Viral marketing: What does it take to go viral

By Stephen Osomba – July 22, 2022

There’s that one goal, the holy grail, we relentlessly endeavour to achieve in the course of our careers before riding off to retirement. For many marketers, that would be planning and executing a successful campaign that not only goes viral but results in an unprecedented return on investment. Indeed, getting such results is a sure way of inking one’s name in the marketer’s hall of fame.

Almost every marketing professional in the field has tried to go viral in one way or the other in their promotional efforts. You’ll be a true legend indeed. While all dreams are valid, what does it really take for your piece of content marketing to go viral in the new age of information overload? Well, it’s trickier than what most practitioners have been led to believe.

Before getting into the details, it is important to note that social media and other technologies have set the perfect conditions for content engagement and consumption. Today, we have access to myriad online channels where companies and individuals alike can interact in real-time, boundlessly. But the hyper-connectivity and channel fragmentation has made it difficult for people to concentrate.

There’s just so much content being churned out every second. No sane person can keep up with all information from today’s online media factory. This means that marketers, even their counterparts in public relations, must ensure that their content stands out. So, what can you do to cut through all the noise and improve the chances of making your content go viral? Below are five factors that will determine whether your content is likely to go viral or dead in the water.

1. Influencer/Public Figure
Previously relegated to the peripheries, influencers have now become an integral part of marketing. They inform, educate, and inspire their followers. Given their clout, they are in a pole position of shaping public conversations and perceptions. A good example that comes to mind straight away is Elon Musk. He’s very influential to the extent that he has been barred by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from commenting on substantial issues relating to Tesla. The comments have to be reviewed by the legal department before he posts them.

His unmoderated hot takes can swing stock prices like a pendulum in a physics lab. Thus, your content is likely to go viral if shared by a renowned influencer or public figure. It is also possible when shared by several people who have a large following on various social media platforms. But first, they must find it amusing or valuable.

2. Social Currency
As humans, we like things that make us look good in the eyes of other people. The principle of social currency hinged on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. It is inherent in us to seek recognition, respect, status, and a sense of connection. That is why a platform like Instagram does so well when promoting luxurious products and services.

People like to send out success signals and the resulting projection of doing better, real, or fake, is what truly matters in today’s competitive society. By leveraging these mechanics, you can ensure that your content reflects positively on and enhances the social standing of that sharing. Consider, for example, an unknown promotional deal in a luxurious city restaurant.

3. Triggers
News jacking is now a critical tactical component in viral marketing. Most agencies are constantly monitoring the social media landscape to identify the latest trends that can be taken advantage of in promoting a product or brand. You are probably familiar with the Don’t Rush Challenge that was so popular that it transcended TikTok, its origin, and went on to become a huge social cultural trend on Twitter and YouTube. It was a perfect opportunity for fashion brands.

A word of caution, though: always consider the context and ride the wave whenever possible. Of course, not all trends will be relevant. Therefore, be extremely judicial when choosing events to jack. The popular events will act as triggers since the audience can easily relate. Don’t be putting all manner of hashtags in a bid to gain views. If your content is truly exceptional, it will, certainly, go viral.

4. Emotion
The other factor you need to consider is emotion. Emotions are powerful and can help your content go viral in a blink. The content shared must invoke feelings, be it positive or negative. When people care about something, they tend to share so that other people can also get a chance to experience the thrill. If it is exceptionally captivating, it will criss-cross all the alleys of the internet.

For instance, at the time of writing this piece, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is running a campaign on ocean pollution and climate change where they are showing images of marine animals killed by plastic pollutants. The images are moving and can easily generate feelings of compassion (for unwarranted wildlife deaths) as well as anger (against reckless disposal of waste). Well told stories, for example, would be perfect vessels for triggering emotions. So, think through the emotional reaction that you intend to invoke from the public, and infuse those specific emotions into your content seamlessly. Remember to relate to the context.

5. Practical Value
To push the content through to virality, it must be valuable. As earlier mentioned, there are millions of pieces of information being published every day. It is not humanly possible to keep up with everything. That’s why you need to share content that delivers practical value. Give people information that will help them improve their quality of life. They can then push onwards it to their networks, eventually achieving viral status. It could be health, financial, or business tips. When doing so, make sure that the content is welcoming and enticing.

Final Thoughts
Certainly, there is so much involved in getting a piece of content, be it a meme or shot video, to go viral. I’m sure as a marketing practitioner, you must have met clients who are hell-bent on having all their social media posts go viral. But from experience, you know that it is no easy feat, given the degree of dynamism in popular culture.

Most viral content that I have witnessed are usually unintended. Indeed, most people tend to be generally lucky when their content is shared everywhere across the internet. You can meet all the factors yet still fail. But if you ask me, a share by a renowned influencer or public figure is the surest way to go viral. Although, that doesn’t mean that you neglect the key ingredients of a viral content. Emotion, practical value, triggers, and social currency are prerequisites for your content to go viral.

Stephen Osomba currently serves as the Lead Partner, Communication & Marketing at SMD Consulting Associates where he helps SME clients deliver value by adjusting the solutions to each company's mission, product, strategy, and industry.