In the context of biology, when something is viral it is not a good thing. It is a bad thing, a scary thing, a seemingly out-of-control thing. In the context of marketing, when something is viral, it is a good thing, a positive thing, a brand-building thing. What both of these have in common is the notion that a viral entity is organic, passed from person-to-person, and somewhat out-of-control.
In marketing, a viral campaign is a germ of an idea that quickly becomes bigger than itself as it is shared and spread on the internet and through social media channels. Campaigns that seem to have the best fighting chance of going viral are those embedded with a sense of humor, an element of surprise, a dose of reality, and a sense of greater purpose, while at the same time being very easy to share and spread. Just as in biology, hands (on keyboards) and mouths serve as the fertile breeding ground for any viral marketing campaign.
- Funny Bone
They say that laughter is the best medicine, but in terms of content with a likelihood to be shared virally, funny things are inherently more likely to be shared. Like the ability to tell a good joke, if a marketer has the ability to set its message in the context of humor it has a proven winner. Those that share the piece get to be in on the gag, forwarding it via social media platforms in a “did you hear the one about …” kind of way. Humorous campaigns are even sometimes self-deprecating allowing the brand to make fun of itself in a way that says they’re one of the gang.
Kmart achieved more than 20 million views for “Ship My Pants” (via http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I03UmJbK0lA)
- Shock & Awe
Have you ever watched a video or read a story and the plot is twisted in such a way that it takes you by surprise? The element of surprise (or even shock) can be an important tool in developing viral content. Although the current trend of tabloid style headlines – She thought she was babysitting and then THIS happened – seems like they’ll overstay their welcome (at least on my personal newsfeed), those stories that have that added unbelievable and unexpected twist at the end are likely to be shared over the electronic water cooler.
WestJet surprised its passengers AND 35 million viewers of its Christmas miracle (via http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIEIvi2MuEk)
- Reality, What a Concept
When Andy Warhol famously predicted that “in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” who knew that the future would arrive less than half a century later? The start of the current millennium will be recorded in the tweets, texts, and selfies of the average person. When everyman is the new celebrity, it makes sense that crowdsourcing content has a good chance of spreading. If a person can make her mark on a brand by being part of its campaign, she’ll likely want the world to see what she’s done!
With their Do Us A Flavor campaign, Lay’s crowdsources new flavors while garnering press and impressions (via http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjfH8wJ0zqM)
- Dr. Feelgood
If you can convince yourself that time spent on social media is not all wasted, in fact some of it is spent helping humanity, it feels good. It’s the justification you need for whiling away the day watching YouTube videos or trolling someone else’s Facebook posts. Whether your changing your profile picture to a pink ribbon in the month of October, using a hashtag to share your allegiance to a particular cause, or simply sharing your school fundraiser website, incorporating a philanthropic element to your sharing is sometimes all the justification you need.
More than 20 million people watched Bill Gates dump cold water on his head to raise awareness for Lou Gehrig’s Disease in the global ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (via http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XS6ysDFTbLU)
- That Was Easy
To paraphrase a famous quote from the movie Field of Dreams, if it’s easy they will share. There are many programmers and developers working countless hours behind the scenes figuring out how to make online participation easier for the user. From auto-filling common words, to clicking a “like” button to share a moment, to using an emoticon instead of the laborious activity of putting letters together to form words, ease of use leads to ease of (and increased) participation. When stories are easy to share, they’ll get shared and shared again.