Going Viral: A Result, Not a Strategy

It’s the new marketing buzzword du jour (or perhaps d’hier) – "let’s go viral,” or “we need an idea that’ll go viral” or “once it goes viral, we’ll be rich.” At best, those phrases are all wishful thinking; at worst they are giveaways for one’s lack of marketing savvy.

I’ve had many clients and colleagues approach me with ideas that were definitely going to “go viral,” "couldn’t help but go viral” or were “destined to go viral.”

By now, I’m sure you get the point. “Going Viral” is now up there in the marketing lexicon with such similar terms du jour such as “The Tipping Point,” “Long-tailing,” and “Content is King” – all terms which grossly oversimplify what is otherwise a challenging and (to use one of the above buzzwords) a “long tail” achievement.

First of all, if you get nothing at all from this post, just remember the headline: Going Viral is a Result, Not a Strategy. Saying that something in and of itself is intended to go viral says nothing other than you might have an interesting idea which, if nurtured correctly, might have a chance to either a) have a monumental, yet fleeting, grasp on the popular culture for a few nano-seconds or b) make you a substantial amount of money for, again, a few nano-seconds before the next idea that’s going viral saps away the public’s attention.

Let’s face it, Going Viral is akin to the marketing equivalent of winning the lottery. The reason I use the word “akin” as opposed to just “is” is because as opposed to the lottery which is purely a function of luck (where, of course, you can increase your odds by buying more tickets), there are some things you can do to help swing the odds in your favor in the theater of virality. But, still, don’t delude yourself: a lot of going viral is in the hands of the fates.

Going out on a limb, I would say that going viral is 70% to 90% luck. However, savvy marketers can control the other 10% to 30% by focusing on these four tools:

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1. Originality – This goes without saying. No matter what you’re trying to do – influence public opinion, introduce a new product, create buzz around new content – if it’s not different, you have no chance whatsoever to go viral. Not happening. Originality can come in many shapes and forms – a new joke, a new way of looking at something we take for granted, some new product that does something unusual, either trivial or substantive, whatever. However, there is a not-so-hidden trap here: in an unmitigated attempt be original and/or shocking, it’s possible to step over the line and achieve “negative virality” (see: Griffin, Kathy).

This video went mini-viral when a few
celebrities endorsed it.

2. Celebrity – Today’s popular culture is more than ever ruled by celebrity. The bigger the celebrity, the more social media followers, the more the press hovers around anything they do and, hence, the higher probability something or someone endorsed by such “celebrity” will go viral (I mean, let’s face it, Kim Kardashian can belch and it has a good chance of going viral). But this is not about becoming a celebrity yourself; it’s about riding the coattails of celebrity. A few years back I produced a political video called “You're So Bain” an ode to Mitt Romney based upon the Carly Simon song of similar name. I can’t say it was a viral “earthquake,” but it did get 100,000 views on YouTube (a mini-virus, maybe the viral equivalent of the sniffles -- I did, though, enjoy watching the social media monitoring tools as for a week or so almost every minute it was mentioned by someone or on some forum.) Why did it go mini-viral in retrospect? A couple of celebrities in the political-space grabbed onto it, in this case Katrina Vanden Heuvel and the late Alan B. Colmes. There was also a woman with a syndicated radio show who played it on air. Once the video had these endorsers behind it, it took off in its own small way.

3. Timing – Timing is perhaps the most important element in this viral marketing mix. Great timing can be either a product of genius or, again, something you just stumble onto by luck. The big challenge here is hitting a moving target. Public opinion sways daily – even hourly, and sometimes by the minute – so to grab onto a tidal swell of fleeting popular interest, is no easy task. Either you have to think very quickly, wait for an opening or, again, just stumble into it.

4. Money – Money always helps in any marketing endeavor. In terms of virality, yes, it can help, but there’s no guarantee. A bit of “seed” money, can “prime the pump” by getting whatever it is seen by enough eyeballs that perhaps a few "influentials" might see the idea and become passionate about it boosting its virality potential. But, be careful about over-spending, it can easily become an intoxicant. Unfortunately, no matter how much you spend, if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. If you really have the funds available, better off to go with traditional advertising where much less is left to chance (still no guarantees on the results though).

So those are my takes on the “Marketing Virality Toolbox,” so to speak. Again, at best, proper use of these tools can provide 10% to 30% of a “push” that might affect your chances of “going viral.” But in the end, your chances of going viral are ultimately in the hands of the marketing and popular culture gods.

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