Even the most boring subject can go viral

PR pros should never say something is too boring, dry, abstract, long, or complex to generate buzz. Just look at Upworthy.


Piers Morgan says he’s a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. He’s such a big fan that Sorkin’s latest show, “The Newsroom,” which begins with the brilliant, impassioned monologue of a news anchor, inspired him to infuse his own reporting with the zealotry of a convert. (News that his CNN show is ending next month might suggest that wasn’t the best approach.) Morgan’s passion runs only so deep, however. 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 story nearly doubled CNN’s ratings for a short period. 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 seemingly boring topics? “Honestly, no,” Morgan shot back. “There are many political stories which are just incredibly dry, and trying to make them come to life … it doesn’t rate.” Odds are a lot of PR pros feel the same way. Certain topics that are important simply don’t seem to interest people. At least one website, Upworthy, seems to have the gift of driving massive amounts of traffic to seemingly unsexy subjects. Here’s The New York Times‘ assessment:

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.”

Complexity isn’t a vice. Witness these charts about income inequality, which got 14 million views, or this statistic about human trafficking, which garnered 9 million views. Or consider this deep dive into health care policy, with 5 million views. Other Upworthy-bait includes media consolidation, homophobia, domestic violence, gay rights, immigration, and mental health. One might counter that although 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.” 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. A marketer’s job is to un-bore. As Sorkin later told 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.” If all else fails, just draw a cartoon of Kate Upton and Ryan Gosling to get people’s attention. Jonathan Rick is the president of the Jonathan Rick Group, a digital communications firm in Washington, DC. Tweet him your favorite examples of the mundane made magnificent at @jrick. (Image via)

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