It’s true: The content I create on social media — personally and professionally — is hardly viral. There are times when it’s popular, of course. A charming photo of my kids on a personal account, or exciting news from our schools or community on the district’s Facebook page. And there was that one time a pie recipe pin on Pinterest went a little crazy. (Update: More than 1,100 people have since pinned the second-best coconut cream pie recipe I have.) Coconut cream pie aside, my content rarely broke the sound barrier.
I live and work in Kansas, where the legislature is more or less at war with public schools. School funding, collective bargaining rights, school board election laws, criminalization of sex education — you name it. (I could write a whole set of posts about these struggles, but I’m not in the mood for rage right now.) This landscape, however, has set up conditions ready for viral content. Information is flying at a dizzying pace, and good people across the state are ready to share messages that resonate.
When people want a torch to carry, give them one.
But first, a little background. On Feb. 5, Gov. Sam Brownback announced an immediate cut to school funding — $81,000 in my small district — before the fiscal year ends in June 30. As we normally do, the superintendent and I wrote a message to our employees, and we adapted another version for district parents and the community at large. It just so happened that the governor’s announcement, which came around 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon, also came at a time when both the superintendent and I were in our offices, available to put our heads together, write and push these messages out. (This is sheer good luck; most days, we would not both be in the same place at the same time, and the message would have waited until the next morning.) On this day, we had a message ready to push out just a couple of hours after the news was first announced.
Knowing the level of support and engagement we have within our Facebook community, I expected that his candid letter would be popular with our regular fans. And with a handful of likes and comments — and 90+ shares — I wasn’t disappointed.
What I didn’t expect was that people who are unconnected to our community and district — often living hundreds of miles away — would begin taking up our torch and sharing it on their own. I knew we were in uncharted territory the moment I saw a tweet in my feed with a link to the district web page where the superintendent’s message actually lived. And our district does not tweet — these were people who saw the post on Facebook and took it to Twitter. (And look, I’ve seen Outbreak. I know when a virus jumps from pig to human, it’s a big deal.) Over the next few days, I found dozens of tweets — many with dozens of retweets — that linked to that single page on our website.
Searching through Facebook and Twitter, I tracked down posts from elected officials, statewide organizations, well-connected social media users. It became impossible to keep up; even Facebook’s insights can’t capture impressions and engagement when others are simply posting a link to the website. We’ll never know how many people our content reached that night, and into the weekend. But by the following Monday, here’s what I could put my finger on:
- 37,412 visits to the superintendent message page on our website. (Our other high-traffic pages — the calendar and the lunch menus — typically bring in roughly 2,000 visits in a month.) It’s interesting to note that 99% of these web page visits were referred from from mobile devices and were referred from another site, not from a search engine.
- More than 100,000 post reach from our district Facebook page. (Most weeks, this number is typically in the range of 2,000.)
- 394 shares from the Facebook pages of two state-wide education advocacy groups that posted a link to our web page that Thursday evening. These shares are separate from our original post and in addition to the 90+ shares originating from our page — not to mention our post reach.
- 3,713 bitly clicks from our Facebook post (or shares from our post) to the website page.
To put this in perspective, the Eudora Schools Facebook page has 1,900 fans; our town has 6,500 residents.
Even a few weeks later, it’s humbling to review these metrics and think about the rate that our little message was consumed and shared. My intuition tells me that the Thursday evening timing was an important factor for this post to go viral. Had the news come on a Friday — or had our message been delayed for any reason — there would have been far fewer people hanging around on social media into the evening, engaging with and sharing content. But regardless of why or how, this experience has revealed the opportunities — and the challenges — when content goes viral.