The Myth of Viral Marketing

just-ask-me-to-make-something-go-viralI once had a potential client tell me outright that she wanted to make a video for a social organization she was founding, and that through Facebook, she could make the video go viral. “I have about 500 friends, and they’ll all like it, and it will go viral.” Sadly, that’s not really how it works. If it were, every college student who ever recorded his friends’ beer-fueled antics would have a viral video on his hands. Luckily, that doesn’t happen too often. 

The “viral” post is the Holy Grail of online media. And yet, if you think about it, very little goes viral because it is positive or inspiring. Videos and posts go viral because they provoke a strong emotional reaction across a broad demographic, and that’s not easy to manufacture. With a few notable exceptions (the “Dove Real Beauty Campaign” for example,) virality happens to the weird, disturbing, laughable, horrible, or controversial. Think about the viral topics and memes you haven’t been able to avoid recently. Poor Miley Cyrus.

Despite what social marketing experts like Jonah Berger want to tell you, there is no real formula for creating viral marketing. What is generally needed is a lot of time, money, and talent. People like to believe that social marketing is free, but it’s not – no more than any other marketing product. Unless someone embarrasses themselves to the benefit of your company, you are going to pay one way or another for the exposure you receive on social media.

Dove Sketch 2 FInalConsider the time, effort, coordination of talent, staging, and production that went into the “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” campaign. It cost Dove a fortune, but clearly that expense was worth it for the multi-national company. Consider also Red Bull’s recent stunt video, “The Athlete Machine.” The scope of this awesomely creative marketing isn’t instantaneous, spontaneous, or cheap. Unless you’ve got some celebrity athletes hanging around, stop focusing on going viral, and create buzz some other way. Focus on creating the best marketing you can, scaled to the audience your business is really trying to reach.

  • So if you have a local business, product, or cause you’re trying to promote, start with your 500 friends. Ask them to share your posts. Ask them to ask their friends to share your posts.
  • Next, engage influential community leaders. Again, just ask for their attention. They might say no, but if your content is well done and your product is worthwhile, chances are they’ll be happy to jump on board.
  • Invest in Google Ads and promoted posts on social platforms – they’re reasonably priced, flexible, and usually worth it.
  • Hit as many social networks as you can. Don’t forget less obvious options like LinkedIn. And don’t post once and disappear. Keep at it, and change up the message. Again, consider your target audience.
  • Track your progress, identify where you gain momentum, and reward those who show your content love with open thanks and mutual exposure.

Despite what you might think, a good social marketing campaign is not instant or easy. Start local, and then work, work, work to inspire the positive attention you want. You will generate good will and exposure, and unlike most viral media, that’s never a bad thing.

Darlene McCarty Cohn

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