Going Viral with Zach Wahls (Interview)

You probably first encountered Zach Wahls on Facebook. Or maybe someone emailed him to you. Regardless of how you happened upon him, chances are you know Zach because a friend shared the video of the moving speech about his family that he gave at the state capitol in Des Moines on the issue of marriage equality (if you haven’t seen it, I’ve posted it below). What happened next is the stuff of internet legend. The video went viral, unleashing a whirlwind of events and catapulting the 19-year old onto the national stage. As I’m fortunate to count Zach as a friend, I asked him recently about his firsthand experience riding the wave of a viral video.

Did you set out that night to make a viral video?
Not at all. But to be honest, I think that’s part of why it wound up going viral. It’s extraordinarily difficult to manufacture content that will go viral if your sole goal is to go viral. There’s a certain quality of that video, I think, an earnestness maybe, to which people can relate. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was being recorded, let alone that it would be posted to YouTube. I had no idea what was about to happen until I was getting a call from CBS, asking if they could fly me out to New York for an interview the next morning.

Of course, with success like yours, now everyone — from causes to corporations — wants to make a ‘viral video.’ Is there any formula for success or is a lot of it just being at the right place at the right time with a video camera?
You know, I read a quote not long ago that’s really resonated with me, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea that’s time has come.” And really, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. There are literally two million kids out there with LGBT parents and this could have happened to any of us. I just happened to be the one who showed up that night. But it’s worth pointing out that I had never been an LGBT rights activist before. I was just a kid who wanted to defend his family.

It’s hard enough to get a video to go viral once. You’ve been fortunate enough to have your video go around a second time recently! How did that happen?
Haha, it’s crazy! MoveOn, a politically progressive grassroots organization, sent the video out to its 6 million member list and once its members got hold of the video, they just spread it around the same channels it had originally been shared on: Facebook, Twitter, regular old email, and word of mouth.

This was really the first step in building your own personal brand. What can you tell us about that?
Well, I didn’t have a website, didn’t have a Facebook page, didn’t have a non-personal Twitter account — nothing. I had to pull all of that together as fast as I could, and by the time the video went around again, I had a lot of that infrastructure in place. Since then, I’ve been careful to make sure that I’m not overextending myself, trying to work with groups that share not only my ends but also my means, and making sure to take a break if I haven’t seen the latest Packers game. There’s ‘management,’ so to speak, that goes into it, but just being genuine, well-intentioned and grounded is an important part, probably the most important part, of any brand, in my relatively brief experience.

What’s next for you? I know you have a book deal but it sounds like you’re also looking to build a call-to-action into that as well.
That’s right. Can’t talk a whole lot about it, but it’s shaping up to be a game changer, especially in the places it’s most needed. I will have more info soon though and would love to talk about it again then. It’s going to be a campaign built around my brand, so to speak, which is both awesome and terrifying.

Thanks, Zach! Inspiring thoughts from an inspiring Iowan. Again, if you live under a rock and missed Zach’s speech, the now famous video is below.

Photo by Starbelly Studios