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What made the Ted Williams story go viral?

One of the biggest news stories of 2011 has come from the most unlikely of places—a homeless panhandler on the streets of Columbus.

Ted Williams, a former felon and drug addict became known as the “Man with the Golden Voice,” and he captivated the nation as a millions of people watched a seemingly minor YouTube video over and over again.

In the span of 24 hours, Williams’ feel-good story was the lead of every major morning news show, as he fielded job offers from major companies, sports teams and Hollywood executives.

Williams had truly become an overnight sensation.

How did this happen, and what can we learn about the story?

Power of social media.

The role of social media in turning Williams into a national phenomenon can’t be understated. Without YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and Facebook, William’s story simply goes unnoticed.

The initial video—posted to the Columbus Dispatch’s website by Doral Chenoweth III—was seen by a user and then posted to YouTube without the permission of the Dispatch. Once the video went up on YouTube, it didn’t take long for it to spread.

The video appeared on the social news site Reddit, where thousands of people commented saw and commented on Williams’ unique talent. At the same time, the video began gaining steam on Twitter, and within hours, millions of people had been introduced to the “Man with the Golden Voice.”

From there, his star only continued to rise, and within the next 24 hours he appeared on Inside Edition, the Today Show, Good Morning America and Jimmy Fallon; while fielding job offers from coast-to-coast.

The important point to understand with Williams’ story is that the video went viral without the permission, or backing of any news outlet. Williams didn’t decide to make his story a viral hit. The Dispatch didn’t have any say it making the 90 second video a national story.

It just happened.

Once the story was out there, then more and more news outlets started to cover it. But no one person, group or company chose to make the story viral. We don’t get to choose.

It just happens.

“Viral” means that the story is bigger than you–bigger than any news outlet. Once it reaches that status, then news outlets can do everything possible to capture that momentum, and we tried to do that in our coverage on But if we had never published a single word about Williams, his story would have still been seen and heard by millions.

However, if the video was never posted to YouTube, Reddit, Twitter or Facebook, and it only appeared in the Dispatch’s website, would it have taken off like it did?

No way.

After the original YouTube video had generated about 12 million views, the Columbus Dispatch asked for the video to be taken down because of copyright infringement. I didn’t agree with the Dispatch’s decision to remove the video, and I believe there were better ways to go about re-directing traffic to their site, in order to profit off the video’s success.

But by the time the video was pulled from YouTube, it had already been viewed over 12 million times, and Williams was a star.

Everyone has a story

As I watched and read all the coverage about Ted Williams throughout the week, one idea continually popped into my head: This could happen to anyone.

All it took was for a talented photographer with the Dispatch to approach a homeless man with a flip camera and ask him to show off his talents. He then sat on the video for several weeks, before putting it online during a slow news day.

The funny thing to consider is how many people passed Ted Williams on the side of the road on a daily basis, never thinking to even talk to him, let alone share his story with the world.

As journalists, we spend so much time searching for the popular story. We want to talk with the celebrity, the politician or the star athlete, but many times, the best stories are somewhere in the shadows.

Williams’ rise to fame is a great tale for journalists, proving that you don’t have to land that once-in-a-lifetime interview with a huge celebrity in order to tell a fantastic story.

So many stories are often sitting there, right in front of us, just waiting for someone to share them. And with the power of the web today, those stories can take off faster than we ever expect.

People love a comeback

Whether a story is told in a newspaper, magazine, blog, television set, or tweet, one idea pertains across all media: People love a comeback story.

We want someone to root for; a person to identify with and understand. We want someone who makes us laugh, and is fun to watch, even if he has flaws.

Ted Williams fit the mold. No—he was perfect for it.

As millions of people watched the original video of Williams on the street, ratty hair, old jacket and dirty face, they saw a likeable quality about him. Sure, he had his flaws, but he admitted that much.

As news spread about the Man with the Golden Voice, Williams likeable personality captivated viewers, readers and listeners across the globe.

He celebrated as the Cleveland Cavaliers offered him a job and a house. He broke down on the Today Show, telling Matt Lauer that he always wanted to meet him. He danced on Good Morning America, and then he told his 90-year-old mother that he had finally turned away from the evils that had wrecked his life.

Ted Williams deserved a second chance, and we were more than willing to give it to him.

After all, we’re suckers for a good underdog story.

Category: New Media Thoughts, News, Social Media

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