The Viral Infection


Somehow the word viral has transformed from something that you hoped and prayed your doctor would never say to you into a marketing buzzword. And even though brands now associate the word “viral” with success, if you look closely you will notice that viral, while having its benefits isn’t an effective replacement for quality storytelling and content marketing.

So what is viral? A viral video is generally a video or some piece of digital content that has millions of views online. Everything from South Korean pop stars to cats playing piano has gone viral, and while viral videos certainly make a splash they generally lack one key component to beneficial marketing: staying power.

Viral videos are also a bit of a misnomer, as a quick google search for viral brand campaigns will pull up a number of marketing and advertising blogs and media outlets featuring articles listing the most successful viral videos of all time. The first thing any savvy marketer or even consumer notices is that there are very few examples of small unknown companies creating viral videos that create a big buzz. Most of the featured content is all advertising created by brands that put millions and millions of dollars behind their marketing and advertising efforts. In short, it would be truly a viral video if your local dry cleaner made a piece of digital content that hit a million plus views and drew attention from media outlets, as the sharing and interaction with the piece of content would be organic. However, when a company like Old Spice has millions of views on a piece of content, it isn’t so much luck or quality content that is causing it to be seen or shared, but a large marketing effort with a giant budget behind it.

So what can small to medium-sized businesses do? The first thing any business that doesn’t have a multi-million dollar marketing budget can do is forget the word viral. Instead, focus on the word value. Attempting to create viral content is a good way to waste money and effort that could be invested in sustainable marketing efforts that support your brand story and key marketing initiatives. By building valuable content you are also serving your customers and clients valuable content that will help build brand loyalty and result in long term revenue streams.

In the digital age it is becoming more and more important for brands and marketing agencies to understand that placing a high value on quality content is essential for success. Marketing and advertising is no longer a static medium as digital platforms have allowed for companies to meet their consumers at whatever part of the buying cycle they are in, another thing that viral campaigns miss all together. If you plan accordingly, are using analytics correctly and have a strong strategy in place you could see ROI for years without allocating the resources it would take to actually create one “viral” piece of content, which in the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the internet would have an extremely short shelf life. 

If one of your campaigns or pieces of content happens to go viral, that is awesome and you should celebrate your success. However, if your goal is to go viral instead of focusing on a long-term content strategy, there is a good chance you are setting yourself up for failure. As Craig Key said in his pivotal SXSW presentation Viral Sucks and I paraphrase, instead of hoping for luck, let’s plan for success.