the algorithm will start publishing your content to a broader group of people. This continues, and the size of the audience at each successive level grows until at some point, the engagement rate drops off.
This example is about TV but upon review an even better example is probably the book publishing industry.
A related theme I’m thinking about is the feedback loop. Because social media gives you lightning fast feedback, you can adjust quickly to what the market wants. But the key word here is adjust. You HAVE to make changes. A lot of people stubbornly say they want to remain “authentic” which is another way of saying, I don’t care to make content that people want. Some mainstream production companies have harnessed this feedback loop by creating lots of low effort content, identifying which ones resonate most, and then investing a ton of resources into the most compelling ones. See e.g. How Will and Jada Pinkett Smith Built a Content and Commerce Powerhouse by Dan Runcie (breaking down the Westbrook system of going from iP to IP)
I’m probably not being *completely* fair to myself. My success came overnight but I’ve been thinking about how to create compelling content for audiences for probably two decades now. Back when I had a traditional career, I still created a whole host of anonymous blogs, websites, silly Youtube videos, Vines, etc. I only started posting under my real name in 2016.
I’m stepping a bit outside my circle of competence now but this is why I believe startups should not expand to new verticals and markets prematurely. It’s tempting to think that to grow you have to enter a new market. But the best way to do it is to utterly dominate your own niche, and then see who in adjacent markets resonates with your offering. Growth becomes more organic that way, and you can develop learnings about these newer markets along the way. Just because you remain focused on serving one core audience *really* well doesn’t mean you’re foregoing a larger audience.
For example, this latest series was watched by a significant percentage of the Suffolk Law alumni community, and I even received a DM from a judge about it.
I feel the need to share that I have not had this personal experience with most Harvard Law grads. Maybe I’ve only met the nice ones. But the broader point is that the Harvard theme in these videos isn’t just about Harvard-it’s about anyone who’s so status conscious about their schooling that they feel the need to make others feel small. Everyone’s had that experience.