What I Learned From Going Viral (On Accident)

Updated: Jan 21

If I had my druthers, I would not have gone viral for this.

Creatives dream about having their best content catch fire. Developing original content can be exceptionally time-consuming and emotionally draining, so validation never hurts. Additionally, all it takes is one viral video for endless opportunities to present themselves. One well-timed, compelling post could change your life.

Unfortunately, we don't get to choose what goes viral or when. If it were that simple, or if there existed a fool-proof formula, every corporation on earth would be producing viral content regularly. No, the best we can do is create quality content, tweak the presentation a bit, and hope for the best.

Beyond that, fate is in the driver's seat.

Not too long ago, I gave a 3-minute speech at my local school board meeting. I was tired of watching residents belch out the same hyperbolic and nonsensical arguments about contentious issues, and even more tired of seeing irrational feelings impact policies. The decision-making process had become distorted by endless noise. I decided to appeal directly to the board about leadership, logic, and the value of expertise:

Full Text:

I am not here to share my personal opinions about masks, vaccines, or mandates. We’ve all done that, exhaustively. Everyone here has long since made up their minds and aren’t likely to budge.

Instead, I’m here to urge our elected representatives to consider cutting through the fog of this conflict by leaning on the experts. The real deal, verifiable experts.

Don’t get me wrong, every single member of our community should have the right to express themselves openly, and feel comfortable in doing so - but that does not mean all of those opinions hold the same weight on all of the issues.

If a mathematician says that 3 to the 2nd power makes 9, but a random citizen argues that 3 to the 2nd power makes 6, are we going to say “agree to disagree?” Or that “the experts are divided on this issue?” No. I would hope not.

Are we going to give the same weight to peer-reviewed, data-driven, verifiable claims from scientists with literal centuries of combined experience; against claims levied by folks whose knowledge is entirely anecdotal and “do their own research” with unsubstantiated content from YouTube or Facebook? Whose last experience with chemistry or biology, like yours truly, was not in a laboratory or a hospital, but back in school? In a survey course? I would hope not.

Credentials don’t necessarily guarantee expertise, either, and not all credentials are created equal. Holding a PhD does not necessarily make one a medical doctor.

Nor does proximity give you authority on the issues. A janitor or food service worker at a medical facility is not an immunologist or medical professional any more than attending a game at Lambeau makes me a Green Bay Packer. No matter how loudly I say it.

One of the greatest lessons I learned as a non-commissioned officer in the US Air Force was this -- when you are in a position of authority and tasked with the responsibility of leadership, you don’t need to know everything. That’s impossible. But you DO need to know where to FIND the answers. And when your decisions matter, you lean on the experts. The mentors. The proven. While great leaders do listen to all voices (including dissenting voices), they also know how to question their sources. They value experience and expertise.

If you, up there, are not medical doctors, virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, nurses, nurse practitioners, and so on -- in other words, people who have a right to claim legitimate expertise on THESE issues, you MUST reference the near-consensus opinion of the folks who do.

I implore you to lean on these experts to empower your decisions. Take their recommendations and make them policy.

I can’t imagine the immense pressure you are under - even enduring harassment and threats. It’s disgraceful.

But you were placed where you are for a reason. This community has trusted all of you to be the adults in the room, even when doing so could make you unpopular. This issue is not about making people happy, it’s about keeping them safe and healthy. It’s about our children’s education, not future re-election prospects.

Doing the right thing can be hard, but that is the burden of leadership. Thank you.

I was proud of how the speech turned out, so I posted it to my TikTok account (@realadambraatz) and went about my day. I had no idea what was coming.

In less than 24 hours the video had caught fire. On TikTok alone it had been viewed over 700k times, liked over 100k times, and shared over 11k times (all significant numbers for a smaller account like mine). There were over 5k comments and the video had accumulated over 15k HOURS of cumulative watch time. Holy moly.

The speech gained a bit of traction on Instagram, too, after being shared by Leslie Jones (of Saturday Night Live acclaim). The whole thing was truly hard to believe. My cross-platform social followership grew by over 19%. This one 3-minute candid video received more attention than all of my painstakingly curated video content from the last two years combined.

Dream come true, right?

Not necessarily. The hard truth is that this speech was somewhat outside of my niche, which will create some unique challenges after the dust settles.

My content typically revolves around veteran employment and career issues, veteran entrepreneurship, and military transition. What does any of that have to do with public school protocols? Very little. New followers hoping for additional insights from me related to that will be disappointed.

Please don't misunderstand. I'm exceptionally grateful for the opportunity to reach so many people with a message that is personally meaningful. The attention this video received is a really good thing for my brand overall, and will definitely enable me to reach more of my target audience in the future.

If I had my druthers, though, I definitely would have picked another piece of content to go viral with.

Here are a few important lessons that I learned from this experience:

Be ready to go viral at any time.

Serendipitously, I had updated all of my social profiles and tweaked my website the day before all of this happened. If your website or social accounts are incomplete or out of date, fix them. Now. If you get viral attention for anything, I can almost guarantee it will happen when you least expect it.

It would be a shame for you to accumulate a bunch of new fans and followers only to have them happen upon a dusty old website, broken links, or dated social accounts. It doesn't matter if you don't have the traffic or visibility right now. Pretend like you do and get everything polished up, because when it happens, it happens very quickly.

Ask yourself if you would be OK with having that piece of content represent you. If you have doubts, pivot.

You don't get to choose what you go viral for.

Before you post anything whatsoever, anywhere, ask yourself how you would feel if that piece of content garnered millions of views. Ask yourself if you would be OK with having what you posted represent you. If you have doubts, pivot.

Be ready for negative attention.

I was deliberately non-partisan in my speech. My wife helped me tweak it carefully to ensure that people wouldn't think I had picked a side on the issue. It didn't matter. People came after me anyways. They made wild assumptions about what I was saying and lashed out. I was even challenged to participate in a live debate on some kid's YouTube stream. I politely declined and was chided for that, too.

What made the negative attention easier to swallow was the overwhelmingly positive response across all platforms, which I was grateful for. Overwhelming positivity, however, is not very common in the social media ecosystem. There will always be someone who wants to pick a fight with you online. There will always be trolls.

Be ready for positive attention.

My 15 minutes of fame brought some folks out of the woodwork. I received compliments that would give anyone a big head. I received comments that were suggestive in nature. I received messages that were downright inappropriate.

Don't be fooled, folks, and don't forget -- the people who really matter are the ones who supported, loved, and/or wanted to work with you before you were getting attention.

Make the most of it, then move on.

If you are a content creator or aspiring influencer, milk it. Stretch the 15 minutes of fame out to 17 minutes if you can. Generate follow-up content (hint: you're reading follow-up content right now) and make the most out of it. Enjoy yourself. Ensure that your golden piece of viral content is accessible across all of your platforms, respond to everyone's comments, then put it behind you and move forward.

Don't be fooled, folks, and don't forget -- the people who really matter are the ones who supported, loved, and/or wanted to work with you before you were getting attention.

If you hang your hat on the attention you've received from a single post for too long, people will get annoyed. Your new followers will be demanding interesting new content and will disappear if left disappointed. Your window of opportunity is wide open for a short time, so hit them with your most compelling stuff -- and do it quickly.

Rinse and repeat.

As I mentioned earlier, you don't get to pick which post, Tweet, or video goes viral, but you can absolutely manifest circumstances that give them a fighting chance. What is it about your piece of viral content that others found compelling? If you aren't entirely sure, read the comments section. They'll tell you.

Other questions to consider: when did you make the post? What platform did you use? Did you use hashtags? How many? Does your network respond to candid material or produced? The more you know about what made your post catch fire the more prepared you will be to make lightning strike again.

Best of luck to all of you! Don't forget to follow me across all social platforms so you don't miss any future content.

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