How to Make Even the Most Boring Subject Go Viral

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Why PR pros should never say something is too boring/dry/abstract/long/complex to generate buzz

Piers Morgan says he’s a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. So big, in fact, that Sorkin’s latest show—which begins with the brilliant, impassioned monologue of a news anchor—inspired him to infuse his own reporting with the zealotry of a convert.

And yet, Morgan’s passion runs only so deep. During an interview last year with the cast of the show, Morgan extolled CNN’s coverage of the Carnival “poop cruise”—how the network steered something “I had absolutely zero interest in” into something “I got completely engrossed in.” The payoff for this programming: the ratings doubled.

Seizing the moment, Sorkin zinged Morgan with the $64,000 question: why can’t the media dedicate the same energy and resources to serious, important news? “Do you think there’s a way that Jeff [Zucker, CNN’s chief] … can apply that same talent to, for instance, the sequester?’”

“Honestly, no,” Morgan shot back. “I think the sequester is one of the most supremely boring stories ever told on television … There are many political stories which are just incredibly dry, and trying to make them come to life … it doesn’t rate.”

Piers Morgan, meet Upworthy. I’ll let the New York Times introduce you:

“There is conventional wisdom about what kind of material will go viral on the Internet: celebrity slide shows, lists like 10 tips for losing belly fat, and quirky kitten antics. Then there is the path of Upworthy.com, whose goal is to make more serious content as fun to share as a ‘video of some idiot surfing off his roof.’ Surfing idiots are tough to beat, of course, but Upworthy has shown that by selecting emotional material and then promoting it with catchy, pretested headlines,” it can drive massive amounts of traffic to seemingly unsexy subjects.

Indeed, complexity isn’t a vice. Witness these charts about income inequality: 14 million views. Or this statistic about human trafficking: 9 million views. Or this deep dive into healthcare policy: 5 million views. Other Upworthy-bait includes media consolidation, homophobia, domestic violence, gay rights, immigration, and mental health.

To be sure, Morgan might counter that while a virality mill like Upworthy will tickle your amygdale, it’s a manipulative stunt that dilutes the seriousness of the subject. As the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson puts it, Some journalists view the repetitiveness of its style as a “cynical ploy to lasso cheap attention rather than fully engage an audience.”

Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser has heard these critiques and offers two conclusive rebuttals (as paraphrased by Thompson): “What special virtue is there in letting great videos, articles, and images fall into the Internet’s abyss simply because nobody thought of the right combination of words to unlock its audience? What’s more, when readers find themselves hating a headline picked by a testing audience and shared by 10 million people, whose tastes are we really objecting to—Upworthy’s or ours?”

Remember these points the next time your PR agency explains that your video didn’t draw more views because it’s too long. Refresh their memory by way of Kony 2012 (30 minutes; 100 million views) and Zach Sobiech (22 minutes; 12 million views).

Remember these points the next time your social media consultant argues that your Facebook post didn’t trigger more traction because it’s too dry or abstract. Direct her to the most-shared post from the New York Times in 2013: it argues that gender equality in America has stalled because “structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences.” Or perhaps you’d prefer to cite the 11th most-popular piece of content on Facebook from last summer, as the conflict in Syria escalated: a 3,000-word backgrounder on that country. The piece bested weird pictures on BuzzFeed and open letters to Miley Cyrus.

Remember these points the next time a newspaper columnist grouses that “the selling of a synthetic collateralized debt obligation is nearly impossible to convey on screen.” Remind him of Margin Call, which won an Academy Award for best international screenplay, and Too Big to Fail, which scored 11 Emmy nominations.

Everything sophisticated can be simplified—even the “supremely boring” sequester. A marketer’s job is to unbore. As Sorkin later tells Morgan, “We’ve all had that teacher in high school, the American history teacher or social studies teacher who made some subject that you would think was very dry come alive—they made it really exciting—and it just seems to me that adults would be susceptible to that too.”

Or maybe just quote Sorkin’s description of David Fincher, who directed Sorkin’s script in The Social Network: “He made scenes of people talking about typing look like bank robberies.”

And if all else fails, just draw a cartoon of Kate Upton and Ryan Gosling, as Gawker once did.

Addendum (4/7/2014): It turns out that my thesis is why Ezra Klein launched Vox: “There’s a problem in journalism. We call some of the topics that we cover the vegetables or spinach as if they’re gross and people should be reading them, but they’re not gonna want to. It’s a terrible attitude. If we can’t take things that are important and meaningful in people’s lives and make them interesting, that failure is 100% on us as writers—that is entirely our fault.”

Addendum (8/1/2014): Here’s another example of “supremely watchable wonkery”: John Oliver’s new HBO show, Last Week Tonight, as described by Slate’s Willa Paskin:

“The solution the show cannily identified from the start was a 10- to 20-minute segment on specific, often eggheady topic—one that had perhaps been eschewed by other media organizations for being complicated, dull, vast, and/or otherwise anathema to humor. Since the show began, Oliver has taken on income inequality, America’s prison system, FIFA’s corruption, and the Indian election, among many other topics … The long rants, many of which have gone viral, are master classes in how to make downer subjects encased in received wisdom lively, funny, and entertaining without obscuring their essential seriousness. The segments are long, but they swiftly move from bullet point to bullet point, often wringing humor out of Oliver’s own outrage rather than the subject itself … In the 17-minute segment on prison Oliver addressed, among other topics, America’s huge incarceration rates, the racism of drug laws, the glut of prison rape jokes in pop culture, the privatization of prison services, the appalling food in prison, the appalling health services in prison, and the lack of knowledge and concern about prisoners in the politicians who oversee them. He wrapped it up by singing an original song with the Muppets from Sesame Street: ‘It’s a fact that needs to be spoken/ America’s prison systems are broken.’”

Addendum (8/3/2014): More, from Variety’s Brian Steinberg:

Last Week Tonight defies nearly all current norms. The show surrounds soundbites with exposition … It trusts the attention span of its audience, believing a viewership constantly distracted by smartphones and mobile alerts will hang in there for the duration of a story, so long as it is compelling and informative. And it believes people will keep watching even if they might walk away feeling uneasy or unsettled by the issues presented each week despite the many jokes and laughs that are also delivered.”

Addendum (9/28/2014): Another example:

“In the summer of 2006, an economics book was on the New York Times bestseller list. The title was provocative and promised to be anything but a boring read … From the very first page, I was treated to a wild ride through the most bizarre stories I’d ever encountered. I learned about cheating schoolteachers and self-sacrificing sumo wrestlers. Why drug dealers still live with their moms and how the KKK is like a real estate agent.”

Addendum (10/5/2014): Well, well, well—look who now says that “news should never be boring.”


Tweet me your favorite examples of the mundane made magnificent at @jrick.

A version of this blog post appeared in PR Daily on February 27, 2014.

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