Don’t fall for the fool’s gold of viral content

Do you love it when your social media content goes viral? Within hours of being posted, it’s been shared thousands of times and, briefly, you feel a little bit special because all those eyeballs have been looking at something you created. Businesses love the idea of viral because it exposes their brand or their product to a huge crowd of potential new customers. Sales will surely soar!

Or do they? My experience is that a single viral post doesn’t make a huge difference, and it’s very hard to achieve in the first place. If you’re striving for viral, I suggest you forget it and concentrate on consistency and quality. Read on to discover why.


What does ‘going viral’ mean?

Every now and again, a picture, a video, a song or a message will go viral. In the most extreme cases, it’s suddenly everywhere. Think back to the blue/gold dress image that went viral in early 2015 – what started as a question posted on Tumblr finished up making national headlines.

Something goes viral when the message is picked up and passed on by large numbers of people in a short space of time. The message spreads fast because it has common appeal.

Viral marketing attempts to copy this idea by creating easy to share messages that entice people into sharing them widely, meaning the marketing campaign achieves huge impact for a small budget. It’s a great idea that, in practice, is very hard to achieve.

The myths of viral content

The first myth of viral content is that you can make it happen. Truth is, you can’t predict what will have mass appeal beyond your usual audience.

Every year corporations spend millions on marketing campaigns without knowing which will sink without trace and which might become hugely popular, living on in popular culture for years, if not generations.

My mother, now in her 70s, still sings a marketing jingle ‘a little bit of bread and magic’, which she heard years ago. ‘Magic’ was, I think, an alternative to butter. Their marketing message certainly left a lasting impression, at least on her.

But most of marketing campaigns, the memorable and the forgettable, involve spending a lot of money on getting the message out. They only become viral when we, the audience, begin enthusiastically sharing the message with one another. How often does that happen?

The second myth of viral marketing is that it’s cheap. This is because we see the massive impact of a single photo, like the blue/gold dress. That was a marketing success for the makers, Roman Designs, but they didn’t initiate it. They just happened to be quick to respond to the interest.

Brands that have some success with viral marketing spend a lot of money on researching and developing their marketing strategies. Occasionally an inexpensive marketing message will become popular and go viral, but again, it’s impossible to predict when this will happen.

Don’t give up on viral

Catch this - it's going viral!

Having said that getting your marketing message to go viral is both impossible to predict and can be very expensive to achieve, you probably think I’m suggesting that you give up on the idea.

You’re partly right. I don’t recommend that you put the burden of “make it go viral” on your social media marketer. Instead, aim to publish good quality content on a regular basis. Focus on engaging and growing your audience.

If you do that, you may just find that suddenly, unexpectedly, something goes viral.

I’ll share an example from one of the accounts I manage – Weymouth, Dorset on Facebook. I use this account to share images from around Weymouth and over the last few years it’s built an audience of around 3,000 people. The statistics tell me that most of my posts only reach a few hundred.

In early July, I shared a photo of the view from Abbotsbury along Chesil Beach towards Portland. Within two days it had been seen by almost 150,000 people, received 7,500 likes and over 300 shares.

My picture, with its simple question: “Does this qualify as one of the best views in Dorset?” had gone viral. Why? I can’t be sure and I’ve not been able to repeat its success on the same scale.

The ingredients you probably need for a viral message

Nothing can guarantee that your message will go viral – although getting a selfie with the Queen, the Pope or Obama is probably a good bet.

Failing that, I suggest these as the ingredients you need to create an environment where ‘going viral’ could happen.

A biggish audience – going viral is relative. If you have ten followers and your message suddenly reaches 250, you might claim it’s gone viral. But to achieve really big numbers, well into the thousands, means starting with a sizable audience.

An engaged audience – you can get thousands of followers overnight if you buy them, but what you want is people who’ll look at your posts because they’re interested. My Chesil beach photo went viral because it’s what the audience wanted to see.

Consistency – growing that biggish and engaged audience means sharing good quality content on a regular basis. Try to share something every day and stick to a theme.

Do all this and one day you may be taken by surprise when a photo or video you upload suddenly has mass appeal, way beyond what you expect.

It's all relative: is 5,000 retweets viral when you have 7.45m followers?

Two final thoughts about going viral

Firstly, don’t bank on making a fortune, even a small one, from a viral post. It will probably draw in more followers and some additional clicks through to your website, but it won’t make a massive difference unless you can find a way to capitalise on it. Even then, the moment will pass very quickly.

Secondly, I don’t recommend trying to borrow someone else’s ideas or posts in a bid to go viral. I see a lot of people sharing what they consider to be humorous images or videos they haven’t created, in an attempt to go viral and get lots of followers.

This doesn’t work and it won’t help you to build an audience of people genuinely interested in what your business has to share.

There’s no denying that it’s fun when one of your posts unexpectedly goes viral. When it happens, enjoy the moment and by all means, try to learn why it happened and attempt to repeat it.

Chasing after viral success is likely to be a frustrating pursuit of what turns out to be fool’s gold. As in the real world, finding true gold means consistently working on your social media for month after month.

Sign up here to get more social media tips delivered directly to your inbox.

OpinionAndrew KnowlesComment