Most marketers dream of "going viral," but how many of them actually know what going viral means, or what it takes to get there? I've found that viral marketing is a buzzword as much as it is a legitimate strategy, and there are a number of misconceptions about how to achieve it and what it means for a brand that does.
For our purposes, "going viral" here refers to a piece of content's ability to be circulated across many sources and demographics, shared via social media, email, and word of mouth until its audience escalates in the hundreds of thousands (or more). For practical terms of measurement, it's an exceptional piece of content that nets you far, far more shares than your average piece.
With this definition in mind, let's explore some basic truths and persistent misconceptions of "going viral."
Fiction: Going Viral Will Make You a Celebrity
One viral video is not enough to make you a celebrity--at least not for longer than a few minutes. The majority of viral sharers simply give your material a once-over, forming a first impression at the headline level, and click "share" out of instinct. However, this is still valuable because it increases the visibility of your content to more people who are willing to dig deeper. It's far more effective to look at virality as a mechanism for these practical ends than as a gateway to instant Internet stardom.
Fact: Going Viral Earns a Ton of Links
The visibility for your brand is beneficial, but a potentially bigger benefit is the number of links you'll earn for your website. If your piece is shared 10,000 times, and a tenth of those sharers end up citing you as a source for their own piece of content, that amounts to 1,000 new links pointing to your domain (all-natural ones, too). In terms of SEO, that's a huge push, which will earn you compounding, long-term returns of visibility and traffic.
Fiction: You Can Make a Post Go Viral
I'm sorry, but there's no way to force a post to go viral. You simply can't do it. The majority of modern viral content is not specifically intended to go viral, and if you try too hard to push something to your audience, they may become apathetic toward it as a result.
Fact: It's Possible to "Optimize" a Viral Post
However, you can take specific actions to make it more likely for a piece to go viral. To go viral, you need to be absolutely original, offer value to people (either in the form of information or entertainment), add something surprising, and make your piece visually compelling in some way (whether that's impressive videography or an effective article structure). It also helps if your piece has a strong emotional resonance with your target audience.
Fiction: Viral Content Gets Picked Up on Its Own
There's a major misconception that viral content is just sitting around with no views, then suddenly it explodes in popularity on its own. This isn't true. For the most part, viral content is given a strong initial "push" by its publisher; for example, it might be submitted to social bookmarking sites, syndicated on social media, or seeded with paid ads to get it some traction. Only once it reaches this initial circle of readers is it possible for them to push it out further into bigger circles.
Fact: You Only Have to Be There at the Beginning
This isn't to say that you have to force your content to be circulated. Once in the hands of your close circle, if they like it enough to share it to their social circles, their cumulative actions should generate enough momentum to continue the sharing process indefinitely. Think of it like pulling a sled up a hill; it's a lot of work, but once you're there, gravity can take care of the rest.
Fiction: Viral Content Is a Product of Luck
Publishers of viral content have been accused of "getting lucky," before, and it's foolish to suggest that there isn't at least a bit of luck involved in the process. Being in the right place at the right time is crucial, and this isn't always calculable. However, this doesn't mean that luck is the only way content goes viral, or that it's the biggest factor for success.
Fact: Viral Content Is a Product of Work
Instead, most content goes viral because of the hard work that was put into it. Authors dutifully search for the best topics, agonize over the best headlines, perform exhaustive research to pack it full of the best content, and then polish it, sometimes for weeks before making it public. Luck means nothing if the work isn't there to back it up.
Going viral isn't a hail-Mary play, nor is it akin to playing the lottery. At the same time, it's not something you can calculate or predict. So what is it? It's an incredibly beneficial potential result of providing great content with a great sense of timing (and a little bit of luck). To the hard-numbers marketer, this may look like a crapshoot, and I could agree that pursuing viral content circulation alone is unproductive. However, if you put enough work into your material, and truly get to know your audience, there's no reason you can't achieve this in line with the rest of your content strategy.