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Marketing Takeaways From All Things 'Viral'

Posted on Thu, January 1,2015 @ 11:44 AM

When something goes “viral” on the Internet, it spreads exponentially like its namesake contagion. Hundreds of thousands – or even millions – will almost spontaneously view a video on YouTube, like or share something on Facebook, or “retweet” a photo or tweet on Twitter.

Ellen Degeneres’ Oscars “selfie” photo, for instance, has been "retweeted" 3.5 million times in just two weeks. A story posted about a UPS driver who helped save a man’s life has garnered over 800,000 “likes” and 40,000 “shares” on UPS’ Facebook page. And if you want to see videos that captured the hearts and minds (and shares and views) of millions, look no further than YouTube for the “Charlie Bit Me” home video (13.3 million views) or Chipotle’s masterful “The Scarecrow” short film (12.3 million viewers).

This phenomena, made possible with the social media boom and the “everyone’s connected” Internet Age, has become a holy grail of sorts for marketers, a get-discovered vehicle for others (Kardashian, Bieber) and self-fulfilling chum for the social media vanguard.

It’s morphed from dumb luck on one end of the spectrum to clever science on the other. Marketing gurus today have reverse-engineered enough viral sensations to actually arrive at “do’s” and “don’ts” for creating your viral bit.

For instance, a quick search of “viral” on the Internet revealed 10 tips and tactics for going viral, 15 tips for creating a viral video, and five viral “killers.” Among the do’s:

  • Focus on current events and trends
  • Pay attention to keywords and tags
  • Start a contest
  • User humor
  • Get noticed by someone big
  • Be shocking and controversial
  • Use photos and visual content

Among the viral killers (or don’ts):

  • Lack of emotional appeal
  • Not share worthy
  • Bad timing
  • Poor design
  • Poor distribution

And one could add “stupid idea” to either list. Most bad ideas never go viral, but some, unfortunately do, like Chevrolet’s Tahoe “Roll Your Own Commercial” campaign that allowed viewers to build their own commercials. Instead of paying homage, many participants created ads that attacked the vehicle for being a gas guzzler, having safety challenges and so on. Chevy shut down the site in a week, but some of the caustic commercials live in infamy on YouTube.

What’s most interesting about the tips for making viral videos is that with few  exceptions, those tips mirror the advice one would give to anyone making a marketing video. Check out their pointers:

  • Create a tight script (three minutes or less)
  • Hook your audience in the first 30 seconds
  • Share a story, make a personal connection
  • Make the viewer the hero
  • Make the viewer act (call to action)
  • Focus on emotion
  • Generate reactions
  • Use smart typography
  • Use dynamic music
  • Brand it

Two tips do stray slightly from more traditional marketing to more viral-oriented: don’t be afraid to polarize, and use your social network to create a herd effect. In fact, if one could pinpoint two differentiating tactics of viral marketing efforts in general, they would likely identify 1) targeting social media platforms (duh) and 2) creating content that seeks to polarize, shock or be controversial.

More often, what worked for the viral examples also works for marketing across all media. Three commonalities that help spawn viral successes – the content is shareable, it tells a story or it’s simply remarkable – are laudable goals for any marketing initiative, from a product brochure to event listings.

A blog says: “Compelling content hinges on one key detail: its sharability.” It explains further that people want to seem smart, so if a particular piece of content makes the sharer look smart, cool or the first to find, they are going to share it. Shareable content might be visual and informative (infographics), funny (K-Mart’s “I can ship my pants”), funny and smart (like the Oatmeal’s piece on Tesla) or trendy (“tebowing,” “planking,” etc.).

Often, the shareable content tells a story. Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at, advised marketers to focus beyond their wares to the bigger story. In a recent blog, she wrote: “How does your product or service live in the world? How does it help people? Shoulder their burdens? Ease their pain? Your story is always about the people who use the thing you sell, not about the thing itself. Cast your customer as the hero – not you or your product.”

In so many viral examples – Chipotle’s Scarecrow, Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches,” RedBull’s live “space leap” event, Microsoft Internet Explorer’s “Child of the 90s,” and Nike’s Ronaldinho ad – that’s exactly what the marketers accomplished.

Of course, remarkable content drives most great marketing and much of what becomes viral (though for the latter, it appears there will always be room for the occasional drunken tweets, video bloopers and really bad music videos). Great writing, compelling design, engaging photos and inspired videos seem to garner an audience much faster than the alternative.

If you would like to share your thoughts on the viral phenomena and marketing in general, please use the Comments section below. If you have questions about ABC Signup or online registration software, feel free to call toll-free (866.791.8268 ext. 0) or e-mail us anytime.



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