The three main things to bear in mind when seeking attention on the internet are plan, purpose, and population. You need to have a plan for what you're doing if you're going to be successful, a purpose to what you're doing, and consider the people you are aiming at. After that there's the reach and the impact to consider. Get those on straight from the start for the maximum effectiveness. Let's take a closer look at these.
While many viral internet phenomena come about inadvertently and spontaneously, the planned ones tend to do better. I've pointed out before what the aspects of the successful viral items tend to be; basically hit a hot button issue really hard or post something cute, unusual, or funny. The thing to consider is, do you want a flash in the pan, something memorable, or are you trying to get people on board for something? The more your item stands out, the more attention it will get, but the nature of the item chooses the audience. Gory pictures and hot button issues will bring truckloads of trolls and weirdos in; cute and funny memes have a short shelf life. Kony 2012 is a classic example of a campaign that went viral. They had the hero-villain-victim trope down pat and recruited celebrities and public figures to help out. Cute, photogenic kids helped. They used memes, videos, and social media status updates until everyone knew about it.
Now think of what you're trying to accomplish. Google Plus user Bobbi Jo Woods got fed up with seeing images of perfectly airbrushed women being depicted online and started the #UnalteredBeauty trend. Needless to say, some rather horrible people soon jumped on board. The funniest was Dennis Jansen, who made a huge fool of himself on Twitter and G+ by announcing that he was "endlessly amused" by the trend, despite the fact that he's no dreamboat himself. His vain attempts at a backtrack were the highlight. The result is a G+ page where more of these pictures can be found. Bobbi Jo's plan was simple: start a hashtag on a hot button subject and encourage people to join in. The villains soon arrived and the victims were those who failed to measure up in their appreciation. Bobbi Jo herself and a few others were the heroes, taking on the trolls and spreading the good word. Bobbi Jo wanted to make a splash, build a long-term presence, and get people on board, and she has succeeded.
Social media needs to be used according to its capabilities. I "live" on Google Plus but have an automated setup to post my G+ status updates to Twitter and FB. Tweets can be used to send short messages or links, but I use G+ for campaign work because it gives me the space I need to share thoughts, images, and links and doesn't limit me to 140 characters. Okay, think about your audience and what you're trying to do. If people share it, the content will shape its audience, and that will depend on the audience. So what are you sharing and who are you sharing it with?
I used to share my design work and articles about my latest commissions, etc. It didn't go very far. When I started writing the internet news, though, my audience increased dramatically. On Twitter and G+ I follow friends, clients, and geeks. These are the kind of people who follow me back. I've learned a lot from them and have worked out what they like or don't like. On FB it's more family, friends, or social, so if I was trying to reach them I'd use a different approach. To be honest, I treat it like a spare wheel because I don't go there much.
Okay, now look at your followers. They will be the first to see your item and if it doesn't appeal to them they won't share it. What do they share? Which are the most popular items? I share geek posts, digital rights, political, nature, jokes, and cat posts. Of all your posts that have been shared before, which ones got the most shares or likes? Analyse them on your various platforms to find out which were the most popular on which platform. My G+ audience is mostly geek and political so my activism tends to go down well there. It doesn't get quite as much attention on Twitter, but my geek posts do. On FB people tend to like and share jokes and the occasional cat post. What you're looking for is the item that is most popular among that population to get them talking about it.
This is where the difference between quality and quantity make themselves felt. Quality followers usually have a great number of followers who will share your content if it appeals to them. They have that many followers because they share interesting content themselves, which they often get from other people. People I follow often end up picking up my stuff from other people who follow me unless I tag them. Add your followers' followers together to get an idea of your reach. Mine is pretty big on Google + so that's where all the action is for me. Whatever is most popular among those people is the kind of thing you want to share. For me, it's usually politics, cats or geek stuff. Your reach matters more for building an expanding readership or recruiting for a campaign. Flash-in-the-pan stuff can spread out of nothing — it's the willingness to share that gets you noticed.
What happens as a result of your post varies according to how interesting it is and the kind of attention you attract. If you push a hot button such as adultery, you will get people searching for the perpetrators as part of the inevitable witch hunt. If you post a personal or embarrassing picture it may cause problems for someone and if it's controversial, innocents may be caught up in collateral damage. When I get involved in campaigns I try to find the kind of images or wording that will get the most attention of the right kind. A recent Internet Freedom Movement post, SOPA Is Coming Back, Frankenstein-style, got 60 reshares. I think it's the most we've ever had. Actually no, the SOPA posts were the most we ever had, and that was back in January. IFM tends to get the most reshares for the "take action" posts, particularly when it's urgent and there's an alarmist title. We can't do that all the time; most of our posts are updates on a given situation or raising awareness. The point is, our activism gets results and gets us even more reach.
Okay, think about the impact. What are you trying to achieve and what could go wrong? If you lie and can't get enough people to delude themselves into following your cult of personality, you'll be found out and the internet will turn on you. That's what happened with Kony 2012. The fallout was one big train wreck. The point is, if it takes off and gets big, can you maintain momentum? If so, can you cope with all the extra attention? This depends on how involved you are. If you're just sitting back and watching it grow, and people can't actually get hold of you easily, you should be alright. It's when you were living in quiet anonymity and suddenly the world and his wife is after you all the time, it can all get too much. It's usually griefers who go for a quick splash, then disappear. That Heward chap, whose amorous adventure has already been debunked, is skillfully working the crowd, presenting himself as a wholesome Mormon role model and people are buying it. He's got over 22,000 followers now, but they're only really interested in the ideals he represents. It's quite funny, really.
It all comes down to owning the narrative; if you make a horrible page to mock people's suffering, you'll get some controversy and not much else. If you let people project their fantasies onto you, any message that deviates from that will be ignored. At that point the quantity controls the quality and any message you want to get through needs to conform to the norm you've created or it'll be dismissed. Finally, if you build slowly, raising awareness and cultivating relationships to get people on board, making it clear what you're doing and where you're going, you may end up with fewer followers, but at least it'll be consistent and you'll have the respect that goes with that, even if you have fewer followers.