How to Build a Viral Microsite

I’ve been thinking about viral microsites (aka Single Serving Sites) for a little while and in doing research for this post, stumbled across the very thorough and well written paper by Ryan Greenberg:

Quick definition from Ryan: a viral microsite typically has 1) a dedicated URL 2) a narrowly defined message/purpose and 3) that purpose/message is expressed through a single webpage.

Rather than give an academic treatment (which Ryan’s thesis does superbly) I want to discuss some of the characteristics of popular microsites that I’ve come across over the years (and see if I can maybe apply them!)

Clean, Focused Layout

I think the primary element of great microsites are their focus. You need to immediately grasp the purpose of the site when it loads or else you’re gone. Great sites that do this:

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A basic status site that answers the question posed in the URL. Very similar to and[/alert]

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When you hit the button, the anguished scream of Darth Vader comes forth from the screen. If that wasn’t obvious. [/alert]

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I’m not sure if this site actually played a role in the new iOS feature, but the site creator did provide a helpful mockup back in the day.[/alert]


CAPS, Gigantic Font and Profanity

You’ll notice that a lot of the more popular sites a mix of large font, caps lock and profanity to state their messages. It sort of feels like the site is shouting at you. Yet somehow, this makes the site more appealing. There’s a feeling of naughtiness as you share the site on your social networks. Certain sites that do this:

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One of the biggest memes to hit the internet in 2008 – it’s got a humongous typeface, spawned numerous copy cat sites and its cutesy lines that proved so popular they made a book with them. [/alert]

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Is probably the most popular site in this list. It triggered an insane amount of sharing and spawned a number of similarly inspired sites including The angry tone just makes every recipe that much more interesting…[/alert]

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Much of the advice is actually pretty good but the gratuitous swearing just makes it that much more enjoyable. They’ve tastefully incorporated some commercial elements to the site as well, but it definitely takes away from the pure awesomeness.[/alert]


Some of these sites have no interactivity but I think the ones with legs do allow you to do some limited action.

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While perhaps not funny to the mainstream, this website totally nailed the “X for Y” approach that most startups use to describe their company and did so in a funny and visually appealing way to the tech world. [/alert]

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Ok so it’s not actually interactive but I think that’s part of why it’s funny.[/alert]

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This site is incredibly popular and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a challenge to go for the full 2 minutes? So if you do complete it, you want to share/tell everyone you know? Not sure. But it worked.[/alert]

Humor / Snarkiness

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I’m not going to explain or screenshot this one, just go look for yourself.. =) [/alert]


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Created during the snow frenzy of winter 2010/11 in SF (along with of these lines are so epic: BUT DON’T WORRY, IF IT DOES, SFGATE.COM WILL DEFINITELY HAVE A STORY ON IT THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW[/alert]


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More subtle, less snarky humor, but still funny quips on Tumblr’s frequent downtime in 2010. “David Karp is on a REALLY good date” and  “The reason is something topical that won’t make sense next week”. (Wow, looks like I submitted this to HN exactly a year ago today)[/alert]


Easy to Share

Most of these sites have a simple way to share it with your friends. It looks like Twitter is the number one way to share, followed by Facebook. This may be in part because you can share something multiple times on Twitter, whereas you can only like something once. Most people show the number of shares.



Timely / Targeted

Some, but not all of these sites are riding a trend. Certainly the Obama site, the reasons tumblr went down, the san francisco snow site were time sensitive. Additionally, many of these sites were targeted to a certain demographic – Star Wars lovers, jaded Silicon Valley folks, designers, etc. This probably made it easier to spread at first, but also tends to limit the overall reach. I mean the Do Nothing site is not really targeted at all but hit 2.6M stumbles (!!) On the other hand, how do you seed a site like that?

Applying What I’ve Learned

Well this post wouldn’t be complete without something personal. My startup Ridejoy recently launched a microsite called –

– partly for fun and partly to raise awareness for our SF to Tahoe ridesharing route. Go take a look.

I’d love to get feedback from you on this post as well as on how we could improve our own viral microsite. Did I take my own advice? Let me know in the comments.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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