Home People This Entrepreneur Spent Years Studying the Science Behind ‘Going Viral’. Here Are His Lessons

This Entrepreneur Spent Years Studying the Science Behind ‘Going Viral’. Here Are His Lessons

by Holly Beilin

“Hello! This is not the person you were trying to call! You’ve reached the Rejection Hotline because the person who gave you this number did not want you to have their real number…”

It’s a line anyone who tried to date in the early 2000’s might very well be familiar with, but most don’t realize the Rejection Hotline, along with hundreds of other humor hotlines that added up to a seven-figure business and 475 million calls, came from the brains of a serial entrepreneur that calls the Atlanta Tech Village home.

Jeff Goldblatt, a self-professed “viral content expert,” is an idea man. He caught the entrepreneurship bug after a stint at Turner Entertainment, where he quickly realized he “wasn’t cut out for corporate America.” While he started a few businesses after that, it was the Rejection Hotline, originally begun as a joke, that really spread like wildfire and started reaching tens of thousands.

After a spot on CNN, the hotline began seeing millions of call-ins and Goldblatt was thrust into the startup conundrum of trying to determine a profitable, sustainable revenue model.

“I started learning one by one the things you needed to grow a startup,” says Goldblatt. “I started learning A/B testing without even being familiar with the term A/B testing. What people pass on, why they pass them on, the difference that the word choice made, the difference that the voice, the speed, every little detail mattered. Probably about 10 to 15 percent of all the phone lines we started went viral and reached over a million people.”

He quickly realized his strength lay in the conception of highly-shareable ideas, not in the business of growing a company. He brought in a partner to attract investors and grow their revenue, but continued to develop additional startup ideas.

He has also made it a point to study the science behind so-called “virality” — the ability of a piece of content to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another — usually the purview of YouTube videos or memes. Now, Goldblatt says he understands the math and science of viral content so well, his ideas have about a 10 percent chance of becoming viral.

“So you’re looking for the definition of viral  — basically for every person that you’re exposing it to, it’s going to reach more than that number. There’s math involved, something called the viral coefficient — in order for something to be viral, for every one person you expose it to, it’s going to reach more people.”

Goldblatt is working on the launch of a series of startups, a project he calls The Whatever Network, as he heads into 2018, but he took the time to explain the science of virality, what separates a good idea from a viral one, and how to make sure you monetize your products early on.

Understand what “virality” really means — and how hard it is to create

Everybody has heard the term viral. Most people have a very skewed perception of virality, because 99 percent of the videos you see are viral videos — you wouldn’t have seen them if they weren’t viral. You actually have not seen ninety nine point nine percent of videos, because why would you have seen the random videos out there that have 27 views? So it’s a pet peeve of mine when I hear any startup or any entrepreneur talking about virality as part of their business plan or their marketing strategy.

Regular marketing is that you pay money to reach a large number of people; you hope that some smaller percentage of those people will actually see, hear, or engage with your ad. You hope that a smaller percentage will take some kind of action — click, call, buy, whatever it is. So it’s a trickle down.

Viral marketing is the other way — either paying to reach the first group of people or reaching them naturally or with guerilla marketing tactics. You’re aiming to be exposed to X number of people and some percentage will think your thing is cool enough, funny enough, interesting enough, sensational enough, to pass it on to some additional number of people. Now your total number of views or engagements or clicks are going up. Regular marketing goes down, viral marketing goes in the other direction.

Capitalize on a good product once you find it

Some my stories, depending on how I want to spin it, I can either say, imagine how viral that could have went, or I can admit as a huge embarrassment and colossal failure because we didn’t come close to the real potential. When we had the humor hotline business, I recognized a need for secondary phone numbers — not a total joke line and not a regular line, but something in the middle like for online dating or selling things on Craigslist. So I put up screennumber.com, where you could screen the call and basically decide if you wanted to answer this or send it to voicemail. But I was doing that while I was doing 12 other things and it wasn’t getting my full attention, we didn’t have a technology backbone behind it. But I definitely saw the product market fit, I definitely saw the demand and the virality behind it.

Ten months later a company called Grand Central started basically the same service. They got bought by Google for $95 million dollars and became Google Voice.

Makes viewers feel something

One of the many factors that impact virality is that it has to elicit some kind of a strong emotional reaction — that could make somebody laugh because it’s really funny or makes somebody cry because it’s really sad. There’s a narcissistic component to it where people either consciously or unconsciously want the validation or want the kudos for being the person to expose you to something cool.

Go where no one has gone before

I personally like to be different and employ a different canvas or a different medium, do things that are super likely to go viral because they’re different and creative. Back when I had humor hotlines, there were a lot of people creating funny videos. We were basically the only funny content on phones. A lot of people asked, why don’t you put that on YouTube? Well, the bar for how funny you have to be on a channel where everybody else is doing it is really high. So mainly I was thinking, I should create my own path.

This is one of the approaches I’m taking in my 2018 initiatives — applying my creativity and viral insights to areas that are not as popular for content creators. When everything has gone digital, we’re going to be bringing back viral real-life, physical things. We’re basically going to create memes in real life.

Employ social media — but not for bad content

Social media has definitely changed the game for virality. More things go viral because we have social media, so we have the perception that it’s easier to go viral. But as a percentage of everything that is out there, again, you’re seeing less than 1 percent of the total. So it’s not necessarily easier for things to go viral, it’s easier for better things to go viral.

Social media helps things go a lot further, faster. But, it also makes it more difficult to capitalize on the virality and monetize it.

The shortcuts don’t count

I don’t really consider celebrity endorsements or any sort of media that has a huge marketing fire behind it. Kim Kardashian can tweet something out and it can result in it reaching a lot of people — that doesn’t make it viral. I kind of consider that cheating, because it’s not based on quality, not necessarily based on the content.

Figure out how to monetize — or bring in someone who can

For the first few years of the humor hotline business I half jokingly named myself America’s worst entrepreneur. I was reaching millions of people, a captive audience that was actively listening and engaged, I was getting tons of media coverage — and yet I was not making any money. Long story short, I basically made the best decision of my entrepreneurial career and I fired myself as CEO of my own company.

Within six months of that we had 850,000 in funding, another six months after that we were a profitable seven-figure company. All of a sudden it just clicked: I can be an entrepreneur without being the CEO. My business partner was an entrepreneur, but didn’t have the ego that said it had to be his idea. So we had complimentary skill sets and realized that if you focus on what you’re good at, good things happen.

There is a huge difference between starting a startup and scaling a startup. I am a startup starter, I fully acknowledge I am not a startup scaler. There’s a lot of people like me that have concepts that have viral potential, but just didn’t have the pieces in place. There’s the cliche that you’d rather have a smaller piece of a larger pie than 100 percent of nothing. For years I owned 100 percent of my company, but we weren’t making any money; it wasn’t a business. When you have a startup, it’s scary — if you give away a chunk of equity here, a chunk there, you bet on the wrong person, sometimes it’s very difficult to come back. But within a year I went from owning 100 percent of nothing to owning about forty percent of a seven-figure business. You don’t need to be a math major to know that the latter is better.

This interview has been condensed for clarity

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