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Top 5 ways to be an Internet success

To succeed online, you must become more than a brand-you must become a meme.


Meme (n.) is a term coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, in his explanation of how concepts, thoughts, learned behaviors (or, er...your brand), etc., self-replicate throughout a culture like a virus. The good news (for you!): The creation of online systems of transmission (MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia), with their myriad channels for exposure—and resulting adoption and mutations—has exponentially sped up meme transmissions. We hardly need to rattle off the interminable list of Internet celebs who've "gone viral" to appreciate that success online is imminently achievable—and luckily (for most of us), it has nothing to do with talent, at least in the traditional sense.

Online success isn't random, though. Here, a few basics »

1. Create a brand. Hopefully one that falls into one of the following three categories: funny, boobs and kittens.

It's not a coincidence that College Humor, Tila Tequila and LolCats are three of the biggest online successes right now. People like to be entertained, and funny, boobs and kittens pretty much ensure a good time. (Just think about the kind of page views CollegeTequilaCats could get!)

But if you don't have a sense of humor, breasts or animals, there's always the whole "vibrant personality" thing. And if you don't have that, find a gimmick. Perez Hilton sure as hell doesn't have boobs (well, the traditional kind), and it would be difficult to argue that he's a kitten. I don't personally find him to be vibrant or funny, but people seem to get a kick out of his "drawing white dots on celebs" shtick. It stands out, and amuses them. And that's all that matters.

Ultimately, ask yourself: Are you a consistently effective distraction from work? Yes? Sweet—you have a built in loyal audience of Web-addicted procrastinators who want something to click on in the middle of writing TPS report No. 384.

2. Your online presence (a) should be multiplatform and (b) shouldn't look like crap.

I wouldn't include this except that people who should know better (names have been left off to protect those guilty of late-’90s Web design) don't. HTML isn't good enough. Just text isn't good enough. Existing on just one social network isn't good enough. Treating your website like it's paper, but with scrollers and little clicky links: not good enough.

Your site's look is everything. Choose simple, well-laid-out clean design over complex, confusing garishness. Mantra: If in doubt, take it out. (If people say, "That looks just like my MySpace page!," you're not on the right track.)

That said, there is no such thing as existing in too many places on the Internet. You should have be on Flickr, Twitter, iTunes, Tumblr, Digg, Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.—because each of those applications represents a community in which you want to be represented. Exclusivity on the Web is really nonexistence. Not to mention that if you're just typing out your blog posts—and not providing photos, podcasts, short edited videos, live streaming, etc. —you're only tapping into 1/12th of the potential of the medium.

3. Select online properties crucial to developing your brand and make yourself known to them. Reinforce in real life.

Okay, you've adopted a cat (or a Miracle Bra) to bolster your brand, you've begged your brother to program a gorgeous minimal site, and you've bribed your little cousin to sign you up for 800 different annoying Web 2.0 apps—now you have to spread the word, Dawkins (2.0!) style.

This is where you spend your nights awake, staring into the melatonin-inhibiting LED glow of your MacBook Air, reading and commenting on selected online communities you've identified as crucial to developing your brand. Needless to say, if you're a knitter, you probably shouldn't waste your time commenting on gaming sites, etc.

Reach out to the actual human beings behind these properties, using a strategy I call "F&S" —friendship and stunts. That's really just marketing mixed with basic fifth-grade psychology —get their attention (for online types, it's better to do so IRL—there’s less competition at parties than in their inboxes) and befriend them. When site purveyors think about whom they want to write about, will they think of people they know—or people they don't? Um. Duh.

4. Keep the story going through continual stunts, brand depth and viral expansion networking.

"Controversy, controversy, controversy" is the "location, location, location" of successful online brands. The key, of course, is to control it, not to have it control you. Again, a seemingly obvious point, but one that many webrebrities have found falls frustratingly into the "easier said than done" camp.

Canned publicity stunts—like überproduced TV news segments—are too obvious for the Web, and just turn people off. Your stunts must have a hint of rawness—ideally, they shouldn't be obvious as stunts at all, instead serving only to get you a little attention and remind the viewer to come back into your fold, where you have the real attraction: your [whatever it is you do]. That—unlike the stunts—can be entirely genuine, although that's not a requirement (cough, cough, TMZ).

The depth comes with constant updating, working on your content. You can't have one video on your site and expect people to refresh constantly until you decide you'll upload another one—a week later. The Internet doesn't sleep. Nor do most successful bloggers. Why should you? You can hire someone for that. A cat, maybe.

In the meantime, all that time you spent getting to know the gatekeepers in your online communities should be paying off. The principle of viral expansion networking/marketing is simple: First one person blogs about you, then three more, then seven more, then 13, until you're an established presence. You know you've made it when people in other fields are referred to as the [your name] of [their field].

5. Creative tenacity.

Just keep going. And going. And going. There really is no expiration date on the Internet—there is no "too young" or "so yesterday." As long as your wireless has a signal, you're still in the game. And that's really the best part of the Web: It's uniquely suited to both wannabes and has-beens. You're only ensured a one-hit viral wonder if you sign off.

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