Lessons In How to Go Viral: Use the “Bored at Work” Network

Anyone who produces content for the web — whether they’re playing the guitar in their dorm room and uploading it to YouTube (s goog), or crafting elaborate hoaxes like the Dry Erase Board Girl, or marketing campaigns like the Old Spice Guy — wants to see their content “go viral.” So how does that happen? Jonah Peretti knows a little about what it takes to make a piece of web content catch fire: he’s CEO of the viral-media aggregator BuzzFeed, a co-founder of The Huffington Post, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, and the man the New York Times called a “viral marketing hotdog.” He says the secret is catering to that elusive group known as the “Bored at Work” network.

In a presentation at a viral-media meetup in New York on Thursday (embedded below), Peretti described how in order for something to truly catch fire online, it has to be adopted by the BWN, which he said was “bigger than the BBC, CNN or any traditional media network” and is made up of “millions of bored office workers [who] blog, Tweet, Facebook and IM all day.” In the new world of networked media, where links passed via social networks can send millions of pageviews to a site in a matter of minutes, Peretti says the bored-at-work network effectively “decides what is popular.”

So how do you do this? Create something that is “easy to understand, easy to share and includes a social imperative,” says Peretti. The BuzzFeed CEO says he did this with his Nike Sweatshop project — which he created in 2001 while he was still a student at MIT — in which he tried to order a custom pair of Nike sneakers with the word “sweatshop” branded on them, and then forwarded and posted the emails and created what he called “viral cascade.” In the presentation, Peretti also noted that “it is hard to make viral media, especially for serious topics,” and discussed something he called ViralRank, an equation that measures the “social reproduction rate” of media online.

Another key to viral content, Peretti says, is that “the web is ruled by maniacs,” and content is more likely to go viral if “it helps people fully express their personality disorders.” Couch potatoes don’t rule the web, he says — “crazy people do.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Nils Geylen