A Strategist’s Plea Against Virality

Oh, virality. For advertisers — at least the good ones — it’s a word that inspires an acute sense of anxiety we usually reserve for timesheets and team-building exercises. And one we hear entirely too often. My personal distaste for this word hit an all-time high a few months ago when we received the following brief from a (now former) client. The names and identifying features have been redacted to protect the accused.

Leverage a viral style video format to create content that is inherently social with the potential to become viral.

As both a pragmatist and a trained strategist, my first instinct was to immediate set fire to said brief in the dumpster behind our building, so as to ward off the bad juju. On my way there, I stopped by our backyard bar for a pint of melancholy, to commemorate the passing of the worst brief of 2014, and ended up laughing-off the sheer absurdity of this Onion-worthy request with a few other Omeleteers, and at the end of the day decided instead to pin it up on the wall as a constant reminder of what we’re up against.

To be fair, who doesn’t want to create viral content? Who wouldn’t want to be responsible for that brilliant video, meme, or infographic that gets compulsively shared by scores of influential folks and captures the cultural zeitgeist? Perhaps it’s hubris, or just wishful thinking, but agencies are agreeing left and right to create content that will “go viral,” all the while secretly wondering how much paid media and PR muscle they need to put behind it to create the illusion that it’s succeeding. Either way, we’re doing ourselves — and our industry — a disservice by perpetuating the myth that there’s an art and science to manufacturing virality.

Despite the myriad of articles and thought pieces that attempt to deconstruct the creation of viral content, it’s virtually impossible to predetermine what will take off and what will land flat. That’s right — adding a picture or list-ifying your post will not catapult it over the tipping point. There’s no formula. No secret to success. Only educated guesses. Why? It’s simple: we can use strategic insights to gauge potential resonance of a story with a specific audience, but we can’t confidently predict what will make them share it, and that, after all, is the thrust of virality. An individual’s sharing behavior is dependent on a number of unrelated and wildly variable factors: their mood, personal experience, relationships, and a slew of other things.

Great content goes viral because it’s true to the brand, true to the audience, and above all else, entertaining. Don’t try too hard to force an idea into something that becomes “viral” — just be yourself, and acknowledge that if you have to explain it, it’s not very good. Sometimes that means taking a leap of faith and falling hard; sometimes it results in an organic tribe of followers. You can’t accurately predict the outcome, and honestly, the odds aren’t in your favor.

So what? Instead of creating just-another-internet-video, take a step back and reevaluate what you’re really trying to accomplish with your content strategy. And stand together with us in calling this tactic what it really is — a myth. Like Sasquatch, sewer alligators, and your summer camp boyfriend from Canada, there’s simply no proof that virality is material. So let’s take a stand and focus our strategic and creative energies on telling honest and credible stories, and distributing them through channels that seed them with the right audiences at the right times.

The above article originally appeared in the print edition of Wake Up Quarterly, Q3, 2014.

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