A Guaranteed Way to Go Viral


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For those of you reading this for the first time or just catching up: <synopsis> Mink (our entry-level marketer protagonist) got his first job at Cobblr, a social media network designed to connect people with odd-sized feet so they can go shoe shopping together to save money. During his first day on the job, he was asked to non-intrusively interact with potential followers.</synopsis>

Alright, so on to my complementary editorial piece.

I’m sure that if you’ve ever been in a marketing-specific, client-facing role at a time in your career, you’ve probably been asked to create a viral campaign. Or at the very worst, expected to create a campaign that goes viral. I’ve been there a few times and it’s a “talk-the-client-off-the-ledge” type of scenario.

One particular individual from a client was under the impression that creating viral campaigns was a core piece of any marketing agency’s repertoire. That relationship didn’t last long.

So what makes something go viral? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you exactly– but after seeing quite a few over the years, I can narrow down the similar qualities that each share to give you a better idea on how to at least think about creating one:

  1. Timing and Location: It’s literally everything and probably the hardest piece to nail down. It’s like being struck by lightning– your content needs to be in the right place (media channel, social network, etc.) at the right time. Okay, being electrocuted is more of the wrong place / wrong time scenario, but you get the point.
  2. Incongruity: One of my all-time favorite professors was an honors writing teacher I had in high school. He always preached having “incongruous detail” at the beginning of a writing piece to hook the reader. It’s a technique that places two radically different ideas together and is essentially used to grab the reader’s attention. Viral content has this in spades.
  3. Originality: Has it been done before? You’ll lose a ton of credibility if you repeat what someone else has done (or capitalize on it) — unless you iterate on something that brings a completely new idea to the table.
  4. Legs: Will it last long enough to be shared but not too long so that it drifts into obscurity? Viral campaigns see diminishing returns very quickly upon peaking, so the idea needs to be fleeting, but not too ephemeral. Easy, right?

And while the odds of having something go viral seem to be in one’s favor (2.8 billion people online in the world, an endless supply of Internet cats, puppies, babies, etc.) there are several things wrong with this belief, especially when observed through a business lens:

  1. Just because a lot of people will see whatever the piece of content is, it doesn’t mean that they’re the right people to see it (i.e. your target market)
  2. Even if you do go viral, there’s a chance the element that is so shareable has nothing to do with your core message (or goals). If Old Spice didn’t sell a ton of product after their big break, do you think they would’ve done it again?
  3. You’re competing with millions of other messages out there. Couple that with people’s diminishing attention spans and you’ve got less of a chance to break through, kid.

And there’s more. In fact, there’s so much working against you that you shouldn’t rely on promising viral campaigns and instead just view them as a happy surprise. When it comes to marketing, there’s too much else out there that you can control.

What’s your experience with viral campaigns?

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Al is a marketer at HubSpot, a marketing software company in Cambridge, MA. He is the creator of Mink.

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