Worried You’re Missing Out on Viral Marketing? Don’t Be.

What if I told you, you could create a small piece of media at relatively low cost then have that media viewed by millions. For free.

O.K., I’m listening.

And who wouldn’t be? The pitch for viral marketing is easy. There is not a marketer in the world that wouldn’t love to have a video, photo, meme, or jingle spread through cyberspace like wildfire, reaching virtually everyone with an internet connection and talked about by even more.

However, wildfire may just be the best way to describe viral marketing. It burns indiscriminately, without control, and there’s no telling what will sprout up in the aftermath.

The first thing I think about when I hear viral marketing are the “successful” viral videos I’ve seen recently. I’m using the term “successful” here with caution.

It’s a success because I saw the video and the creator gained an advertising impression. However, this inevitably leads me to wonder how many viral campaigns I’ve seen, discussed, and just as quickly forgotten about.

I decided to look at a number of these successful viral marketing campaigns, their strategies, and the implications for their product or organization.

Viral Marketing Example #1 – Woman Gets Catcalled in NYC

This is a great place to start because it had a major, overnight impact across every level of media and it’s one of the most recent videos to make such a splash.

Let’s start at the beginning. Hollaback, a non-profit organization founded in 2005, hired Rob Bliss Creative, a company that specializes in making viral videos. Their goal: end street harassment.

The video itself is about two minutes long and appears to be a low budget, homemade video. The concept is simple. One angle of a woman walking through New York City—for 10 hours—cut together to look almost like a time lapse.

So far so good. Hollaback pays for a viral video, Hollaback gets a viral video. Cheers…

But, what happened next?

For a brief second people looked inside themselves and considered the message that this video promotes. Then, queue the swarm of hungry piranhas masquerading as the media consumers of the web. When something goes viral, expect a level of scrutiny usually reserved for a high level political candidate that no one likes. If there is dirt, it will be dug.

The video brought up questions as to why the catcallers were almost exclusively men of color and why the video appeared to be isolated to a few streets, etc. These interactions were real and Hollaback’s message is important. However, the video as a whole—to some extent— is a fabrication. The woman is an actor, the footage and locations are selected, and all of it was edited and produced by an organization for a price. Once people know those facts, they will be skeptical of everything that happens next, real or not.

So, what could Hollaback have done differently?

It’s important to avoid the appearance of trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. Regardless of the magical X-factor that makes a video viral, there are several obvious factors we can all agree on. The content needs to be relevant, well presented, and either interesting, amazing, or both.

Consider this OldSpice commercial where actor Terry Crews plays instruments with his muscles. There is no doubt that it is an ad, that fact is almost shoved right in your face. However, it’s so entertaining that that fact ceases to matter.

Then on the other end, there are viral videos that are totally organic, and caught the public’s eye simply by being incredible.

The Hollaback video tries to live somewhere in-between these two ends of the viral spectrum, and in doing so makes people suspicious.

Viral Marketing Example #2 – Homeless Army Veteran Gets a Makeover

Here is a video that can’t be criticized. Once again created by Rob Bliss Creative, a homeless veteran receives a makeover to help kick-start a new life. The video was made to raise money for Degage Ministries, a nonprofit organization in Michigan that seeks to rehabilitate homeless people.

It’s no surprise that the video went viral. It is heartwarming and like Hollaback, supports an issue that most people agree with. The video was successful, raising more than $130,000 for Degage Ministries, according to Bliss.

This is an example of a video that causes damage not because it is suspect or inappropriate, but simply because of the scrutiny that arises from its viral nature. The immense popularity of this video turns everyone’s eyes to the struggles of one man. He became a figurehead for the efficacy of Degage’s rehabilitation efforts.

Unfortunately the veteran in this video has since succumbed to his alcoholism and ended up back in jail under charges of trespassing and creating a disturbance. According to their website, Degage Ministries serves 400-500 people every day. Now their being judged on the success or failure of one man.

Yes, the video raised them a large sum of money, but only time will tell how this will affect their image in the future.

Viral Marketing Example #3 – Random Acts of Pasta

This video is an interesting example of what effect a viral video can have on an organization. Matt Tribe, a Utah resident, took advantage of an Olive Garden promotion that awarded him an “unlimited pasta pass.” Essentially, for $100, Tribe was able to get free pasta from Olive Garden for seven weeks.

Tribe decided to use this pass to feed the homeless and film the experience. Anyone could have guessed that this video would go viral. Much like the Degage video, it illuminates the tragedies of homelessness and supports outreach. This is an issue that basically everyone can get behind, and if you can’t, I doubt you would admit it in public.

The video is heartwarming, optimistic, and above all, extremely well made. So well made in fact, that it began taking heat online for being an “obvious marketing stunt” by Olive Garden.

Here’s the kicker. According to Justin Sikora, director of public relations and social media for Olive Garden, they had no involvement with the making of the video. On Tribe’s Website he gives credit to one Ben Taylor.

Talk about wildfire. The mere presence of a viral video involving Olive Garden, in a positive light no less, has managed to burn them.

Viral Marketing Example #4 – ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

If you haven’t seen any of the above videos, you’ve certainly heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. This campaign wins the top prize for the big mac-daddy of all viral marketing campaigns. By the time the smoke cleared and people’s Facebook news feeds were once again free from the myriad videos of friends, family, and celebrities pouring water and writing checks, the ALS Association raised around $115 million. A jaw-dropping increase from last years fundraising total of $1.9 million.

This campaign was a success. Period. Now lets talk about why.

First and foremost, the biggest difference between the Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC) and the preceding videos is that the IBC was a campaign that sparked millions of videos each with their own set of viewers. Rather than one video with millions of views. Just look at this August graph from Facebook illustrating the number of people joining the ALS conversation.


Due to the sheer number, people saw videos almost perfectly tailored for them. Millions of people around the country are doing the challenge, but all you see are the people you know personally, which adds a greater sense of social accountability than you could ever get from an ad. Not to mention the sense of urgency created by adding a 24 hour deadline to the challenge which, coupled with challenging three more people, forced the videos to grow and spread quickly.

There was certainly criticism of the IBC campaign, specifically surrounding where the money was going, but, the ALS Association maintained a level of transparency that I believe to be the final push that kept this massive ball rolling. Not only does every video kick off with a description of their goal to raise money for ALS research, but the “actor” in the video is your friend. Rather than taking flack for trying to appear real, like in Hollaback’s catcall video, it IS real.


There are a multitude of lessons to be learned from viral marketing, both in success and failure, that can guide the way we choose to promote our content.

There is no denying that a message going viral can be a huge boon to an organization like with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. However, when it’s forced, you can open yourself up to backlash.

The goal should not be to create content that will go viral then insert your message, but rather to create as much QUALITY content as possible so if some of it goes viral organically, or maybe with a slight nudge, one can reap the benefits of extra exposure without the risk of appearing like you are trying to fool a public that is much more media savvy than many marketers give them credit for.

It’s also important to recognize one factor that unifies all of these organizations. They are either nonprofits supporting a well-liked cause, or in Matt Tribe’s case, just a man trying to do good in his community. There seems to be a clear pattern. A video is more likely to go viral if it strikes a chord with the viewer and gets them involved emotionally.

If your organization is not one that champions an altruistic, charitable cause that everyone agrees with, how do you ensure that your video goes viral? Remember the old spice, Terry Crews ad? When a video can tell you up front that it’s an advertisement, then break through your skepticism because it’s just that impressive, you’re on the right track. Either way, you are taking a huge gamble and here’s why.

The biggest weakness to viral marketing is that it’s not repeatable. The ALS Association essentially went all-in with the Ice Bucket Challenge and won big.

But, I’d be willing to bet that when next summer rolls around, they won’t be able to get even a fraction of the same enthusiasm. Hollaback got millions of eyes on them, but they can’t now make a video titled “Now Let’s Try it With a Blonde.”

These videos are a flash-in-the-pan marketing technique that attempt to build an empire from nothing overnight. It’s exciting to be number one on YouTube, and to have everyone talking about you, but the problem with “everyone” is that they have a short attention span. Once the next “it” video, trend, cause, or controversy rolls along, those hits/click/views are going to slow down or even stop.

So, while viral marketing is an extremely visible, sexy alternative to putting in the leg work to build a sound marketing foundation, it’s no guarantee. Needless to say, continuing to produce lot’s and lot’s of quality content isn’t easy, neither will it make you famous in a day. But, constructing a solid sales funnel and driving traffic through content is something that you can measure, control, and count on.

Bonus Offer: if you’re tired of hoping for more traffic, learn how to build a sales funnel that will offer you certainty that you’re getting the best return on your marketing dollar.

I know that there are enough gamblers in the world that viral marketing is here to stay, but those of us who like to plan for success wont be caught up in the hype.

Have you thought of using viral marketing in your marketing mix? Has my article changed your mind? Leave a comment below, and if you enjoyed this article, please share it for the benefit of others on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.


Photo Credit:

This Is How Many Ice Bucket Challenge Videos People Have Posted on Facebook




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