Why (free) viral marketing is a myth

There’s been something nasty going around the Fluid offices (and workplaces in general, apparently) that I like to call ‘the employee lurgy’; it’s basically a combination of a stomach bug, the flu and the Black Death and takes down anyone who dares to set foot into an office in the transitional period between summer and autumn. It could be said that ‘the employee lurgy’ has ‘gone viral’.

In case you didn’t guess from the pulled hamstrings you’ve sustained from my massive leap in logic, I’m going to be talking about viral marketing in this post. More specifically, I’m going to be talking about the most enduring myth about viral marketing – that it’s free.

But let’s start at the beginning; what is viral marketing? In the eyes of most people, it’s when an artistic work becomes massively popular through the word of mouth alone. Here’s a rough example:

  • Young person in bedroom does a funny parody of a song
  • The ‘internet’ (that’s the collective term for people on the internet, rather than the actual internet) latches onto to funny parody. They begin sharing it with friends. Their friends share it with their friends. Then further. It’s like an amoeba, really.
  • ‘Twitter’ (that’s the collective term for everyone on Twitter, rather than the Twitter platform) latches onto the viral thing and shares it around. Someone famous RTs it. Things get wild.
  • Views of the viral thing go through the roof. Parodies of the parody emerge. Saturday Night Live/Jimmy Kimmel/your local pub do a version. Everyone laughs.
  • A week later, everyone is bored but money has been made, links have been built and awareness has been raised. Hooray!

Famous examples include the ‘Harlem Shake’ (in which people jumped around to a rubbish song in funny outfits; it was hilarious), ‘Gangnam Style’ (in which a Korean rapper did a funny dance), most Daily Mail articles (seriously guys, they’re doing it on purpose!) and Hitler ranting about everything from Xbox Live to the new Trivium album. There are about a thousand others too, most of whom star in this clip from South Park:

This phenomenon has led many marketers to champion viral marketing as the way forward and it’s not hard to see why; from a company’s perspective, viral marketing only requires content to be created and then pushed through free channels to millions of people. For regular Joes, viral marketing is democracy at its finest; the people choose what is popular rather than popularity being defined by who has the biggest marketing budget.

Unfortunately for millions of companies and regular Joe, all of the above is a big fat lie. Making content go viral involves spending lots of money, and the viral videos and content you cherish will often have major financial backing from some big media players. So much for democracy, eh?

To make matters even worse, investing a lot of money into trying to make something ‘go viral’ has no guaranteed financial return. There’s not even any guarantee of success. You’re Captain Ahab and virality is Moby Dick, constantly tormenting you and occasionally ripping off the odd limb.

But say you do want to chase the viral dream. What exactly would you need? Here’s a wee list, compiled from some of the internet’s ‘classic’ viral moments.

A highly talented creative team

The ‘homespun’ and off-the-cuff nature of viral content makes it extremely appealing to people, especially when compared to elitist ‘traditional media’. Often, viral content is recorded on a handheld cam or published on a small blog. It’s away from mainstream. It’s made by people like me and you.

Except that a majority of it isn’t. Let’s take Oreo’s much-vaunted ‘you can still dunk in the dark’ tweet from the Superbowl. For many, that tweet is ‘viral marketing done right’; it was timely, it was creative and it was funny. It got the reaction it deserved.

Oreo picture

It also took a ‘command centre’ and a full marketing team watching the game together to concoct. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing; it was the result of an ongoing campaign and plan Oreo had to react to any little thing going on in the Superbowl.

Essentially, Oreo was paying a lot of very talented people to sit in a room on the off chance that something might happen. Luckily for them, they struck gold. But imagine if they hadn’t. Could you justify paying a room full of people to watch a cultural event and get no return from it?

To ‘go viral’, you need to be willing to pay out big money to the people who are going to make it happen. And it can’t just be anyone; they have to be able to react to big news events, be highly creative and highly talented.

A comprehensive strategy

As made obvious by the Oreo story above, going viral is far from an off-the-cuff thing. It requires a lot of planning, especially when it comes to promoting whatever it is you happen to be trying to make ‘go viral’.

You need to know who to target, what channels to utilise and have a perfect time at which to launch your viral masterpiece onto the world. Of course, if you’re building from scratch this might be a problem…

An established following

The idea that anyone can go viral is largely nonsense. Case in point: the Harlem Shake. Have you ever heard of George Miller? He’s the guy who produced the first ‘Harlem Shake’ video, which consisted of 19 seconds in a frankly bizarre comedy compilation. After George found some success on Reddit, the video was replicated by a group of surfers. They got a couple of hundred thousand views, which isn’t bad but is by no means ‘viral’.

Then a company called Maker Studios got their hands on it and made their own office version. Luckily for Maker, they’re partly owned by Warner Brothers. The originator of the Harlem Shake song also latched on at this point and got his label, Mad Decent, to tweet about it.

Following on from this, Buzzfeed, College Humor and Vimeo made their own versions. Eventually, the established media giants had made so many versions that it was more or less impossible to avoid. Meanwhile, the creator of the original video has seen precisely zero success, fame or credit for it (for the full story, check out this post by Kevin Ashton).

The point is, while virality is possible if you’ve got a small following, the backing of an established media property (who are willing to credit you) is probably the most powerful weapon anyone can have. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A brilliant, unique idea

Of course, anyone can assemble a good team, make a plan and get the backing of a media giant (okay, so they can’t but bear with me) but there’s still once crucial piece missing from the viral puzzle; the brilliant and unique idea that’s actually going to get people sharing.

Most viral hits offer something that can’t be found anywhere else. Tay Zonday’s voice. Psy’s mate who crotch-thrusts in an elevator. Miley Cyrus naked. What do you have to give the world that no-one else can? If you can answer that, you might have the beginnings viral hit on your hands.


Did I mention that all of this stuff is going to cost a lot of money? Production equipment, talented staff, a hefty marketing budget; it’s all money. Even worse, it’s all money that you might never get a return on.

What’s the alternative?

So what’s the point of this? Why have I spent nigh-oh on? 1,200 words talking down viral marketing?

The answer is simple; too many people think that ‘going viral’ is the be-all and end-all of online marketing. It leads to unrealistic expectations, wasted money and inevitable disappointment when things don’t go to plan.

Instead, I believe companies should focus on hitting tangible targets that deliver real value. Driving traffic and conversions through a sensible SEO campaign; building some brand awareness with social media marketing; winning new custom via PPC; it’s all more viable than chasing the viral dream, and will probably make you more money in the long run.

Going viral is a dream that might happen, but probably won’t. A well thought-out online marketing plan, with realistic goals, however, can deliver value right now and into the future too.

  • Written by on 15th October 2013 at 13:58
  • “Fluid Creativity is an award-winning, multi-service digital agency based in Manchester.”
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