In the land of online business, the perfect viral loop is the chimera we’re all chasing. How can you make your site spread so fast that your servers can’t even handle the uptick in traffic? While most of us flail around trying to answer that question, Emerson Spartz has it all figured out.
This 26 year old entrepreneur is a genius – and I’m not being hyperbolic. His first successful site was Muggle Net, a Harry Potter fansite that he founded at the ripe old age of 12. His current company, Spartz Inc., capitalizes on everything he’s worked out about the science behind virality – but he’s not making money they way you’d expect.
School bored Emerson, so his parents let him teach himself based on his own interests. Virality caught his attention at a young age and he has dedicated his life since then to figuring out exactly how it works. Keep reading for a breakdown of his process, some excellent tips, and a few books he recommends. This man has put in literally thousands of hours of study, so stop your flailing and pay attention: he knows what he’s talking about.
What do you do? What’s your thing?
We’re building a predictive model to identify which websites and apps have the highest probability of achieving virality. We launch about one new product a month and we have a portfolio of about 25 different websites and apps. We get about 160 million page views per month and some of our more well known sites would be OMG Facts, which is a fun facts site; we have a website with funny autocorrects that went pretty viral about a year and a half ago and we have MuggleNet, which is the number one Harry Potter website.
Most people still know me from MuggleNet because I started it a very, very long time ago… When I was 12. So I’ve been doing this a long time.
How do you figure out what’s going to go viral?
Well there’s a very long explanation for that which involves several years spent doing a really deep dive into studying human behavior, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral science, as well as a few hundred hours of studying network science.
At the core of it, what we’ve figured out is that when something goes viral it spreads from one cluster of the population to the next cluster of the population. In the same way that it’s possible to plot the spread of diseases by looking at infection rates within different clusters of the population, the same thing can be done with content or ideas as they spread through the population.
The easiest way to maximize your probability of being successful with virality is not by trying to create an entirely new virus from scratch but by taking a virus that already exists and using a virus similar to that to infect new clusters of the population that had not yet been exposed to it.
Okay, so I have two questions jumping off of that. First of all, when you say you “studied” psychology and network behavior, was that something you studied in school or on your own?
Well, when I was 12 years old my parents let me drop out of school and homeschool myself. I designed my own curriculum and part of that was building things. I built MuggleNet, which ended up being my full time job for a decade.
At the same time, most of my curriculum was studying whatever I was interested in. My parents had me read four short biographies of successful people every single day. This was, as you can imagine, profoundly influential on my thinking.
I started thinking really big at a really young age and – when I was 12 and MuggleNet was doing really well – I thought to myself, “Huh, if I can do all this and I’m only 12, imagine what I can do when I’m 17,” which felt like a very old age at the time.
I decided I wanted to change the world and I wanted to do it on a massive scale. The first thing I did was begin immersing myself into the lives of people who had already changed the world and what patterns I could extract from their experiences.
In doing this research, one conclusion I came to very quickly is that people who change the world tend to be extraordinarily influential before they change the world. That set in motion for me a life-long fascination with understanding influence and virality was the type of influence that really captured my imagination.
I studied virality without actually not knowing I was going to study virality. I decided to go to college and I got bored really fast. I was going to drop out and start my own business but I wanted to go really big on my next one. I wanted to go as broad as possible, to be able to connect patterns between different disciplines and industries, so I set a goal of reading one non-fiction book every single day until graduation. Business, politics, technology, psychology, science… Extremely heavy on the neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral science, probably about 6,000 hours there.
But it wasn’t just books. It was going through FCC filings, research, abstracts, textbooks. It was studying thousands of individual companies looking for patterns. What do successful companies do differently from unsuccessful companies? It was studying industries; everything from natural gas wholesaling to dry walling.
It was actually a three part process: reading, reviewing, and rehearsal, the idea being that it’s not enough to learn this information; you have to be able to apply in real life situations.
I spent the first six months doing a really deep dive into the neuroscience of learning and memory under the assumption that learning how to learn is literally the most important skill you could develop. It’s the root of every other skill; it’s like wishing for more wishes.
I then built out space repetition schedules where I read everything I wanted to remember and scheduled out a day later, a week later, a month later, and then every six months in perpetuity.
The third part of the process was rehearsal, which was making sure I could actually apply the information in applicable situations. I organized all the information into frameworks to contextualize it. I had a persuasion framework, a negotiation framework, an innovation framework.
So take innovation. The way that I’d practice innovation is a compiled a series of acronyms that encapsulated every type of business model. Then I’d go to Walmart and go from product to product to shelf to shelf and take every product and apply every model to it to come up with new stuff.
For example, dry erase markers, which I’m holding in my hand right now. I’d start running through luxury, long tail, unused capacity, etc. Luxury: could I sell a way more expensive dry erase marker and take advantage of the fact that people will spend more to buy higher status products? Long tail: could other people customize their own dry erase markers?
And so on and so forth.
So, when I started studying virality, I adopted a similar multidisciplinary approach to the subject by studying network science, network theory, persuasion theory, etc. I developed a series of algorithms trying to get Facebook pages to go viral because Facebook was just the best first petri dish to go viral with.
We created dozens of pages that went from zero to a million fans over a period of a few hours to a few days. What I was doing was basically testing hundreds of variables and seeing which variables correlated positively to virality. Then I kept shortening the viral loop until I could tell in a few seconds if a page was going to go viral.
These were all network-level insights, so I was able to take this information from Facebook and apply it to Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, websites, apps… It actually didn’t matter which platform. Some platforms are obviously vastly more conducive to virality than others but it still worked on every platform.
So is this a service that you’re selling now?
No. We use our formula to identify which apps we should build and then we build them and launch them and market them.
Okay, so that’s how you’re monetizing it.
Are you interested in selling that knowledge?
I mean, in some parallel universe there’s an Emerson clone that’s doing that but in general selling services has never been something that’s interesting to me because it doesn’t scale exponentially and I’m only interested in things that scale exponentially.
What about writing an ebook or something?
It scales a little bit better than a service but nobody reads books. (Laughs) And for me, out of the pool of available things and uses of time, I’d rather just keep learning and growing that way.
That’s fascinating to me because listening to you describe what you do and how you got there, I think it’s definitely something that people would pay good money for.
Yeah, the way I look at is even if people pay big money for it, as long as it’s a service, it can’t grow exponentially. Everything in life is about creating positive feedback loops and moving as quickly as possible in the right direction as early as possible and services simply aren’t that.
I do freely share as much information as I can in talks and interviews and so on, it’s just that I have limited time.
Do you have books you can recommend for people to check out?
Yeah, tons. On the subject of virality, specifically, there’s a couple of books I’d recommend.
Andrew Chen’s ebook The Viral Startup is probably the best one out there. It’s the most targeted and relevant.
Another good one is Lean Analytics. It’s very relevant, in general, to everything you’re doing.
The third one is called Word of Mouth Marketing by Andy Sernovitz.
Finally, the last book I’d recommend would be The Anatomy of Buzz by Emmanual Rosen.
Awesome, thank you. In the very beginning of this conversation you referred to diseases and mirroring how in the digital world how diseases work in the physical world. Virality: We even use the same word, right?
So, we’re hearing a lot of criticism right now aimed toward sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy; I read an article yesterday that referred to them as “the cancer of the internet.” Do you have any response to that?
(Laughs) I have a lot of thoughts about that. In general, I think you’ve got like, a small number of angry journalists who are being made obsolete because of outdated ways of thinking about content and user experience and this is their way of saying that… Honestly, it just seems like whining and complaining from people who the times are passing by.
I agree 100% with what Upworthy is doing. You can write the greatest article in the world and if nobody reads it, it doesn’t matter.
I noticed on your website that you’re married. Where’d you meet your wife?
First week of school at Notre Dame. I just got very lucky. If you’d asked any of my friends at school who was going to be the last person to get married, they would have said me but if you catch lightning, you’d be stupid to let it pass up.
Gabby actually has a really interesting story. We both founded successful websites when we were 12. She founded DailyCute.net – which is one of the biggest cute sites online – when she was 12 also.
She’s from Ecuador and was running that for a decade, so we have this weirdly similar life path. I just totally hit the jackpot.
So you guys met and in school and it was like, “Hey!” “Hey!” “Wait a second…”
Yeah, exactly. (Laughs)
That’s a great story, Emerson. Thanks so much for sharing with us!