The Reality Of “Going Viral”: It’s Not A Meritocracy



It’s the punch line to every social media joke: “It will go viral.” While some of your campaigns may very well go viral, or get a high degree of sharability, the reality is that viral campaigns comprise less than 1% of all campaigns run at a given time. Add to that the capriciousness of what constitutes vitality and the ability to go negatively viral, and the prospects don’t look terrific for your “plan to go viral.”

Is Going Viral Realistic? Is it Always Optimal?

The idea that a campaign, video, tweet, or photo will go viral by design is not realistic. While you should test your campaigns with fresh eyes, and try to build in surprise and delight (or surprise and thought/action), you can never be assured a campaign will go viral. This is because just as optimal marketing is a 1:1 conversation between a brand and a potential customer where the right message is delivered to the right person at the right time, when you deliver a viral campaign to a conversation your potential audience is having, it might not hit anyone at the right time.

Virality depends on amplifiers – people who follow you who will get the ball rolling by sharing your content with their large or highly engaged follower base. You might not catch them at the right time. You might catch them, but they aren’t impressed with your message, or worse, they have an aversion to it. Countless social media campaigns from HUGE brands like McDonalds have suffered from the other side of going viral.

The Difference between Viral, High Sharability, and the Long Tail

Viral is an anomaly that you can’t predict. (The most popular tweets of 2013 included Lea Michele thanking fans for their support, Niall Horan celebrating his birthday, and Boston PD announcing that a bomb had gone off at the Marathon site.) None of these could have been planned, but they struck a chord because of what was happening in the Zeitgeist at the time.

High sharability is a post that gets great traction because it has broad appeal to a more targeted audience. This is the sweet spot of social media – it can be planned and is repeatable. High sharability posts will benefit from smaller bouts of sharing over time as well, also known as the long tail. Instead of trying to grasp for “virality,” you should build posts and campaigns for high sharability

Planning for High Sharability

You can plan high sharability. You can use a combination of data and current events, and If you pull data from your previous campaigns, you will see patterns that will tell you what kinds of messages resonate.

  1. Pull your data and gain insight: Look back up to a year in the past to see what your fans and followers responded most positively to, whether it was a campaign tagline, or the tone of a post, and make note of these trends. They will inform your campaign.
  2. Marry that data with current events and trending topics: Look around at what’s happening in the news, pop culture, and on Twitter. What trends can you knit your campaign into that make sense, and will make people share your unique take on or response to? Make note of the types of posts that get the most shares. Are they images, videos, links? Consider building your campaign to suit these preferences.
  3. Plan for the most common objections/comments: You will never completely escape controversy, but you can escape tone deafness. If you are going to comment on something happening in the news or pop culture, ask people for their honest responses to your campaign before it goes live. Plan responses for the most commonly raised objections, and be ready in case the objections materialize.
  4. Leave room for changes in messaging: If you chain your campaign really tightly to a current trend, you may have to turn your ship around too fast if that story goes bad. Have a few different ideas to use that you can execute on quickly to prevent this.
  5. Execute and remain involved in your campaign: Once you’ve done your best to plan for sharability, release your campaign in the wild. Try to use your data to release your campaign when the bulk of your followers will be online to see it and share. Consider talking to your most influential followers ahead of time to get their help seeding your campaign

The Gift of the Long Tail

One thing you will notice with any campaign that has high sharability is that you will usually experience a bump of shares that tapers off to smaller bumps, and eventually has a longer, low-level of shares that will persist for weeks or even months (some long tail blog posts even persist for years, depending upon how they appear in Google listings).

Creating a positive viral campaign is less likely than winning the lottery, but with careful planning and a data-informed approach, you can achieve high sharability with your campaigns and sustain the sharability over a longer time than a viral hit ever could.


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