Going Viral is Infectious
“To be or not to be,” deliberated Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare’s famous play. While the reference might be too dated for today’s digital age to pay heed to, it is something worth considering when brands decide to go “viral” or, at least, create viral content. Fortunately – or unfortunately – they can spare themselves the dilemma simply because virality isn’t a choice. While this might seem obvious, advertising experts would have us believe otherwise with some clients still asking them for “viral videos.”
“There’s no right formula or recipe; there are a few boxes you tick. Virality is not something we can guarantee. If someone could guarantee it, they would be in the place of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg,” says Fadi Khater, founder and managing partner of digital marketing agency Netizency. And if even Jobs and Zuckerberg couldn’t figure out the formula to virality, then there’s a good chance it doesn’t exist. Wait a minute But while brands clamour for virality, it’s probably best to take a moment to understand what the term really means. The term “viral marketing” originated way back in the 90s and has since emerged, evolved and changed. Ema Linaker, regional director, Holler/Leo Burnett, calls virality a “loaded word” saying that what people really mean by virality is a piece of content “that a lot of people paid attention to”. For Richard Fitzgerald, regional director and head of social media at Mindshare MENA, virality is a blurry area. He reflects back to 2008 and 2009 when viral content was something that was shared through emails in offices, but today, it is “blurring the lines between paid, owned and earned media” and this balance is “crucial to virality today,” he says.
As the concept of virality changes, UM’s business unit director, Antoine Challita, is losing track of what the term means. He says that virality made sense years back when social media was niche, but as social platforms become mainstream, there’s more content now than ever before – by brands, publishers and users. And as the sheer volume of content increases, it’s more and more important for brands to first make their content discoverable and then relevant to readers, just to create an opportunity for readers to share it.
“So unless we’re changing the definition, virality is obsolete and we’re headed toward shareability,” he says. To further distinguish between the two concepts, he says “virality was simply the fact that we were consuming content at a massive scale.” Today, as exemplified by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, people are not just consuming content, they are also creating their own content and sharing it. “It’s no longer as passive as virality was,” he adds. So if the idea of virality has changed – by definition and function – why are we still talking about it?
“Viral marketing is something that will al- ways be talked about, mainly due to the fact that there is no magic ingredient or recipe to make it happen,” says Alexandra Maia, head of social media at TBWA’s Digital Arts Network (DAN). More importantly, the industry needs to keep talking about it because “brands and agencies need to learn and understand what it really means and that a ‘viral marketing’ stunt is not an easy way out when there are no budgets available,” she says.
While there has been a change from the concept of virality to one of shareability, even the traditional idea of virality seems to be evolving. Maia says that in 2011, YouTube weblebrity Kevin Nalty, aka “Nalts”, said that a few years ago a video could be considered viral if it hits a million views but in 2014 he updated that definition to say that a “viral” video is one that gets more than five million views in a three-to seven-day period. False impressions Interestingly, even the “Viral Video Genius” Nalty speaks of viral content in the context of videos. Why is it that when one speaks of creating a viral piece of content they naturally tend to say “viral video”?
Another misconception associated with virality is the idea that it spreads organically. Due to the clutter and algorithms of social media platforms, for a piece of content to reach a substantial audience – who may or may not share it – there needs to be media involved in one form or another. Magic ingredients
What leads to a piece of content being successful, if not viral. It could be Relevance, Association or Provocation.
These three main ingredients should work “in theory” but there isn’t any guarantee. The content needs to be relevant – be it based on geography or occasion – it should be some- thing out of the ordinary if not provocative or controversial and lastly, it has to be something people want to associate themselves with or represent – whether that’s sounding intellectual by talking about political issues or happy and fun.
Other factors in this context could also be Brand, Consumer or Emotional Relevance and Platform.
First and foremost, the brand should think about the message it wants to communicate and how and if it is relevant to the consumer – irrespective of whether it’s shareable or not.
At the 2013 Oscars, host Ellen DeGeneres asked Meryl Streep to take a selfie with her that would be as monumental as Streep’s 18 Oscar nominations. Clicked with a Samsung Galazy, the selfie ended up being probably even more monumental than Streep’s nominations as other stars gathered around to take a picture that ended up crashing Twitter, due to the unprecedented high activity.
The tweet went on to become the most popular tweet of all time with 3.35 million retweets and 2.02 million favourites. It was later discovered that the selfie was part of a $20 million paid sponsorship by Samsung. To show their gratitude to DeGeneres, the brand decided to donate $3 million to two of her favorite charities, thus generating further media attention.