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Helping Your Photos Go Viral

Persian Power Trip

Persian Power Trip - Click to enlarge

I’ve had over 1 million page views this month on my Burning Man Festival photo gallery, largely thanks to viral interest in a single photo (shown at left).  Don’t get me wrong, this is a popular site, and I typically get hundreds of visitors per day.  But occasionally a photo will take off like a rocket in popularity and I’ll be deluged with traffic.  As I write this I’m getting 8,000 visitors per day, largely because of one photo.  This has happened before, to a lesser extent, with other photos, but this one seems to have captured the world’s imagination.

Can you do this, too?  Maybe.  And that’s what I’d like to write about today.

First of all, nothing can ensure that a photo or video will go viral on the web.  If there was a surefire formula, every marketing department on earth would already be exploiting it.  The Internet zeitgeist and the quirky collective whims of humanity are simply too unpredictable.

Viral photo analytics

Analytics for the month - The surge is just getting started! - click to enlarge

However, you can take certain steps to at least make it possible.

You can lay the groundwork so that, should lightning strike, that spark can start a brush fire which can rage out of control.  Alternately, if you do things wrong, you can prevent lightning from ever striking at all.

So what can you do? First of all, of course, you need to capture a noteworthy image.  ‘nuf said.

Second, you must display your work in a place where people can find it.  This would seem obvious, but I know countless photographers doing good work but letting their precious gems go to waste on a compact flash card, or a hard disk, somewhere, never spending the time to process the photos and put them online.

Third, you must make it easy for others to link to your work. For example, my current photo du jour rests at a fixed internet location on a basic HTML web page.  Anyone can link to it, or share that URL. If my website were built entirely in Flash, as so many photographer’s sites are, it would be impossible to link to a single photo inside the site.  Game Over.

Finally, you can encourage virality by intentionally courting the social sharing sites.  In the case of my current photo, the fire stared at StumbleUpon, and while I didn’t start the fire, I do occasionally “stumble” my own content when I release something new.  Can’t hurt to try.  Likewise, I maintain some galleries at Flickr (even though I dislike the site) just to keep a toe in that viral pond.   Likewise with Facebook, Twitter,  Delicious, Blinklist, Google Bookmarks, and countless other social bookmarking sites.

Create an account at each of these sites.  When you have something new, mention it there.  Most of the time, it will immediately sink into inglorious obscurity.   That’s what happens to 99% of my stuff, too.  But once in while, something will catch on.  An influential member may like your item and share it with thousands of followers, and if one or two of those followers are also linchpins (to use Seth Godin’s delightful term), then magic can happen.

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  1. Paul says:

    Not a pro but having started out with Picasa (yuck – no safety for images there and very quirky performance) I went with & decided to stay with Flickr. My brother (also not a pro) seems to have a real dislike for Flickr also. But he hasn’t given me any real reason that makes sense, to me. He decided to post at Apple’s Gallery… has password control but unless you password everything viewers can still drag your images to their desktops.

    With Flickr I feel I can safely post public or private images, better protection against drag-to-steal and there are many controls to customize how you want to let others view, comment, share your images.

    I’m just curious what exactly is it about Flickr you don’t like.

  2. admin says:

    Hi Paul,
    I’ve never like the way the photostream works at Flickr, it’s always seemed like an awkward and frustrating way to present photos, but maybe it’s just a matter of taste. I’m also not a fan of the way people can make annotations and comments directly on other people’s photos, for me it distracts from the viewing experience. But I must admit Flickr has grown into an important social sharing site and every photographer should have a presence there.

    When it comes to quickly sharing private photos with family members, I still like Picasa. With the Lightroom Picasa export it’s super easy and works well for me.

  3. Paul says:

    I have to agree Flickr’s screen is a bit fussy. But the navigation learning curve wasn’t too steep. I learned quickly enough to block any on-photo annotations, extremely distracting. I also block comments from non-members, and downloading & printing but I can give those rights to family/friends. What I really like is I can apply these controls to individual images or whole sets. (My family and the few clients I’ve had are extremely picky, understandably, about what the rest of the world sees of them on-line.) And now with the new features on Flickr it’s a lot easier to keep them all happy.

    I initially liked the ease of Picasa but missed the control over my content. And there were many problems along the way with adding tags, map info, titles and comments. The last draw was the way Google was insisting I link my Picasa ID with their Google social network site – my email. After a few clicks on the “No” button Picasa wouldn’t show my on-screen icon and I could no longer post comments on other’s photos. Now that my family are all over the web at different photo sharing sites I just post a pic or two on facebook with links to the appropriate set at Flickr. I guess the only thing with more control would be to develop my own site but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    By the way – great product reviews and training videos. I’ve really enjoyed them. Personally, I’ve been waiting for Pocket Wizard to get the Nikon Mini TT1 and flex TT5 finished, but now I’m thinking of getting the Phottix Strato—Flash Trigger with TTL Pass-Through – really could have used that a few weeks ago. But I’m still holding out for the Pocket Wizards due to the remote control TTL feature… I hate having to run around resetting strobes… getting lazy in my old age.

  4. John Chamberlain_SA says:

    Nice article! Shot! ;D

  5. Murt says:

    Very interesting article guys…………. never heard of some of the social sites mentioned so must look them up.
    Always use Flickr and realise now I need to look more closely at the controls on my pics!



  6. GC says:

    Very cool shot….I like the way she lifted the chain to show a sense of control and the fact that you can see the lower part of the breast showing….I dont think that is a regulation length veil though…and I wonder if I will be seeing this on the news in the next month or so and how many fatwas will be announced….Great job.

    Thanks for the laugh,

  7. kc says:

    any political adverse effects with this picture?
    I enjoyed reading your post, lifted me from somewhere I dont want to be

  8. Phil Steele says:

    Hi KC, thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed this. No, I haven’t had any death threats yet. Let’s hope They don’t discover it. Cheers, Phil

  9. Jake says:

    That’s a great picture. Who are they?

  10. David says:

    I like the blog and it has inspired me to act although sometimes I don’t have time to take good photos as I am too busy learning how to use new and ever changing social media sites that confuse me to distraction. Can anyone suggest a simple site – if someone can invent one they will be rich.

    From over the pond.

  11. robert says:

    great photo phil. I use flikr and facebook.I find your blogs very informative.I have some issues of privacy with social networkig sites but generally there a good platform to get known.

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