Why your project won’t go “viral,” a look at how ideas spread online.

The success of a Kickstarter campaign relies on the project being shared. Everything about the site from the share buttons to the all or nothing deadline are working hard to get the project to spread. But how does that process happen? Why do some projects get spread far and wide and other do not? Obviously there are many factors to a project’s success. Quality of the project, video, and pitch are all important. However, a great project that isn’t shared doesn’t get funded.

Over the years I’ve been really interested in how ideas spread. I wanted to understand the process because I realized that no matter how great my idea was, if I couldn’t spread it, it would go no where. One of the things that fascinates me about Kickstarter is that it turbo charges the process. When done right it can give your project wings may beyond what you normally could do. But being able to do that process over and over is a tough to learn. That is one of the reasons I conducted interviews with other Kickstarters, to learn what works.

What I’ve learned from my interviews is that your launch strategy is just as important, as your project page. Launching a project and hoping the internet will find it is not enough. In this post I’m going to explore the topic of how ideas spread online and try to define some things we can do when launching a Kickstarter project.

Going tribal

My first time actually seeing an idea spread online was with the campaign for Identifying Nelson/Buscando A Roberto. We ran the campaign for 60 days (back when you could run it that long) but for the first 7 weeks nothing happened. During that entire time we only managed to raise 27% of our $15,000 goal. Things weren’t looking very good for us. Then Friday night, a week before the campaign ended, we got a backer that pushed over the 30% Kickstarter tipping point.

Then something interesting started to happen. High school friends shared it on Facebook. At first it was one or two but with each post more people started sharing and backing the project. Then camp friends started posting about it. Later in the week it was college friends. The idea was spreading!

After a while I started to notice a pattern. For each Facebook share we got another backer. That backer wasn’t always the person who shared it either. This meant there was a direct relationship between my backers and the numbers of people exposed to the project. I quickly checked my visitor count for the page and realized that for every 100 views of the project page we were getting 10 backers.

The whole process was interesting because each of my friend groups did not know each other. There was no way for my camp friends to see posts from my high school friends. This told me the idea was spread in each group of friends separately. The other fascinating thing was I was no longer doing any of the heavy lifting. That week I really didn’t send out any emails asking for support. I didn’t have to, it was happening on its own.

What I was experiencing was an idea going “viral.” But instead of being shared by random people on the internet it was being shared by my friends. People who knew me, and who I had been close to me at one point. Seth Godin would call this a “Tribe.” I realized the  project was not going viral with the internet at large, it was going viral in my tribe. It was going tribal!

Now I am not trying to create another buzz word here but I think it’s an interesting way to think about ideas spreading. We often assume that when an idea takes off its because masses of people come flocking to the idea all at once. Turns out thats not how it happens.

One of the reasons that this experience was so profound was because I had been studying how ideas spread for so long. When our Kickstarter project finally took off I got to see everything I had been reading about happen for real. It was that experience that really drove me to try and figure out how one could repeat the process over and over again.

What I learned

You have to cross a chasm

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore talks about how new businesses must target a niche to get traction. Once they have established themselves with an initial group of customers, they must work quickly to find other niches. This is because there is a “chasm” between early adopters and the mainstream. The only way to cross is to get a small number of customers from different niches. Once the business has a solid base of customers and is viewed as established, it can be embraced by the mainstream.

In The Tipping Point, Malcum, Gladwell agues a similar point. He says that for ever idea that takes off there is a critical moment when the project starts to take off on it’s own. This is the “Tipping Point” where the idea tips and starts to take off on it’s own. Enough people know about the idea and are talking about it that the idea has enough momentum to carry on its own.

Both books provide insights into what makes a project take off.

  1. There has to be a certain amount of social proof before an idea will spread on its own.
  2. Early traction comes from early adopters who are willing to take a risk on an untested idea.
  3. The accumulation of several groups of early adopters is what creates social proof.
  4. Obtaining social proof as quickly as possible is important to the survival of the idea.
  5. If social proof cannot be attained quickly the idea will lose momentum and stall.

This describes the process of Kickstarter very well. Before a project will start to spread on it’s own there has to be a certain amount of social proof. So getting those early backers is vital to the success and momentum of the project. This is why the 30% tipping point is so important. Once the tipping point has been reached the project deadline acts as a force to motivate and energize the base. Share this project or it will disappear.

When you set out to launch your idea you should really think about the different groups you are going to hit. Crossing the chasm can be brutally hard. Ours took 7 long weeks to cross. You have to be patient and really think about how you are going to address it. Who will jump in right away no matter what? Who is going to want social proof before backing it? For example, I wouldn’t pitch a blog or newspaper with random strangers until there is solid social proof around your project. You really only get one chance to pitch your idea so you don’t waste it.

You need to test your idea virus

In Unleashing The Ideavirus, Seth Godin argues that ideas are like virus. They “infect” the population as they spread from person to person. Once you have been infected you can’t help but share it. However, not everyone is susceptible to the idea virus so starting the idea in the right place is important.

Seth Godin’s formula for creating an idea virus goes something like this:


  1. Powerful “sneezers” or influencers  spread the idea to a “hive” or group of people
  2. Finding the right “hive” or group people to infect is important.
  3. The speed or “velocity” an idea virus travels is important
  4. Ideasviruses spread on a path or “vector” that is related to the hive
  5. The idea passed to a person through a “medium” which holds the idea.
  6. Making the idea easy to share in very important to the way it spreads.
  7. The longer the idea stays with a person once they have been infected the better.
  8. How do you amply the efforts of the most effective sneezers.

Is your head spinning yet? Don’t feel bad, creating an idea virus on purpose is hard. I got this book in 2005 and I am still working on understanding the formula. I really don’t want to overcomplicate things, so I’ll only talk about the three most important parts of the formula, that relate to a Kickstarter campaign.


Understanding the concept that an idea is transferred via a medium is something I still struggle with. But I think the simplest example of this is the project video. When someone watches your project video they are interacting with your idea virus. Like sitting next to someone with a cold, the contagiousness of the disease has a roll to play in whether or not you get infected. Your job is to make that interaction as compelling as possible.

The story you tell in your project video is going to draw people in and “infect” them with the idea virus. You are going to have to work really hard to make sure it’s a good one. I think one mistake a lot of people make is not telling a compelling enough story. Simply putting up a video that says “I want to do this” is not enough to get people excited. You have to layout what are the stakes if the project fails, and why it is so meaningful to you.


The hive is a group of people that can relate to, and will back your project. In A Kickstarter’s Guide to Kickstarter I called this audience. Figuring out who your potential hive is, before you launch is very important. If your project does not meet the expectations of that group and it will have a hard time spreading through it. You are going to want to list several potential groups. Sometimes the hive that backs a Kickstarter project is not the one the creator imagined at the start.

Make a list of all the different hives, or audiences, that your project might relate to. Then try to figure out how close you are to each group, and how you can reach out to each group. The best groups to reach out to are the ones that you have a personal connection to. People often start by looking for audiences that they think might back their project but have no connection to. Selling to strangers is tough, so start with the people you know and move outward from there. Maybe they can connect you to the groups that you seek.


Sneezers, or influencers (as are called in today’s web culture) are people who in touch with a hive and can spread your idea virus far and wide. If you can get them on your side, they can be a big asset to help spreading your message. But don’t wait until the last minute to get in touch with them. If you start contacting sneezers the day your project launches, then you are just using them for their audience. Respect their time and attention, and get to know them before you need their help. Finally, before you ask for their help, think long and hard about what’s in it for them, that has nothing to do with you.

Get feedback

One of the biggest challenges to launching an idea virus is knowing if your message will resonate with the hive/audience you are trying to reach. I recommend that you send your project people you trust (preferably within the hive you are trying to reach) and get their feedback. This was one of my biggest mistakes with my StreetXSW project. Had I gotten feedback earlier in the process, I might have have realize that my project had some big flaws. Instead I worked on my project alone and when I launched, I had built something no one wanted.

One of the best features Kickstarter has recently created is the preview link. This allows you to build your project and then send it to people before it goes live. Often time you are too close to the project to spot the big mistakes. You also want to judge their reaction to what you are sending. I look for phases of excitement and high approval.

“Wow, this is great!”

“I can’t wait to get this!”

If you aren’t getting this kind of reaction out of people, it might be a sign of problems to come. Keep working on your pitch until you start to get these types of reactions. It will make the whole campaigning process SO much easier.

I don’t worry about people hating my work, or liking my work. I worry about then not LOVING my work. If they don’t love it they won’t pass it along and my idea goes no where. If you don’t get a lot of this excited feedback them either you should hold off to reevaluate or understand that it will be an uphill battle to get backers.

You shouldn’t surprise people with your project

The final piece to understanding how to launch an idea came by reading Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness, by Dan Zarrella. In his book Dan lays out a framework for understand why things are shared online. There are three parts to the framework, exposure, attention and motivation.

Dan explains his framework like this:


  1. “The person must be exposed to your content. This means that the person has to be following you on Twitter, be a fan of your page on Facebook, subscribe to your email list, and so on.”
  2. “The person must become aware of your specific piece of content (the idea you want to spread). He has to read your tweet or open your email message.”
  3. “The person must be motivated by something (generally in the content itself) in order to want to share the idea with his contacts.”

In summary, for people to share something they need to be exposed to it (or the creator) before hand, it needs to catch their attention, and there needs to be a call to action. This means surprising people with a Kickstarter project is probably the worst thing you can do. Instead, try to build support for your project as you develop. Feedback and buying is key, especially from the sneezers and hives you are trying to reach. View your Kickstarter launch as the end of a venting process, not the beginning of the project.

When we ran the campaign for Identifying Nelson/Buscando A Roberto I had no idea how important it was to make people aware of your project before it launches. Had we known it might’ve changed our entire strategy. By dumb luck, we ran the campaign for 60 days (back when you could do that) which I gave us enough time to make people aware of the project before the last week. What we should have done was run a 60 day campaign, but only made the project live for 30 days. The first 30 days should’ve been spent contacting our biggest supporters, and closest friends to let them know that our project was about to launch. That would have brought a lot more momentum into the campaign, and made it a lot easier to hit our goal.

Another interesting take away from Dan’s book is that ideas are not as viral as we think they are.

Those interested in actual science use a more precise term, borrowed from epidemiology: “reproduction rate.” The reproduction rate, or R0 (pronounced “R-naught”), is the number of new infections that a case of a disease will cause in a single generation, averaged over the entire life of the epidemic. If I have a cold and I give that cold to two people, and each of them gives it to two more, the R0 of that cold is two.

With many biological pathogens, R0 is greater than one, meaning that the pathogen spreads to every susceptible person in a population over time. However, every example of idea viruses I’ve studied, from retweets to email messages, has an R0 well below one. Some pieces of content out there, particularly those that spread through small groups, have a higher R0 for short periods of time. Typically, when those ideas jump into larger populations, the average reproduction rate declines and the ideas die.

Zarrella, Dan (2011-08-23). Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness: The Science, Design, and Engineering of Contagious Ideas (p. 14). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

Zarrella is saying that the ideas aren’t as viral as we think they are. When something gets posted on Facebook or Twitter only a small percentage of people actually pass it on. This means seeding our idea with a large number of people is important. The challenge is that most of us cannot reach a very large number of people. Most of us probably can probably reach a couple hundred people via email or Facebook. Once we have contacted them, then what? This is why sneezers, and resonating with a larger audiences is so important. you have to figure out how to get your idea into larger groups, your friends and family can only do so much.

You need to have a launch strategy

“A new idea’s execution, [has] to be as good as the idea itself.” ~ Howard Schultz

We tend to think that once we hit the green launch button, our work is done. Over the past few months I’ve learned from other Kickstarters, to videos on the web, that this is not the case. It turns out that the way you launch is just important than what you launch. I admire the way other project creators have found creative ways to pitch and promote their projects. This is definitely something that I have not been great at and need to improve. Here are a couple examples, from my case studies, of ways Kickstarters were able to reach audiences be on the friends and family.

Pitch the blogs

During their campaign the Custom SLR team spent a lot of time reaching out to the writing staff of various blogs and websites that they thought were part of their target audience.

First they gathered a list of web sites within their niche. For each blog they looked at what had already been written on similar topics and who wrote it. Then they reached out with a template email that was customized to each blog. They approached smaller blogs first knowing that they only got one chance to pitch their project on each blog. This gave them a chance to refine their pitch before approaching the bigger blogs.

Eventually they were picked up by the blog Engadget. After that the project had enough momentum to not only reach their goal but go well over.

Send it to an Influencer

Dan Provost, co-creator of the Glif, had a small connection with the prominent blogger John Gruber, whose blog has over 400,000 readers. Dan sent Gruber an email about the project and he thought it was cool enough to post about it on his site. From there the project was picked up by many other blogs. John had linked to a couple of Dan’s posts in the past so Dan was not a complete stranger when the email was sent.

Having a relationship with an influential person, no matter how tenuous, especially if s/he is also in your market niche can be a powerful tool. They can help you get the right kind of traffic to your project. As Dan said: “Your project is not going to explode if it hits the New York Times. It’s going to explode if you hit the audience perfectly.”

Motivate your advocates

Linsky.me is a very cool web app you may have never heard of. I met it’s creator Adam Loving earlier this year at SXSW. His site provides a interesting and fun way to help spread an idea. The site works like this:

  1. Submit a link you want to share.
  2. Create prompts for people to help you share the project.
  3. Enlist the help of “advocates” to help you spread the message.
  4. Advocates share your project across their network. (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. G+)
  5. Keep track of how the project is being shared and who had gotten the most clicks

The Linksy software makes this entire process easy to manage. In my eyes the real benefit is making the project launch exciting for the people who support you the most. Your advocates, or biggest fans are the ones were going to go out of their way to help you succeed. Giving them a platform and tools to help spread your message can make all the difference in the world. Oh, and make sure you thank them when you’re done.

PS If you are interested in using Linksy.me for your project you can sign up here.

Going Further

The topic of spreading ideas online is an important and complex one. More complex than I can possibly covered in one post. Below are some resources that I’ve used to help understand this topic. if you are interested in launching projects repeatedly over time these can be valuable resources.

Reading list


Seth Godin on how to ask

Chase Jarvis LIVE: Ryan Holiday – Trust Me, I’m Lying

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Separated from my family during El Salvador's civil war, by death and adoption, I was reunited with them at the age of 16. I do entrepreneurial art projects that are meaningful, relevant, and push me creatively.

One thought on “Why your project won’t go “viral,” a look at how ideas spread online.”

  1. I’m thinking to launch my project on kickstarter. I know that it isn’t easy to become “viral” and I’m studying ….:-) thanks for your lesson.


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