Tracing the viral success of Batkid

By Clint Demeritt

In 2013, Batkid took the world by storm.

When Miles Scott’s wish to become Batkid was made reality by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the story turned into one of the most popular and viral stories of the last few years. At the end of June 2015, a new documentary about the wish will be released. A trailer for the film has already hit YouTube.

So now is a great time to take a look back and discuss what made the Batkid story such a global smash hit.

The event took place Nov. 15, 2014, when the Make-A-Wish Foundation transformed parts of San Francisco into Gotham City. A series of activities was planned for Miles throughout the day: Getting messages from the real San Francisco Chief of Police, diffusing a (fake) bomb, foiling a bank robbery and saving the SF Giants mascot from the clutches of The Penguin. The day was one of the biggest and most elaborate wishes the foundation had ever put together.

The only thing more amazing than the planning that went into the event was the response to it. A month before the event, a volunteer posted a call for people to show up to cheer Batkid as he made his way through the city. They were only hoping for about 200 people to come support Miles, but on the day of the event, between 10,000 and 12,000 showed up in person to cheer for Batkid.

The Batkid story reached an estimated 750 million to 1.7 billion people worldwide according to a social media agency involved in the wish, Clever Girls Collective. The event generated about 407,000 tweets, and around 21,000 pictures were posted to Instagram and Twitter by the afternoon of the event. The Make-A-Wish site received 1,000 hits per second and saw a 1,400 percent increase in traffic, greater than its highest traffic record. Needless to say, its website crashed.

Miles received shout outs from across the globe and beyond: President Obama made a Vine cheering Miles on, and an astronaut on the International Space Station also posted a message.

Batkid’s success is definitely one of those “lighting in a bottle” moments that are hard to replicate. Though we can identify the factors that helped make Batkid so successful, there is no blueprint for guaranteed viral success.

These moments happen when the right novel idea meets the right online community to serve as the engine that distributes the message to the larger cultural consciousness.

These ideas need to have a clear, concise call to action with a low barrier to entry — in this case it was “help support Batkid.” But these calls also need to be flexible enough for people to imbue their own creativity into the movement and leave their mark. In this case, people were allowed to create their own messages for Miles however they wanted, be it a sign or a well-meaning tweet.

Batkid’s success grew organically. There was no advertising to get people to support Miles, no one was paid to cheer him on. A volunteer posted for some help on a forum, and it spread like wildfire after that. No amount of engineering can artificially replicate that success.

If you are looking for advice on how to create a viral movement, there is only so much one can give: Don’t be afraid to get creative and play on your strengths, take chances and most importantly, have fun with it.

This article is brought to you by the DMA Nonprofit Federation. Click here to register for the 2015 New York Nonprofit Conference.