Last year, I wrote three articles that went viral. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to why they took off; the subjects ranged from sex and depression to fat activism to fashion. Since it was the first time I’d experienced this sort of snowballing publicity, I didn’t have a game plan ready when outlets like The Dr. Drew Show and People were covering the story I broke, often without any mention of my original piece.
I was pleased that my words and ideas had reached a wide audience, but it still felt like I wasn’t taking advantage of my exposure. I did share some of the highlights on my Facebook page, and in a few cases I asked for an outlet to link to my original story. But my own experience made me curious: Is it really possible to capitalize on a viral article in a way that can jumpstart your career?
A golden ticket?
Stephanie Land, who wrote an essay for Vox about her experience housecleaning for wealthy families, found her piece to be a massive asset in her career. “Everyone I’d pitched had read my housecleaning piece,” Land, who’s now working on a book proposal based on the essay, told me. “It carried a lot of weight referencing it in clips.”
But one online success story isn’t a guarantee that you’re future pitches will be accepted. “It doesn’t matter to me so much who you’ve written for before or even if you’ve had a viral hit,” said Lisa Bonos, the editor of Solo-ish, a dating blog on The Washington Post. “There’s so many reasons that a piece goes viral. Once you have one, you can’t expect that to happen again.”
However, a viral piece in your portfolio does have value, even for someone skeptical like Bonos. “It probably means that they have some sense of what resonates with people,” she explained . “If you have one good idea, it makes me think you might have other good ideas. … It helps, but it’s not a shoo-in.”
For Kim Brooks, Salon’s essays editor, writing one article that generates a lot of shares is not enough to impress her. Brooks said she would be wary of someone who simply presented a link to a viral essay along with a submission: “If you’re just writing something else to try to catch that wave, people sense that.”
Don’t force it
Brooks has been on both sides of the table when it comes to viral articles. In 2014, her essay for Salon about leaving her young son in the car while she shopped drew a lot of attention, both positive and negative.
Her initial instinct was to write a follow-up piece, “but as I thought about it, I felt like I’ve told this story,” she said. “There’s no other story to tell.” Instead, she waited for inspiration to strike, which led to a more valuable story: a reported article based on the feedback she received from other mothers.
“It’s more powerful to talk about the conversation that your piece started,” she advised.“You really have to come up with a new story that’s worthwhile on its own.”
Brooks also cautioned that unless you want to be pigeonholed, it’s wise to expand your repertoire. “You have to balance your interest in exposure and getting your voice out there with the desire to show that you can write about different subjects.”
That being said, if you’ve found a unique voice, own it. Ever since Kelly Quinn’s Thrillist essay about sending “v-pics” went viral, she’s based a lot of her writing on similar stunt pieces. “I definitely push the envelope and am known for doing things that people are too scared to do,” Quinn said. “That seems to be my theme.”
Take viral fame seriously
While you can’t engineer a story to go viral, you can prepare to capitalize on popularity if an article takes off.
After Paulette Perhach’s Billfold essay about empowerment and independence took off, she was approached by two literary agents as well as editors at Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Dame. “As a writer, you think the best-case scenario is that you send in a pitch and someone accepts it,” she said. “I didn’t know editors were going to writers and saying, ‘We want you to write for us.'”
Last year, she took a “leap of faith” and set up a professional page on Facebook after seven years without one, even though it felt awkward to be self-promotional and ask friends and family to like it.
“Did I really feel like an author? No, but now I look more professional because I have my business cards, I have a writer’s page on Facebook, I have a website,” Perhach said. “I set all that stuff up even before I was comfortable with it.”
As a result of her bolstered online presence, Perhach said it was much easier to capitalize on the momentum of her essay.
For a select few, a viral piece can even lead to a book deal. Amy Morin is another one of those writers—she had offers from major publishers within two months of her Lifehack essay on mental strength going viral, and she went on to publish a book with William Morrow.
Scott Hoffman, a partner at Folio Literary Management, advises that writers get ahead of the curve. “Ideally, if you suspect you’re writing the kind of piece that could get massive traffic, you would want to talk to a literary agent before the piece actually gets published so you can devise a submission strategy that uses the virality as a component of the submission,” he said.
Sometimes your story will burn brightly and quickly fizzle out regardless of what you do. But with the right preparation, perhaps you can keep the fire of your next viral story going a little longer.
Check out “How to Deal With Unwanted Virality” for what to do when an article goes viral for the wrong reasons.