It started as a simple post — suddenly, it’s a sensation sweeping the internet. Your business is now front and center on social media, placing your brand in the eyes of thousands, if not millions, of viewers across a spectrum of demographics. Within days or even hours, your content has not only caught the attention of others, but it has also inspired them to engage by liking, sharing and commenting on the post. Your content has gone viral — but what does that mean?
What Is Virality?
One effect of social media on business is that going viral is now a top goal for many companies. From small businesses to large corporations, marketing departments strive to create content that connects with their audience. One way to reach the broadest swath of consumers possible is to post the content online and hope it spreads like wildfire on social media. The term “going viral” means the content has swept rapidly through social media, garnering extreme levels of interaction and shares far beyond what regular posts achieve.
How can we quantify virality? Some say we should use a benchmark of viewership and engagement to determine whether or not a piece of content has gone viral. Others say the viewership is only an essential factor if the rate at which people are consuming the content is also high. A post that receives 50,000 impressions in five hours is much more impressive than one that receives 50,000 views in five years. Regardless, the benefits of business viral marketing are self-evident, and going viral is now something many content creators aspire to achieve.
The million-viewer question is — how do you make it happen?
How Do You Go Viral on Social Media?
Anyone can go viral on social media — individuals and businesses alike. However, just because it’s an achievable goal, that doesn’t mean you can force it to happen. With so much content uploaded to social media each day, it takes a unique post, story, image or video to cut through the noise. There is no proven method or secret recipe to instantly go viral on any social media platform. Ultimately, how well your content connects with an audience and why they decide to share it influences virality.
For example, going viral on Facebook occurs when a post receives a dramatic amount of user engagement from a majority of those who have viewed the post. Seeing the post doesn’t cause it to go viral — interaction via liking, commenting and sharing of the post is what Facebook measures. Sites like Instagram and Twitter measure it in much the same way — the more engagement a post receives, the more likely it is to go viral. Posts can also go viral from originating on one site and getting posted to another.
Although there is no one guaranteed way to go viral, one company believes it has cracked the code on YouTube virality. Their equation adds “people” plus “platform” times “snowball effect.” They leveraged their content before creating it by reaching out to known influencers who had a broad audience relevant to their planned post. They then chose to create a video featuring a cat so they could file it under YouTube’s “pets and animals” category. This specific category only requires 150,000 views to make it to YouTube’s homepage.
To create the “snowball effect,” the influencers they partnered with posted the cat video on their pages, eventually getting this piece of content to claim the No. 1 spot as the most viewed “pets and animals” video on YouTube. Along with their equation, they also claim their “candy-with-the-medicine” philosophy aided their success. By creating an entertaining video that also delivered a message, they believe it influenced their potential for virality.
Examples of Successful Viral Marketing Campaigns and Posts
How can your content go viral? Look to brands who’ve had successful advertising campaigns capture attention on social media.
Success: Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Advertisement
During the Super Bowl in 2010, Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice brand debuted a character called the Old Spice Man. After the first video launched, the following days saw the character interact in nearly 200 more videos featuring other celebrities, fans and public figures. The original video was impressive in itself, achieving a higher viewership in its first 24 hours than even President Obama’s victory speech. Because of his real-time responses in the following days, the character became a viral sensation of his own.
Although Old Spice did take advantage of high-profile individuals and influencer assistance to spread the content across social media, the brand created a successful character and effective message that stood up on its own. By crafting a persona that engaged the targeted audience and interacted with them on a personal level, the Old Spice Man continued to generate social media impressions and sales without deliberately asking the consumer to purchase their product. The Old Spice Man changed the way brands interact and market to their audience on social media.
Success: IHOP’s Identity Crisis
In 2018, IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, told the world it would be changing its name to IHOb — with the “B” standing for “burgers.” Though they only intended it to be a month-long campaign to draw attention to their new selection of menu items, it quickly became a viral talking point. Across social media, fans and businesses alike joined in on the fun, some supporting the pancake chain while others engaged in playful banter.
Results showed the campaign boosted foot traffic in their restaurants, increased their burger sales and generated an immense amount of social media hype for the brand. IHOP doubled down on the campaign a year later, telling followers they were changing the “B” back to a “P” — with the “P” standing for the burgers that they now referred to as “pancakes.” They’ve even reengaged those who negatively criticized their 2018 campaign by playfully putting them on a “Bancake” list. The IHOP-IHOb campaign increased 2018’s overall earnings and store openings.
However, not every viral marketing campaign garners attention for the right reasons. Several companies saw public sentiment turn against them when their content caused controversy.
Failure: Kendall Jenner and the Pepsi Protest
At the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi released a commercial starring Kendall Jenner. The setting of the video is a protest against police brutality, a real issue that incites heavy emotion and opinion on both sides of the movement. The video failed in its attempt to promote peace, understanding and unity when Jenner shared a Pepsi with the police officers, resulting in cheers from the crowd. Many viewers felt this minimized and exploited the cultural importance of the issue in a misguided attempt to boost sales.
This video campaign had a budget of around $100 million, but quickly got pulled from circulation after receiving immediate backlash from viewers and journalists. Many critics called the ad tone-deaf, with some even going so far as to push for a boycott of Pepsi’s brand. Although Pepsi’s intentions may have been sincere, this misguided context led to their video going viral in one of the worst ways possible.
Intentional vs. Accidental Viral Posts
Racking up millions of impressions on social media is an impressive feat, but not all businesses plan to go viral. Part of the excitement and mystery behind virality is that effectively any post can catch on and spread through social media. Going viral can happen accidentally, either by the company’s efforts or through their consumers bringing the brand into the limelight. Accidental virality happens, and when it does, it can dramatically increase your ability to engage and interact with your audience.
Success: MoonPie’s Tweet Tackles Super Bowl Levels of Exposure
In late 2017, MoonPie’s social media group tweeted, “It’s as good a day as any to stick a MoonPie in the microwave, light a couple candles and scream into a soft pillow.” Though they intended it as a simple daily tweet, MoonPie’s post garnered more than 45,000 likes and nearly 17,000 retweets. This accidental success launched a formal social media campaign on Twitter and via video content. Despite their intent to run the videos during the Super Bowl, none of them ever gained exposure during the big game.
That didn’t stop Moon Pie from achieving Super Bowl levels of exposure without the financial commitment. This post wasn’t MoonPie’s first experience with going viral, either. Throughout 2017, MoonPie’s social media group gained incredible exposure, including over 1 billion social media impressions for their “Lol ok” tweet directed at a competitor. These popular tweets led to an increase in revenue, with demand and sales higher than ever.
Success: This Is Us Crock-Pot Damage Control
The television show This Is Us centers its narrative on the death of a family’s father. Viewers of the show waited two years to finally witness how and why the character died — in a house fire caused by a malfunctioning slow cooker. Since Crock-Pot is one of the most recognized makers of the slow cooker, fans directed their anger and sadness toward the real Crock-Pot brand. Although the show’s writers never imagined such a negative reaction to the brand itself, Crock-Pot used their unexpected time in the limelight to their advantage.
The brand redirected the narrative by choosing to proactively engage with these disheartened fans. Among other PR moves, they launched a Twitter account to connect with these individuals. On Facebook, the hashtag #CrockPotIsInnocent started trending. In collaboration with This Is Us, Crock-Pot released a Super Bowl ad featuring the actor of the deceased character using a Crock-Pot safely, asking fans to “find the ability to forgive.”
Of course, some of these businesses also find themselves thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Whether viewers found their content inappropriate, or their virality made their plans backfire, some businesses do not “win” even though they’ve gone viral.
Failure: Sunny Co. Clothing’s Giveaway Grief
To capitalize on the Baywatch movie remake, Sunny Co. Clothing created a post on Instagram featuring their new Baywatch-inspired swimsuit called the Pamela. They promised any follower who reposted the image and tagged Sunny Co. Clothing within 24 hours would receive the Pamela for free. Thousands of their followers took them up on their offer nearly immediately. Unfortunately, the giveaway gave too much away.
Followers began demanding their free swimsuit after becoming suspicious the company wouldn’t follow through. Sunny Co. Clothing’s website was sold out of the product as well. The company responded by modifying their freebie conditions, stating, “…we reserve the right to cap the promotion if deemed necessary.” Although this was a planned social media campaign, Sunny Co. Clothing did not intend to go viral, and angered their followers in the process.
Advantages of Going Viral
Whether accidental or intentional, going viral can be a significant win for your brand. All businesses want to increase their revenue and maximize their stronghold in their market. One of the obvious positive effects of social media on business is that the content engages a wide audience on an even broader platform that they can interact with. Whereas a radio or television commercial may be popular, viewers of online content can instantly share, discuss and interact with it.
Successful promotions or marketing initiatives can be memorable for years to come. This long-term impact even from a short-term marketing strategy has the potential to pay dividends into the next generation of consumers. For example, Verizon’s commercials in the 2000s focused on a character testing out cell phone signal by asking, “Can you hear me now?” Increasing popularity made this character a pop culture icon at the time and dramatically helped Verizon gain market share while reducing turnover rates with customers.
Fast-forward to the 2010s, and you will now see the actor famous for playing Verizon’s “Test Man” character working for the competition. Actor Paul Marcarelli, once the face of one of Verizon’s best-known advertising campaigns, is now a spokesperson for Sprint. This initiative made astounding impressions on social media and commercial television, even leading to one of Sprint’s largest one-day gains on the New York Stock Exchange. One viral character’s popularity has helped two separate businesses dramatically increase their revenue over a decade apart.
Your organization does not need to develop the viral content to benefit from it, either. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was originally a challenge created to donate to any charitable cause. When it began to spread to those living with ALS, their ALS-specific hashtags started to trend. Donations from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge significantly impacted the ALS Association, leading to over $115 million worth of donations, the discovery of five new ALS genes, funding for hundreds of research projects and widespread awareness of the disease.
Ultimately, going viral intentionally or unintentionally can be a massive win for your company. You can receive exponential amounts of visibility from a minimal amount of investment if your content accidentally goes viral. You can see the same remarkable growth of your brand, develop more credibility in the eyes of your customers and engage in meaningful conversation with new consumers. Positive virality, and responsible management of the attention thereafter, offer a wide range of advantages that sometimes no amount of advertising money can buy.
Cons of Going Viral (Or Trying To)
Social media marketing’s impact on business means more brands have become content creators. The bump in brand recognition, the chance to engage with loyal and new customers and the opportunity to spread a message for the whole virtual world to see are noteworthy incentives for attempting to create viral content. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, however. As you’ve seen in some of the examples above, there are potential downsides to going viral — especially when it’s accidental.
Can going viral be bad for your business? Sometimes. Negative social media exposure can have a substantial impact on your business. Complaints or poor reviews, drops in business or sales, leadership resignation or termination and more can all result from a poorly worded or designed post. For example, Adidas once sent out email messages to marathon athletes saying, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” A poor choice of words evoked anger and disappointment from customers and created a viral public relations nightmare.
Uber had a similar mishap when it made a business decision in response to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance protest of President Trump’s immigration ban. Though they turned off their surge pricing to show customers they weren’t trying to profit from the NYTWA’s strike, the public considered it a move to support the ban and urged others to boycott Uber. This backlash led to Uber’s competitor Lyft gaining popularity and becoming one of the most frequently downloaded free apps on mobile devices.
You also shouldn’t plan to go viral. Though you want to produce the best and most relevant content possible for your audience, too much of a focus on going viral can cause you to miss the mark. Targeting an audience other than the one you’ve already established can leave your audience feeling neglected. Trying too hard to create viral content also distracts you from the goal of concentrating on sincere, positive interactions with your existing followers. It places unnecessary pressure on you and your team, too.
The Curiosity and Caution of Going Viral
Going viral is unique because it’s unpredictable and you can’t force it to happen. Although having influencers or public figures endorsing your content is helpful, there’s no guarantee they can help your content spread rapidly. If you do intentionally or accidentally succeed in creating a viral campaign, there’s also a chance you could experience some negative effects of social media on your business. Most importantly, how you manage your positive or negative virality can impact your company for years to come.
There isn’t a set formula for going viral, but it’s always possible posting the right content at the right time can cause a rapid increase in engagement and interaction. Your business needs to have a plan in place for dealing with sudden virality.
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