How to Make Even the Most Boring Subject Go Viral


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.”

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The Single Easiest Way to Get More Shares

Social Media

The most common social media fail is easily correctable.

People are lazy. Web publishers are no exception. When they install social-sharing buttons, all too often they leave the default settings in place.

As a result, when a user clicks the ubiquitous “tweet” button to promote your content, nine times out of 10, what he ends up sharing is simply, unforgivably the article’s headline.

Big mistake. Under this setup, all your efforts prodding people to share your content are negated when they actually do.

What should you do instead? For every post published, you should embed a teaser that you’ve tailored for Twitter. (This can be accomplished by adding a new field or plug-in to your CMS.) Under this setup, when that share button is summoned, your fans will be sharing text specific to the medium, not a one-size-fits-all compromise.

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In Defense of Click-Baitish Headlines

Click Bait

Upworthy is the worst site on the Internet.” So says Bob Powers of HappyPlace.

Jack Flanagan of the Daily Beast concurs: “Sites like Upworthy cater to the basest and most recklessly childish of human instincts.”

PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie rounds out the contempt: “The hammer of [Upworthy’s] unrelenting moralism starts to feel not so much as if it is breaking barriers as it is cracking your skull.”

Absent the rancor, their collective contention boils down to this: websites like Upworthy are the modern-day heirs to the disgraced practice of yellow journalism. If, say, the Podunk Herald wanted to prostitute itself to page views, it too could make things go viral.

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The Biggest Mistake You’re Making on Twitter

The Biggest Mistake You’re Making on Twitter

Don’t just tweet the headline. Comment on the article. Explain why you’re sharing it.

Tweeting has never been easier. Just click that turquoise bird alongside nearly every kind of content on the web today, and a ready-to-go message presents itself. All you need to do is click “tweet.” The whole thing takes less than five seconds!

Yet there’s no decree dictating that you must use this prewritten gruel. In fact, you shouldn’t use the default text, which is tantamount to a robot announcing the Oscar winners: it’s generic and devoid of any shout-outs, styling, or personal commentary. After all, what you tweet is transmitted over your name and avatar, so it behooves you to stamp it with your own style.

What’s more, if you want to stand out, you can’t just put out what everyone else is typing. You need to offer up something new—even if it’s just your two cents. Indeed, with this little bit of extra effort, you can make each tweet count.

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Show Me the Stories: How to Measure Social Media

It’s the $64,000 question. Your boss—and her boss—are always asking you for ROI reports. Strangers buttonhole you at parties. Your mom has no idea how to explain what you do for a living. What’s worse, sometimes you feel as if you’re faking it.

The question: how do you measure social media? After all, if you can’t measure it, you can’t market it.

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How the Red Cross Used Twitter to Raise $3 Million in 48 Hours

The more talks I deliver, the more I come to love PowerPoint. In fact, as a colleague recently told me, when thinking about how to explain something, I’ll often articulate how it might look in a slide deck.

Accordingly, after coming across a study making the case for SMS donations, I thought, “This would be perfect for PowerPoint!” Hence, the above SlideShare.

How to Make Your Byline a Marketing Goldmine


That italicized sentence at the bottom of your blog posts isn’t a necessary evil, but an easily exploitable opportunity.

Ten years ago, after you finished reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a song, it was over; you were done. If you wanted to share your reactions, you saved them for the water cooler.

Today, the traditional indicators of finality—a tombstone mark for an article (∎), the words “the end” for the silver screen, a trio of hashtags (###) for a news release—have been supplanted by a button that beckons you tinno “like,” “retweet,” “pin,” or perform some other variation of social-media sharing.

For example, by displaying a hash tag, TV commercials encourage you to “join the conversation” on Twitter. Magazine articles refer you to a website “for more information.” Even McDonald’s has climbed aboard the bandwagon, stamping QR codes that reveal nutritional data on its carryout bags.

How can you, dear blogger, get in on these gigs and thus propagate your posts? Specifically, how can you milk your content for more followers and fans?

Easy: just start making use of an often-overlooked implement in the marketer’s toolkit: your byline.

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The Easiest Way to Get People to “Like” Your Content: Ask Them To

Like Me, or Else

How to be a showman without becoming a showboat. Or: How to make your message hot without looking like a hot dog.

“Politics is a direct-response business,” declares the digital director of President Obama’s re-election campaign. “People do things if you ask them to do it, and … don’t … if you don’t ask.”

Exactly! In fact, this is true not only in politics, but also in social media. If you want your readers to click “like” or “retweet” or “reblog” or “pin” or “plus,” you gotta ask for it. Not for nothing do two of the web’s most popular sites—BuzzFeed and Mashable—serve up big buttons at the top of each article, beseeching you to “share me now!” What’s more, these icons now include the number of shares in real time, boxing you in with peer pressure: “Don’t share me—I dare you!” This is marketing at its finest: so subliminal, you think you’re making a considered choice.

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9 Secrets That Will Make Your Headline Go Viral

“Let’s put it on our website.” The refrain is increasingly common, but, as always, there’s a right way and a wrong way.

An amateur will do what’s easiest: copy and paste. But a pro knows that to copy and paste is to deprive readers of the Web’s richness. Shifting copy from dead trees to Web browsers is both art and science.

The art: to write for the web, you need to be not only a writer, but also a marketer, a designer, and a publicist. The science: to write for the web, you need to understand how people read on the web.

To this end, we’ll review the differences between reading something designed for a monitor and something designed for print. We’ll walk through the best practices of web writing, and review a variety of good and bad examples. We’ll also intersperse exercises throughout, so you learn by doing.

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The Single Biggest Marketing Mistake Made by Small Businesses

Why URLs Matter

When creating their company website, many small businesses defer to their “web guy” on the address. “Oh, isn’t available? Ok, is fine.”

No! No! No! While seemingly trivial, your URL is in fact critical. Don’t let it be an afterthought; make this decision an integral facet of your planning and branding.

After all, not only will your domain be printed on your business cards and in your email signatures. You’ll also need to pronounce it in a way that leaves no room for confusion.

Consider a few case studies.

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The Art of Writing Your Own Bio: How to Toot Your Horn Without Sounding Like a Blowhard

Tooting Your Horn

Let others sing your praises.

After college, I did what most liberal arts grads do when they come to Washington: I interned at a think tank. As I subsequently embarked on my career, I shied away from the word “intern,” a moniker that I felt would betray my lack of experience. Instead, my bio and LinkedIn profile said I “did media relations” for the Cato Institute.

This was true: I edited op-eds from Cato’s scholars and pitched them to the media; I just didn’t volunteer my job title. I’d argue that this sin of omission is the benign kind of biographical betterment.

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What Your Email Says About Your Brand

A Case Study: Your Emails

Digital branding starts in your inbox.

It’s something you take for granted, something seemingly trivial, even mundane. When executed thoughtfully, however, it makes a splash. It says, “This guy is sharp—I want to work with him!”

What is this opportunity, obvious but overlooked? It’s the bookends of your emails: your address and signature block—often, the first and last thing your recipients will see. For better or worse, your email bookends are powerful purveyors of your brand. What are yours conveying about you?

Consider just the address. As the Oatmeal has observed, the domain you choose is like a Rorschach test, betraying your sophistication, or lack thereof. A few examples:


• Until recently, my accountant went by the moniker [email protected] In retrospect, it’s easy to see why no one I referred to him ended up as a client: his email address was telling the world, “I can’t be taken seriously.” (While each address here derives from a real one, I’ve tweaked each one to spare the owner embarrassment and spam.)

• Similarly, when I needed a reference and the HR woman couldn’t get a former colleague on the phone, I was asked if my contact had an email address. He did—but [email protected] doesn’t exactly scream credibility. I politely told the recruiter I’d contact Bobby directly and ask him to call her.

• Years after savvy netizens had moved from an email address issued by their Internet service provider (ISP) to a free service like Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo, a colleague still clung to her inbox. By sticking with a provider favored (by default) by digital rubes, Rachel was announcing to the world, “I talk the talk, but I don’t walk the walk.”

Don’t be Rachel the Rube. Your digital footprint is your calling card. If you’re still employing an email address you got in 1996, bite the bullet and switch to your own domain (like


• David All founded the (recently shuttered) David All Group. His email address: [email protected] This [email protected] syntax sends two messages: (1) “I work for myself,” and (2) “You’re talking to the boss.”

• A colleague, who with her husband runs a website agency, goes by her nickname rather than her full name. Hence her address: [email protected] This lets people know, “I work for a casual small business.”

• My friends at Chief, a branding agency, send emails from This choice is exactly right. If you pop in to Chief’s headquarters, you won’t find the Chieftains wearing suits; this is a place where they write on the walls and hold meetings on couches. So while may not reel in a stodgy client, it’s the perfect way to bait the brands Chief wants to work with.

Your Email Signature

By using a credible, compelling email address, you establish brand equity. Yet perhaps more important is what happens when someone opens your email. Here, your signature block offers a golden opportunity to distinguish yourself. Again: what brand are you broadcasting? A few examples:

• For years, I eschewed an email signature (unless pitching a blogger). I was so turned off by the MySpace-ish trend to exhibit a parade of colors and a quote in large text that I planted my keyboard in the opposite direction: I used nothing. To my mind, I was acting on the KISS principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid—but what others heard was, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.” (Indeed, your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.)

• A young lawyer I know does something that makes me cringe. In her email signature, Abby lists her law school and college, each followed by the year she graduated. But after you’ve hung your diplomas on your wall, is citing them in your everyday emails necessary? Is it even beneficial? If it were me, I’d prefer to be judged on my accomplishments, not my age or alma mater.

• How you end your email is not an academic question; it can fuel new opportunities. That’s why a friend who runs a video production agency harnesses social media to supercharge his signature. Tom begins with a call to action: “Check us out!” He continues with links to his website, his social media channels, and his latest blog post. Taken together, these four small steps proclaim, “I’m socially savvy.”

• A crisis communications company isn’t the kind of outfit you’d expect to be active on seven social networks. Yet for Levick, practicing what you preach is paramount. That’s why every Levicker’s email signature includes these seven icons, together with links to Levick’s website and blog. This all comes after Levick’s logo and tagline, which comes after the sender’s job title, office phone, mobile phone, fax number, and address. At least you won’t see a disclosure notice. Wait, you will—70 more words. (Disclosure: I consult for Levick.)

Overkill? Certainly. The thing is, the Levick signature block is visually stunning. That’s because it wasn’t an afterthought, but an integral facet of the firm’s rebranding. For example, not only do Levick’s emails share the same red, gray, and black color scheme of its website (which is branding 101), but not even the traditional blue for hyperlinks is allowed to intrude on this uniformity (branding 201). In fact, Levick guards its brand so keenly that its email template is centralized in its IT department (instead of letting each employee create his own). As a result, nobody at goes rogue (by, say, admonishing recipients to “think twice before printing this email”).

For these reasons, Levick’s email signature achieves an impressive trick: it communicates a cutting-edge embrace of technology without undercutting the firm’s gravitas.

Your Brand

Whether you know it or not, a brand is trailing you everywhere you click. But your brand isn’t only what appears when your name is Googled, how you stage yourself on LinkedIn, and what you tweet about. Your brand also encompasses what you—and most people you know—no doubt spend unending time keeping up with: your emails.

Indeed, digital branding starts in your inbox. After all, more people likely view your emails than view your social media posts. That makes your e-bookends—your email address and your signature block—prime real estate on which to build your brand.

You can do a number of things to own this brand, or you can sit back and let casual decisions define it for you. You can brand yourself, or you can be branded.

The choice, as always, is yours.

Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, where I brand myself daily. (A version of this blog post appeared in Fast Company on February 25, 2013.)

5 Ways to Transform Your Blog Post Into Endless Tweets

A version of this blog post appeared in PR Daily on February 18, 2013.

You just finished a killer blog post. Reliving the process: first you had to pitch the idea to your editor. Then you reworked the angle to satisfy his feedback. Then it was research time, wherein you bumped up against facts that challenged your hypothesis. Finally, you penned the piece, sweating over decisions as light as commas, as lofty as conclusions.

Now, the post has been published. And you, like a wide-eyed kitten mesmerized by a shiny new object, sit in thrall to the whimsies of the web—watching, waiting, wishing for the big payoff.

Slowly, the clicks come trickling in. But why settle for a trickle when these numbers could be a raging torrent? As soon as your article goes live, it behooves you to SHOUT IT from the rafters. You labored so long and hard on the writing, shouldn’t you reward your efforts with a little promotion?

Indeed you should. In fact, every hack must now be his own flack.

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