The risks and rewards of going viral

3 May 2018 1:09pm

Since the dawn of the social media age, viral success has been a PR goal. The idea of scoring maximum coverage for little outlay is often too exciting to pass up. But that doesn't mean companies should chase this goal recklessly. There are a huge number of risks, and campaigns designed for viral sharing often run the risk of failure. Actually getting brand content to spread organically requires a little luck - and a careful grasp of the media.

Tracking the influencers
Viral success doesn't spring up out of thin air. The sharing and spread of stories are spearheaded by well-connected personalities, and PR decisions are increasingly involving these influencers. Forbes contributor John Hall recently explained that in 2017 and beyond, organizations will be able to keep better track of the influential voices in their particular fields. By doing so, they can decide where to focus their efforts.

Getting content to draw viral attention likely won't be a one-step process. Trial and error can become PR departments' tactic of choice. Media intelligence makes this possible, with mentions and attribution checked in real time. One campaign that draws some attention can lead to another that specifically targets the main influencers in the industry. Hall specified that once PR professionals have detailed knowledge about how information spreads, they have a much better chance of achieving viral status.

Avoiding the pitfalls

When it comes to viral success and failure, avoiding the latter may be more important than achieving the former. Well-informed PR teams with strong media intelligence components will be able to achieve this goal, while others may stumble.

The Financial Post recently shared an example that all companies should take to heart: A mining company made a crass attempt to achieve viral shares by having bikini-clad models recite facts about the industry. Instead of being shared enthusiastically, the piece drew serious condemnation for what the news source called "a tone-deaf effort to appeal to customers in a traditionally male-dominated industry."

The mining company's loss is others' gain, as The Financial Post gave a few important takeaways from the situation:

  • The business made a mistake by going seriously off-brand. By trying to stand out, it forgot what its products and industry were, and the attempt to go viral was obviously just that. The news source compared obvious plays for viral success to talking oneself up at a party.
  • The second error is not considering that content tends to last forever online. Crass or cheaply produced messages stay associated with a brand name for a long time. This means that creating something substandard in the hope that it will be shared in the short-term may give a company long-term headaches.

What viral content really means

Taking the above lessons to heart may bring about immediate and positive PR change. Companies going for a quick burst of sharing and coverage stand to end up with negative mentions that refuse to fade over time. This is the difference between creating content that goes viral - a good thing - and generating media for the sole purpose of going viral - a risky and negative endeavor.

Ragan's PR Daily made a point to explain that there is a serious lack of specificity in today's PR field about what exactly it means to go viral. The term is vague, and it can be hard to tell what companies want when they explain they are interested in creating a viral hit. This kind of communication vacuum can lead to PR disasters like the one mentioned above, in which hastily made assets draw ire.

Intelligent PR will get results
In the end, the kind of viral hits that define the term - bottled-lightning moments in which individuals spend one exciting minute in the social media spotlight - are not the kinds of things brands can plan for. The process of getting widely shared content by monitoring media and targeting influencers is more methodical and, in the end, more effective.

Organizations attempting to "break the internet" or adding the latest slang term to their communications may seem woefully out of touch in a hurry. Real reach and influence tend to be more about good content and canny distribution than quick and dirty moves outside the company's comfort zone.

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