Going Viral

Going viral

Going Viral

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Recently a friend of mine, author Ann Garvin, experienced what many authors dream of.

It started innocuously, with a post she wrote for a small local publication in her native Wisconsin about a dating experience she’d had, where a man she matched with on a dating app told her within moments of sitting down that he was surprised he wasn’t dating younger women.

She shared it in a thread on Twitter (not using that stupid rename, sorry), and it hit a chord. People started to retweet it.

Ann and I were both in Dayton, Ohio, at the time, both presenting at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop (an exceptional conference I highly recommend), when I texted her to arrange for a group of us to meet for dinner.

“Give me a few minutes,” she texted. “I’m going viral.”

By the time we met for dinner, she was up to a million views. When we got back to the hotel it was two million. By the time we all got on a plane to leave Dayton, her tweet about her post had reached six million eyeballs. She’s had better than 35,000 engagements with the post, it’s been retweeted 2,400 times, and she has nearly 800 comments on it.

Ann was giddy over dinner as she watched the numbers soar. We all were, living vicariously through her.

In a strange little twist, not long after that once I got home, I made a brief, almost throwaway video of our house, which we have lined with carpet remnants as one of our dogs has aged and lost his footing on the tile. This thing is literally a video of throw rugs, with a brief view of Alex, our thirteen-year-old Great Pyrenees. But for some reason it went mini-viral. Before I knew it I had 300 likes on it, and then a thousand, and then 3,000, and at this point I think I’m up to something like 7,500. I stopped counting comments at 900.

Let me reiterate, this is for a video of carpet.

Working Your Social Media

So much of the marketing and publicity work authors do focuses on social media, and how to get engagement and followers. And social media is certainly a powerful tool, one increasingly relied on in the current publishing environment to bring books and authors to readers’ attention.

Authors may consume dozens of articles about how to engage readers, take classes in mastering the algorithms to get posts more visibility, spend endless hours learning to design eye-catching posts or create snappy videos. They may rigorously follow every best-practices tip from every marketing guru around.

And yet none of it may significantly move the needle.

Who knows what makes people respond to a certain post? Another author friend of mine, Karin Gillespie, found herself rapidly building followers for a Facebook page she created about creativity simply by posting inspirational quotes with appealing images. She’s up to 43,000 followers so far.

Ann’s viral article was one of countless she has written in her career, one she didn’t put an unusual amount of thought into, just relating her experience and the perspective it gave her on dating. It was damn good, but not necessarily better than anything else she’s written.

Karin’s posts may be well designed and well chosen, but they aren’t even her own words, just upcycled repackaging of other people’s.

My post didn’t have words at all, except for a brief caption I wrote explaining what it was, and I put literally zero thought into it. I was just amused at how ramshackle the remnants make our house look, and how little I care because of our dog’s comfort.

With my last fiction release, I put a lot more thought into some promotional videos I created. I did an interview with my past self from fifteen years earlier, when I first started writing the story. I did a tongue-in-cheek montage of what an author’s release date was like. They got some traction and response, but we’re talking in the dozens.

Yet thousands of people engaged with my carpet video, most seemingly dog lovers appreciative of the accommodations we made for our senior pup, sharing their own experiences with theirs.

Engaging with Your Followers

One of my favorite marketing experts, Dan Blank, orients his work around what he calls human-centered marketing, meaning engaging with people on a personal and genuine level, rather than simply trying to amass numbers.

I always try to respond to every person who takes time to engage with any of my posts—of the blog or social-media variety. I appreciate that they have taken a moment to share their thoughts about it with me, and want to connect directly on a human level, rather than treating them as metrics.

But it’s been work trying to keep up with the comments on this mini-viral post. Whenever I have a few moments of downtime I go on Insta and work through some of them, but when we’re talking about multiple hundreds, we’re not looking at any meaningful exchanges, just a quick acknowledgment and reply, sometimes just an emoji. And even that takes up large chunks of time from my day—days that I already keep very tightly scheduled to fit in not only my editing work but my creative work as well.

The post has definitely resulted in a bump in my followers, by at least a few hundred. And while I appreciate that engagement, I also wonder what it means given that the bulk of my posts and my followers revolve around the world of writing and publishing. If I’ve garnered hundreds of new followers who are dog lovers, they’re bound to be quickly disappointed by my subsequent posts on story and craft and the business of writing. I don’t anticipate selling any books or online courses among those followers. I expect many of them will drop off quickly.

I do very much relish the kind of direct personal involvement Dan talks about, but let’s be ruthlessly honest here: I already struggle to find sufficient time for the kind of meaningful engagements I want to have with the people I already have in my life–not just a broad circle of friends, many of them very dear ones, but the wider circle of my writing community, which is very important to me, and with whom I love to connect one-on-one as much as possible and already feel as if I’m never quite able to do that as deeply as I’d like.

Determining Your Social Media Engagement

So what is my point here? I’ve written before about my erratic and uneasy relationship with social media. I do appreciate that it broadens our reach and opens us up to people we might not otherwise be able to interact with regularly, and especially in our field I find that to be a wonderful side effect. But it can also begin to feel like an obligation, a relentless vampire thirsty for a regular supply.

Authors are told they need a large following to even be offered a publishing contract. That they’ll never sell books without it. That they must constantly be posting to feed the algorithms and make sure they stay in front of readers’ eyes and at the top of their minds.

Yet as Jane Friedman wrote recently, social media isn’t going to make or break an author’s book launch or career, and chances are good that a solid manuscript publishers feel they can sell is going to be offered a contract whether the author has a social media presence or not. Many bestselling authors don’t, like Cal Newport and Zadie Smith.

Social media isn’t going to make or break an author’s book launch or career, and chances are good that a solid manuscript publishers feel they can sell is going to be offered a contract whether the author has a social media presence or not. Many bestselling authors don’t.

I asked Ann what has happened from her thrilling experience of going viral with her post.

It’s held steady at six million views—Ann wonders if the site has noodled with its visibility, hoping to get her to spend money to boost the post. She got about 500 new followers after the thread took off. She can’t be sure about book sales, but she suspects her numbers bumped up by around 19 books. She did get a lot of Instagram followers but credits Erma Bombeck with that.

“There was no real tail,” she says now, beyond the fact that it felt good to her to have so many people resonate and engage with what she wrote. And the impact of it all has even worn off a bit: “I had to Google how much six million was to really, really get my head around it because you’re just living your life and nothing changes,” she says.

Here’s the kind of engagement I find really meaningful: when those of you who are here week after week leave your thoughts in the comments below, and we get to actually converse on a more meaningful level that does feel more personal and connected to me. It means a great deal to me to get an email from an author who took the time to let me know that a class I taught or my books or a post I wrote made a real difference in their writing lives. It means so much to be at an event and meet people face-to-face whom I’ve engaged with for years on social media, to spend time with them and get to know them as people.

That’s not really a scalable endeavor on any substantive level. There’s only so much time we have in our lives, and we don’t want to give in to the temptation of letting the marketing of our work replace the doing of it. The doing is the soul of it, the thing that you are connecting to people with, and the thing that, hopefully, fulfills you and gives you satisfaction in your creative efforts.

I admit it’s a tough balance to strike. None of us wants to do our work in a vacuum and you certainly can’t build a career that way, so engagement truly is part of the job to some degree. But how much of that is necessary to achieve the goals you have for your career? How much is important to widen your reach? What is it you actually want out of your writing career, and what is enough?

Read more: “Reassessing Your Writing Career

Just like writing itself, these aren’t discrete issues. Outreach is inextricably tied to the work we do. It’s all an interconnected web. But you get to weave yours to suit yourself. Do it consciously, deliberately, not according to some marketing guru’s magical formula, which isn’t going to work for every author anyway, but according to what you’re comfortable with—and what you want for yourself.

Talk to me, friends—have you gone viral—or tried to? What happened—did it change anything for you or your career? How much time and effort to you dedicate to social media for your writing, and do you find it valuable or rewarding? How?

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20 Comments. Leave new

  • Great post Tiffany. Recently I shared with close girlfriends a silly but fun lip sync video I did during Covid. After wiping the tears away from laughing so hard they all said You have to post it on Instagram! It would definitely go viral! I admit, I thought about it. But then I asked myself the same question you pose: why? Would it sell more books – my ultimate goal? Or would it be just the sharing of a funny, fun, moment with the ‘world’ which I might do because it might give someone a laugh? Both legit reasons. I quickly determined the video wouldn’t sell many books. Broaden my audience, maybe. But what kind of audience? Sometimes it feels creepy to me to have people “following” me that I don’t know and I wonder why they are drawn to connecting to me in general, if it is not connected to an interest in my book. I admit I probably have not optimized my settings for specific audience targeting even though I have spent plenty of time trying to educate myself in the area of marketing on all the different channels. But again, the question why? To Jane’s point, it is all about the writing and commercial viability of any project that attract publishers- not about how many followers you have. Because how many of those on social media are actually readers? No way to know, but I suspect what publishers already know – not as many as you might think.
    Most of my efforts to engage with readers have been on facebook. I have an author site and have over the years experimented with different ways to engage with those interested in the subject matter of my book. Recently I reached 700 followers which facebook says is a milestone. I posted a thank you and offered a free audiobook to the first 25 of my followers to DM me. I didn’t pay for a boost of the post, but figured it would somehow make it to the pages of some of my followers. It hasn’t gotten any traction, and I can only assume that it is because it hasn’t made to the page of many followers in general. This is not the first time I have tried to just post something specifically for current followers of my page without opting to pay for boosting it. What I have found on facebook is that they will get your post in front of a portion of your followers (this is for a business page, not a personal page) if you pay to boost the post. But don’t assume your followers see everything you post.
    So back to the 2nd question of whether I would post that funny lip-sync video to make people laugh? Maybe one day I will!

    • I love that you gave this so much thought, Carey. And it resonates with me personally. I remember being exhorted by friends to join Facebook when it first started and telling them, “The people I want to know about my life, I’m already in touch with.” Obviously things have evolved in social media, and I am grateful for the connections it’s facilitated. But I still find that when I want to make a meaningful connection I do it directly.

      And yes–I think the algorithms and the paid ads and posts have changed the complexion of social media. And honestly I feel so burned out by the constant posts that are “targeting” me for whatever reason, it’s another reason I find my social media use really dwindling.

      All this said, I’m going to need to see that lip sync video. I think we all are…. 😉 Sometimes it’s enough to share a funny with other people, I think–brightens everyone’s day. Thanks for this thoughtful comment!

  • I loved this post! I was just speaking to my husband this morning about how many things I see my author friends doing that don’t seem to make much difference in sales or gaining readers. A lot of it is social media related. I had no social media presence prior to publishing and have only a small one now because being an indie requires self-promotion and my readers are on FB. But most of my time is spent on ads which sell me books and get me readers rather than posts, etc. I have friends who have started podcasts and they say the response has been great but it’s the response from other writers not readers. And lots of people are trying to sell us their methods for promoting but when I look at their books, they don’t appear to be selling that many so why would I listen to them?

    • Kathleen Basi
      May 9, 2024 12:34 pm

      We need to hire YOU to make our ads and ad buys for us. 🙂

    • Like you, D, I’m always a bit skeptical about the selling of marketing and promotion as opposed to the actual results. So much of our industry has moved to selling things to the creators. A lot of those services are helpful and legit…but I always approach it with a cautious and discerning eye–especially when promises are made or carrots are held out that writers can make a fortune if only they use this system. This is a business glorious in many ways–but financially is not often one of them.

      I agree about podcasts–they may help garner attention, followers, and even sales. But I do think they’re often geared toward the writing community (so much of this type of outreach seems to be), which may be of limited help in marketing books or services. I do love listening to them, though! 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Kathleen Basi
    May 9, 2024 12:33 pm

    A few years ago on March 21st, I got to the end of the day and thought, “I haven’t posted anything for World Down Syndrome Day.” So I called my chromosomally-gifted girl over and said, “Hey, let’s make a video.” I asked her very baseline questions–what’s your favorite food, what things do you like to do. It went to about 94 seconds, just enough that when I posted on IG, it cut off the reason we were doing it at all–the “happy World Down Syndrome day!” I was like, whatever, and I posted it. Before it died down, it had over 20,000 plays and nearly 4K likes. This was in the middle of book promotion and I thought, “Why didn’t I say ANYTHING about the book?!?!?!?” The answer, of course, was that I had no idea the world would respond that way. Everything my daughter ever “stars” in performs well, and I’ve thought about asking her to do something book-related for me, but it feels slimy and also, I suspect trying to leverage it would remove the freshness that makes it actually work.

    This was a great reflection to read this morning. I am currently trying to use socials to promote a book sale and it’s a lot of work. I see impact, but not as much as the work would warrant!

    • Oh, Kathleen, I love that you shared this! It hits right on something I think a lot of authors experience–that “ooky” feeling of being smarmy or exploitive or insincere in our posts if we’re focused on selling people something through them. And yet it certainly is a reality of the face that we are working within the publishing business.

      I think about this a lot–the fact that authors can tend to be a little reluctant or averse to a hard sell of their creative work…or even a soft sell of it. And yet in no other commerce would the manufacturer of a product or purveyor of a service balk at offering that to customers. I don’t know why it’s different for so many in our industry–as if expecting monetary reward for our art undermines it. I often have to remind myself of this, in fact–that I’m offering valuable services and they are worth what I charge for them. So are our creative efforts. It would be nonsensical for consumers to expect Coke to send them free flats of soda, or a car dealer to give them a car, or a lawyer or doctor to provide their services gratis. Why do people seem to expect it of art and artists? Why do creatives feel weird about setting a value to their work and promoting it?

      I do think there’s a way to do that with sincerity and genuineness, though, and a smarmy way to do it–and I get why you’d feel odd about using that lovely conversation with your daughter to sell books. I try to balance my outreach between business-related posts and ones that have nothing to do with it (like my dogs’ carpet runway). 🙂 I try to keep all of it as organic and genuine as possible, and I hope that in the long run, people will gravitate to me because of that. It may not always lead to “sales,” but I do often find that it’s enough to sustain and grow my business.

      Who knows the “right” way? I don’t think there is one–just what each of us decides we are comfortable with, and what we want. Thanks for this viewpoint, Kathleen–it made me think. 🙂

  • Laura Drake
    May 9, 2024 12:34 pm

    2 hours, every morning on my FB group, Laura Drake’s Peace, Love & Books. I post snark, beautiful photos, and stuff I love. It’s become of community of good souls who didn’t know each other before.
    Does it sell books? No way of knowing, but I enjoy it as much as anyone, so…

    • That, to me, feels like a great reason to dedicate your time to it–it sounds like you’re getting a lot out of it. If that’s the case for people, then it seems worth it–although there is always the risk of it siphoning time away from other pursuits, taking over an artist’s creative or other personal time.

      These blog posts often can take several hours to create, but I do think of them as a way to stay connected with authors and draw others to my work, so it feels like time well spent for me. Social media wouldn’t in the same way–but I do think we each have to find our own balance of time/effort/reward, based on what we want from our careers and each specific prong of it, our schedules and commitments, and our goals.

      Thanks for sharing this, Laura! I love that you’ve built a community you clearly get a lot out of.

  • Christina Anne Hawthorne
    May 9, 2024 12:53 pm

    An insightful post. Thank you.

    I spend 60-90 minutes per day on social media, but it’s almost exclusively engaging with a couple of writing groups I participate in. I’ve had a few posts over the years go super mini-viral, but the attention dies down.

    I view social media attention and any boost derived from any single post as a storm at sea where there are big waves, but always the calm returns. Social media is about novelty and outrageousness, neither of which are sustainable, nor do they make suitable building blocks for publishing.

    What I find rewarding online is deep engagement, but then I’m an INFJ personality type. Most social media engagement leaves me feeling rather empty after the fact. Instead, I’d much rather share like I’m doing right here, in an unhurried, thoughtful manner.

    • Great metaphor, Christina. That resonates for me too. I agree–so often the social media “best practices” feel gimmicky or draining to me: trying to put out “content” and do it often enough to activate the algorithms…blech. I love viewing other people’s videos and posts, but I think about creating something like that for myself, day after day, and how much time it would pull from the things I most want to be doing–the work itself–and I can’t make myself want to do it. Like you, I prefer the deeper and more direct engagements. I’m so overwhelmed by the comments on my silly Insta video (up to 1,000 now!) that I have kind of given up–the quick-fire replies I have to offer to manage my time well don’t feel especially meaningful to me, or as if they are likely to engender real connection. And that’s coming from an ENTJ. 😉

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  • Ricki Heller
    May 9, 2024 1:11 pm

    Loved this post. I think social media can be useful for some fields, and I know many people whose primary customer base is on Instagram. Cookbooks, for instance, can do really well if the author has a lot of followers (I know a handful of NYT bestsellers whose sales were directly related to their more-than-4-million followers on Insta). But how many of us have that many followers?

    For me, social media has been a fun place to hang out, but not really a factor in attracting clients or selling books, except for one instance on Twitter (when it *was* still named Twitter) and I managed to draw the attention of Ellen DeGeneres, who then recommended my self-published book on her website. While that didn’t result in a deluge of sales, it did allow me to secure an agent and big-5 book deal so the following books could sell.

    My sense is that people are beginning to recognize that social media can be helpful, but not integral, in their careers. And with Instagram now talking about charging anyone who wants to reach people in any real way–and also for some of what are now “basic” features, like links in stories–I suspect there will be a lot more peoplel falling away and getting back to old-fashioned means of marketing, like referrals, networking in person, and so on.

    • Great point, Ricki. I likely follow some of those cookbook authors myself on socials.

      That is SO COOL about Ellen DeGeneres! Kim Cattrell retweeted me once and I was delighted…Ellen would send me over the moon. 🙂 It’s interesting that it helped you with securing an agent and deal–but it makes sense, when Ellen went to the effort of actually recommending your book. That’s a big deal, and it makes sense it would catch the attention of industry people.

      I didn’t know about Insta’s upcoming changes, but it’s certainly discouraging me further from a lot of social media engagement. Like you, I’d love to imagine all this will lead us back to more direct human connection and outreach. Social media is a great when it works as a tool, but it’s getting so commodified itself, I’m not sure of its value anymore. Thanks for the comment!

  • Charlotte Wiggins
    May 9, 2024 3:07 pm

    It helps to have a reason one is on social media but even then there are no guarantees. I post because I’m self published and want to establish my credentials but guess who has the most views – my cat James A Mess rolling in catnip. I set a time limit on social media posts and don’t worry about the numbers.

    • Heh–pets will always trump anything else we can post. When I was an actor there was an old adage about never performing with kids or animals, because they will steal the show. 🙂 My dog posts are certainly almost always my most popular.

      Sounds like you have a healthy outlook on socials, and know how to manage them to best fit your needs/wants. I do think we have to be deliberate and thoughtful about that–otherwise we may post “scattershot” in a way that doesn’t help us with our goals…and it can be a time suck. Thanks for sharing, Charlotte.

  • Thanks Tiffany, for another thought-provoking post. I’m not actively promoting anything, but I like to engage with other writers and readers on social media. The problem I have is, which channel? There are so many choices these days, and a few years ago, I thought I found my favorite in Twitter. But then…we all know what happened to that. Now I’m casting about, wondering where to go and where to spend my time and what to say.

    • True! Even when we find a channel that feels right for us, they seem to change fairly often, and then we have to figure it out all over again.

      When TikTok started to gain so much traction as a viable site for authors, that was kind of when I threw up my hands and decided, No more. I’m already managing more social media than I want to, and I don’t want to add another one to my list that requires learning a whole new ecosystem and dumping loads of time into creating appealing “content.”

      I think it’s different for those who genuinely enjoy aspects of social media and different platforms, but I never really have gelled with it that much. I get so much more out of the conversations I have here. Thanks for the note!

  • Kelly Turner
    May 15, 2024 2:04 am

    This is a great post! I found it because Jane Friedman shared your Curly Hair Guide (I treated myself with some of your faves with a birthday gift card). I wanted to share it with my sister – and show her evidence of your GREAT HAIR! Brava!

    I appreciate the thoughtful comments here – and unlike social media – the intentionality of coming to a place for a specific thing (or a set of things: writing, dogs, hair, home reno) not whatever the algorithm wants to sell me.

    While I passed on both IG and FB, I’m having a lot of fun on Substack. It can feel a bit circular at times (there’s a lot pushed from Substack about growing readership), but I’ve connected with other writers and readers in ways that feel enriching.

    Recently I considered joining IG. But then I read this totally baffling story about how author Leigh Stein noticed her audiences on different platforms saw her differently. She played with that a bit in what she called a performance piece on IG in which she pretended to get hired and fired by a (made up) company. The whole thing (1) made my head spin and (2) convinced me likes and ‘engagement’ aren’t the same as paying attention. All to say, when I query my novel, it won’t be supported by a robust social media following.

    • Oh, that’s so funny! I love that Jane shared that. And thanks for the hair shout-out. 😉

      Thanks also for your comments about the blog, website, and the caliber of comments here–this writing community and the thoughtful discussions it offers are among my favorite things about doing this. I’ve been hovering at the fringes of Substack for a while. I was an early adopter at first, but then wanted to focus on building that community here–and now I find that the more I see Substack pushed so hard as a way to increase readership, the more leery I get for some reason. I keep remembering how Facebook started, and that adage that if a service is free, the product is you. I know I could probably increase followers more quickly there, but I really love the quality of discourse here, and as you say, the intentionality of people seeking it out specifically. I think a lot about my goals for my career and work, and what is “enough,” and I generally come back to some version of wanting deeper engagement on a more intimate scale, for the most part. The experience I wrote about in this post exemplified that to me.

      I’ve heard about recent changes to the Instagram algorithms that are affecting visibility…and I do think different platforms draw different types of followers. I agree with you that it’s possible to figure out what draws eyeballs and generate that…but we have to weigh the effort and time that takes against what it yields us–and what we actually want. That’s different for every author, and there’s no right answer.

      Thanks for adding your considered thoughts on this to the discussion, Kelly, and I’m glad to have you here! And I’d love to hear if any of the hair products you bought work well for you. Patience really is the key–it takes time for your hair to recover, if it’s been responding poorly to other products, and to find the right mix of products that work for your curls.


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