"Going Viral" Is a Garbage Doo Doo Phrase

I was talking with a creator about their current campaign and one of their biggest frustrations was how four different "viral" marketing services they signed up for didn't do crap. 

FOUR "viral" marketing platforms couldn't get the job done. That much unimpressiveness is impressive!

The key to that failure, as I'm sure you've guessed from my excessive "use" of "quotation marks" is the word "viral". (Don't worry, there's a reason behind my quote madness, wait for it.)

When I'm talking with a campaign who uses the word "viral" in the first few sentences, I know we've got a long way to go for their marketing. While yes, getting lots of eyeballs and attention to a campaign is vital, hearing the phrase "Viral" is a sign that a campaign is looking for a quick fix because they have a weak, or no, customer base.

"Viral" has become a catch all term meaning low effort high reward, and hell everyone wants that, so everyone is selling that they're "viral".

Any campaign looking for a quick fix can easily find a million different platforms promising "viral" growth, from email referral campaigns to pre-purchased backer lists. The problem with these services is they're generally focused on quantity, not quality, and many of these leads are either not interested in your project at all, or interested only in the discounts/freebies they'd get from your campaign. Customers who only want you for your discounts are not who you should focus your time on, they're in it for the short-term only. And all of these short-term, low quality customers are sold to you with the promise that they're "viral".

But wait, you say, how can "viral" be all bad? What about the RompHim campaign which went "viral" to the point of being turned into a meme?

If you're not familiar with the project, ACED Design released a line of pastel rompers, targeted at uber-Bros, and currently has raised over $300k thanks to an effective PR strategy of starting controversy. Men’s Health was virulently against it, with the headline “Dude Rompers Are the Stupidest Thing Ever Created”. ATTN took the opposite approach about how the RompHim is “Forcing a Conversation About Masculinity”. No matter what position the publication took, there was a link to the Kickstarter campaign right at the top of every single article. Delicious. 

If this campaign went "viral" in all sense of the word, and it's making sweet sweet moneydollars by doing so, why is" going viral" still a garbage doo doo phrase?

It's about definition.

What actually is "Viral"?

Kelsey Libert and Kristin Tynski write one of the most clear and meaningful definitions I've seen in their Harvard Business Review article on "viral" media.

They define "Viral" as having a Viral Coefficent > 1. "For the sake of simplicity, viral coefficient can be thought of as the total number of new viewers generated by one existing viewer. A viral coefficient above 1 means the content has viral growth and is growing, and a coefficient below 1 means that sharing growth is diminishing."

(Now that we've actually defined viral correctly, let's drop the quotation marks. Rejoyce!)

I love this definition since it ties the word back to what it originally meant, content that spreads faster than expected, instead of a catch-all garbage doo doo phrase. We can also think of the viral coefficient as velocity of a view.

Effective content slips and slides from one viewer to another with little effort like a greased up water wiggly. .

So that leaves us with the question, how do we grease our water wiggly?


Let's talk about feeeeeeeeleeeeeengs

Viral media darlings Buzzfeed is one of the pioneers of reliably generating content that goes viral, and it's not an accident. Ze Frank, head of Buzzfeed's video division bases their entire approach on identity, emotion, and sharing content as communication.

While your Facebook newsfeed as of late probably doesn't have the swarm of Buzzfeed articles like it used to in 2013-2015, this identity & emotion based appeal was so powerful that Facebook itself had to adjust their content algorithm to stop these posts from organically taking over users' news feeds.

Let's look at another piece of viral media, in this case a single campaign that went viral in the best sense of the word. Fracttl's  Perceptions of Perfection campaign, which featured one female model being photoshopped to match the beauty standards of sixteen different countries. The campaign earned nearly 600 unpaid placements in media.

"The success of this campaign relied on a unique idea and a highly targeted outreach strategy: We visualized data that every human can relate to and published our exclusive on a site (BuzzFeed) with a readership that is one of the largest demographics suffering from body issues. Queue a massive emotional response and viral syndication of our campaign," says the Fractl staff.
(full strategic breakdown of the campaign here, it's a great read.)

So if emotion is the key, how do we make sure it lands correctly?

Back in the Harvard Business Review, Kelsey Libert and Kristin Tynski codified the three esssentials of viral content as:
1. Strong headline
2. Maximize emotional excitement quickly
3. Ensure the content connects with the right emotions.

Strong headline and quick emotional connection are simple fundamentals of marketing, although that doesn't mean they're always followed. But the nuance of this breakdown is in the third point, connecting with the right emotions.

How do we know what the right emotions are for connecting?

Thankfully, we have data to guide us.

Not all emotions are created equal.

If you’re trying to give your campaign video some teeth, it helps to choose emotions more likely to lead to viral shares. In the HBR article, researchers found that the emotions of curiosity, amazement, interest, astonishment, admiration, and uncertainty were significantly more likely to be shared compared to other emotions. Two studies carried out by Katherine Milkman & Jonah Berger confirm this.

That being said, negative emotions like fear or anger can still lead to viral shares as long as the strength of the emotion is intense enough.  

So where does that leave us when it comes to generating viral content?

Obviously, no one can guarantee something going viral because emotions can't be perfectly predicted, but here's what the experts are saying are the most important factors that, if gotten right, enable a piece of content to go viral.

1. Choose a strong emotion likely to convert to extra views

2. Write an effective headline that triggers one of these emotions

3. Have an emotional hook within the first 5 seconds of your video / content

This takes time, thought, and often money. It's not a quick fix to generate something that resonates with potential backers, so when someone tries to sell you a product or service that's "viral", make sure you know whether or not they've got quotation marks around the word.

Make sure you go viral and not "viral".