Not all press is good press. While going viral on social media can bring outsized attention to your brand, the reason why your business is suddenly generating interest matters. Are you under scrutiny for something you did well on social media — or something you did wrong? That’s the dilemma with social media marketing.
Done well, going viral on social media can help increase brand awareness, expand your target market and boost revenue. But a bad marketing campaign that goes viral can send your business into a tailspin, alienating your core audience and causing a quick dip in profits. Some public relations (PR) mistakes can even kill your business altogether. To understand the tightrope companies have to walk better, we’re breaking down what exactly viral marketing is, how to create successful campaigns and how to avoid going viral for the wrong reasons.
Viral marketing explained
Going viral involves an online marketing campaign typically executed on social media. The marketing campaign reaches popularity with your target audience quickly but then becomes so engrossing that even people outside your core demographic are viewing and interacting with the campaign. This contagion of views, likes, shares and hopefully purchases can happen if your campaign is creative, thought-provoking or, sometimes, just a happy accident.
One of the reasons companies often hope to go viral is because it’s a cost-effective way of getting attention for their businesses. After your upfront expenses, such as paying staffers to create the campaign or setting up paid ads on social media sites, it’s social media users who do all the legwork. Their views, likes and shares bring more attention to whatever it is you posted. Think of it like word-of-mouth marketing but, instead of a consumer verbally telling another about this great thing they saw, the person is indicating their enjoyment and spreading the word via social media engagement tools.
In the ideal situation, your campaign snowballs and the attention it receives grows exponentially. However, because your campaign went viral on social media doesn’t mean it’s getting all that attention and engagement for a good reason. Did your post include an embarrassing mistake? Did you use offensive language, even unintentionally? It’s not only creativity and positive reactions that send content viral — mockery and outrage do too. To protect your brand reputation, it’s vital to follow some best practices when attempting a viral marketing campaign.
An attempt at a viral marketing campaign can backfire if your efforts receive attention for negative reasons.
How to create a successful viral marketing campaign
There is no guaranteed process for ensuring your marketing campaign goes viral and does so for the right reasons. However, there are some strategies you can employ to increase your likelihood of success.
Showcase your authority.
With all the misleading information one can find on the internet, people are craving genuine expertise. A strong viral marketing campaign should educate users and make clear why you are the authority on this subject. If your content contains accurate, thought-provoking information, it’s more likely social media users will want to share it.
Appeal to emotional intelligence.
Think about the videos, memes and photos you see on social media. The ones that receive the most likes and reposts typically are ones that evoke an emotion. Whether the content makes people laugh, cry or pause to think, your marketing campaign needs to appeal to their emotional intelligence. Businesses that can connect emotionally with customers are more likely to establish long-lasting relationships.
Keep in mind the emotion you’re sparking and why — it’s OK to provoke anger as long as the anger isn’t at your business. Your marketing campaign should emphasize how you can help solve the situation that is making the user upset.
Embrace current trends.
Tracking social media trends can help you understand the ever-changing online climate and the type of content and topics users are most interested in consuming. Do research not only on specific trends in your company’s niche but also on the pop culture events making headlines. Is there an authentic way to tie these together? Discern which trends are relevant for your industry, mission and target audience. Not all of them will be appropriate for your business. Keep in mind the risks of hopping on a social media bandwagon that doesn’t fit your brand.
Study your competitors’ viral content for inspiration but be careful not to copy their style exactly. It certainly won’t help your brand if a rival business publicly accuses you of stealing their ideas.
Include strong CTAs.
It may seem obvious but remember to ask people to share your content or take some other action, such as heading to your website for a 50 percent discount on an order. Your campaign posts should include a clear call to action (CTA) that encourages the user to do something and tells them how. If your content is worth taking an action, keep people from scratching their heads on how to do so.
How to avoid going viral for the wrong reasons
Even the most researched marketing campaigns can go viral for the wrong reasons. To avoid a PR nightmare, consider the following tips before posting.
When your goal is to go viral, your marketing campaign may involve content that’s provocative — so much so that it crosses a line. Before you launch, consider all possible reactions, good and bad. You can even gather employees to view the campaign and get their thoughts before you move forward. Having a cross-cultural team and soliciting their input can reduce the odds of making a marketing mistake that offends a particular group. In case the public interprets your campaign differently than intended, have a damage-control response ready to go.
Understand your target audience.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hope of reaching millions of people with a viral marketing campaign. But does it matter how many people see your campaign if they’ll never interact with your brand again? Your marketing efforts still need to be geared toward your ideal customer, the consumers you expect to convert. If you stray too far from your target audience’s wants and needs, your attempts at appealing to the masses could alienate the customers that matter most and cause them to turn on you. [Check out the questions to ask before connecting with your audience on social media.]
Don’t focus only on views.
Going viral doesn’t necessarily mean your marketing campaign was successful. It can be very exciting to see your view count increase, but that metric can be just as much an indicator of your efforts being received negatively as positively. Plenty of videos have racked up millions of views on social media but were watched for bad reasons instead of good.
Furthermore, views don’t indicate the campaign’s impact on your bottom line. The real question is, how much revenue — or new customers or whatever your goal is — did you gain after your few days of social media fame? A viral marketing campaign is only successful if the audience completes your CTA and achieves its objective.
Always judge your viral success based on money in hand. If a viral campaign fails to produce new customers and increased sales, rethink how your next campaign can bring in more return on investment (ROI). Consider these tips for measuring and improving your marketing results.
Understand the customer is always right.
It pays to be transparent in business and that includes when owning up to mistakes — even if you don’t think it was a mistake at all. As well-intentioned as your marketing campaign may be, the public may disagree and call it out. Respect and acknowledge their opinions. If you’re getting negative attention because your campaign isn’t going over well, doubling down and defending it will only bring more bad publicity. If your business goes viral for the wrong reasons, try to mitigate the damage. Admit that your company made an error in judgment, explain what you’re doing to correct the situation and outline how you will do better in the future.
Beef up your servers.
If you’re expecting your marketing campaign to bring an influx of traffic to your organization’s website, you must ensure your server technology can handle the wave of traffic. Consider the nightmare situation Ticketmaster found itself in in 2022: The company first went viral for promoting a new way of obtaining tickets for Taylor Swift’s highly anticipated concert tour, but when the organization’s website couldn’t handle the crush of users attempting to make purchases, Ticketmaster went viral again for letting people down and not fulfilling its promised services. Consider what technology needs to be upgraded in advance of your campaign to ensure the attention that going viral brings doesn’t become your undoing.
Limit access to your social media accounts.
Entrust your company’s social media administration to a small number of employees or a reputable third-party company that can run your marketing campaigns. While the genesis of a viral marketing campaign may be a large group effort, limiting who has access to your social media accounts can decrease the chances of getting hacked — or of a disgruntled employee toying with your campaign or social media profiles in an act of revenge. Numerous companies have found their perfectly curated feeds disrupted by a rogue worker posting inappropriate messages, as was infamously the case at the New York Post in 2022. [Read related article: Small Business Guide to Hiring a Social Media Manager]
Hit the right note.
Some cringey brand fails on social media are the result of posts coming across as tone-deaf and out of touch. In addition to having staffers review your marketing campaign before publishing it, take some extra time to consider what else is occurring on your planned launch day. Did a natural disaster or some other significant tragedy take place recently? You may be better off postponing your campaign than posting something that goes viral not because it’s so great but because you’ve inadvertently come off as heartless due to your timing, prompting the masses to pummel your brand on social media. When it is appropriate to publish, you may need to change the language of your campaign to take into account recent events.