Why “going viral” is a waste of time
The idea of "going viral" is a comms professional's dream. Having a campaign reach millions and millions of people organically seems like it would tick all the boxes of a PR success.
But, a viral post is not actually all it's cracked up to be, and relying on the attention span of the internet is a risky move. Here are four reasons why relying on the attention span of the internet as your primary comms strategy might not be the best idea.
The internet is a fickle thing. It's really hard to know what will resonate with millions of people, and what will fall flat. In fact, a lot of the things that capture the heart and fancy of the masses tend to be fairly unplanned. Take, for example, the King of Going Viral: Left Shark.
Left Shark was borne out of Katy Perry's 2015 Superbowl Half-Time Show, and is still one of the best examples of why going viral is such a weird, unpredictable, unknowable mess. Left Shark was absolutely everywhere for weeks (possibly months), sold tons of merchandise, and arguably upstaged the biggest popstar in the world on the biggest night of sports of the year. And why? Nobody knows, he's just a costumed shark who sort of lost the plot halfway through the show and danced his way into the internet's heart.
In short, planning to "go viral" is not a reliable PR strategy. With every single company wanting to distinguish itself in some meaningful way, banking on becoming a Twitter #trend or the next great meme is a lot less reliable than consistency and authenticity.
Marketing campaigns that seem to have a lot of viral potential often fall absolutely flat in the age of the internet. In fact, there's an entire Reddit community dedicated to this phenomenon called Fellow Kids, where painfully misguided attempts by comms professionals to connect with "the youths" are roasted to hell.
There has been a push by consumers for brands to be seen as more relatable, real, "authentic". We don't want our companies to just sell us things, we want to be sold by a company that really gets us. And this often manifests itself in very cringe-inducing ways. It's caused corporate PR teams to try and use phrases like "it's lit, fam" and "on fleek" without knowing what those things mean, nor how to use them coherently, in order to connect with the young internet people (all of whom stopped using these phrases years ago).
It's a very delicate balance between being a brand, marketing yourself authentically, but not appearing to be inauthentically authentic, and having your campaign mocked online. It's very difficult to define, and even more difficult to do right.
Take a look at this example from Doritos and Cheetos, who tried to take a page from the Very Cool Brands Who Get Social Media and be flip and edgy and capitalize on the sass Twitter trend:
Now, this Twitter thread had all the makings of a good viral post. It's playful and sharp and sassy and, ultimately, terribly mocked online for being tone-deaf and reaching.
Why is that, when they're just doing the cool Wendy's thing of being funny online? Well, for one, they made the mistake of assuming consumers wouldn't quickly pick up on the faux feud right away. And not every consumer needs to know that they're both Frito-Lay's brands, there just has to be one person to point it out. Commence laughing stock and failed strategy. Because the internet hates disingenuous corporate inauthenticity, and that's all this tweet is.
There are some brands that have figured out the whole social media thing, and how to do it right fairly consistently. That doesn't mean they don't miss the mark, but their social media team has figured out their tone and knows how to use the internet to its advantage. However, those companies who frequently do "go viral" often back up their trending campaigns with more substance and heart than most might realize, which allows them to keep returning to the formula that works for them.
Wendy's is the prime (beef) example of a company that just can't stop going viral. They pretty much pioneered and perfected the sassy corporate persona that has been emulated by many but rarely reproduced. Their social media strategy is actually great for sales as well and has revitalized a brand that has been around for decades.
However, it's clear after looking through their social media strategy, they aren't just there for the shock value. Their brand is consistent, charming, silly, and responsive. They don't only respond to celebrities either, in fact, they spend a lot of their time responding to normal, everyday customers. This has set them apart from other brands, who seem to use social media exclusively for pelting their consumers with ads or blithely responding to complaints.
Yes, Wendy's sass might make their tweets circulate, but their dedication to consistency, engagement, and heart have kept them an internet favorite for years since their first viral moment.
Ben & Jerry's often goes viral for its strong, often intense stance on social issues. They unflinchingly use their brand and global reach to champion causes. But a brand saying they support something falls flat when they don't back it up with, you know, actual action. Putting their money where their mouth is, Ben & Jerry's engages in more than just virtue signaling and pandering, which keeps them an internet favorite time and time again.
What's virtue signaling? Think of pride month. PR and marketing professionals around the world gear up for their month of rainbow imagery and LGBTQ+-themed products. But the internet has caught on to this, and now mocks it relentlessly for the pandering it so often is.
Is it wrong for brands to support social causes? Not at all. But the internet knows the difference between companies that practice corporate social responsibility in a meaningful way and those that use it to garner goodwill without actually using their platform and profits to make any sort of real-world difference in the form of virtue signaling and rainbow-washing.
Airbnb is one big-name brand that has come under heavy criticism for its attempts at viral corporate social responsibility, and its efforts have backfired. Recently they offered to host 20,000 Afghanistan refugees in their listings, which is objectively very cool. How could that be a bad thing?
Many users on Reddit, Twitter, and other social media platforms quickly commented on how this seemingly virtuous move appears more like a stunt than actual humanitarianism. The funding source was called into question (coming from donors, not Airbnb), as well as the fact that the actual responsibility for hosting duties would fall to Airbnb hosts, not the company.
Many also pointed out the fact that this announcement came conveniently close to the Bloomberg exposé that shed light on the more than $50 million Airbnb pays each year to settle legal issues and silence criticisms. Their "viral CSR moment" was upstaged by anger around the company's poor customer service and questionable business practices.
I think we all have that distinct moment of seeing something become a huge, worldwide fad, trying the thing, and then walking away disappointed in the thing. Knowing about something does not mean you will become a lifelong fan, and this is exceptionally true of going viral.
If you aren't backing up your newfound burst of fame with consistent, quality content, then your flash-in-the-pan bump in viewership will disappear as quickly as it came, leaving you the one-hit wonder of the comms world. At the very least, having a strategy for how to capture those clicks and leverage them into fans will provide value for your brand long after the internet has lost interest.
There's nothing at all wrong with wanting your marketing campaign to have reach. In fact, that's literally the point, right? But, earning that distribution through quality content and engagement, through providing value, and through standing behind your product in a meaningful way is a far better way to succeed than "going viral". Focusing on what your brand does well, highlighting those things succinctly, and letting the work speak for itself will endure longer than a trending hashtag ever will. And that's lit, fam.
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