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Why going viral should not be one of your goals

Why going viral should not be one of your goals

The word ‘viral’ used to refer to the sudden, uncontrollable spread of an illness, but in recent years has been repurposed, becoming synonymous with the rapid proliferation of certain types of online content.

Regardless of whether it’s a news story, funny video or cute photo of a cat typing on a keyboard, viral content is now an inescapable part of how the internet (and social media in particular) work in modern society. Going viral can also come with huge benefits, ranging from increased exposure and sudden fame all the way through to providing a platform for getting a certain message out into the world.

For a long time, viral content was something of a mystery, with few able to predict which pieces of content would capture the internet’s attention and spread like wildfire. That’s changed in recent years though, with an entire industry springing up around the concept of going viral and what it takes to achieve such widespread success online. But is this really the right approach for businesses looking to improve their digital presence and better reach their audience? Recent examples of going viral have illustrated the importance of being careful what you wish for, while also underlining the value of taking a slower, more controlled approach to online campaigns.

What does going viral really mean?

Before we can get into the reasons why going viral may not be the best strategy for your business,

It’s important to clearly define what viral content is. The content side of the equation is easy, encompassing everything from articles and photos to videos, songs, graphics and other images. So what about ‘viral’?

A great definition comes from Elise Moreau, who writes in Lifewire that: “On the internet, a piece of content can spread just like a virus if people become “infected” when they see it. The infection usually comes from evoked emotions that spur the viewer to share it, so they can relate with other people and discuss how they feel.”

Going viral requires emotion

With this focus on emotions in mind, it’s easy to see why certain types of content capture the online zeitgeist. Perhaps they’re funny, sad or simply strange, but all share some form of emotion that a huge group of people can relate to.

The stronger the emotion, the more shareable a piece of content is, and these emotions aren’t always the most wholesome. In fact, many pieces of viral content, be they Wendy’s mean tweets or over-the-top political rants, deliberately tap into the darker sides of the human psyche. There’s a reason why videos of people falling over or being embarrassed tend to perform so well on social media platforms.

Viral content is therefore unpredictable, and even if you do manage to create something that captures attention, there’s no real way of telling what sort of emotions you’ll stir up.

The reach of viral content

What’s undeniable about viral content is its reach, offering businesses the kind of attention and connection with audiences they could only dream about with traditional content marketing tools.

This vast reach is the benefit most closely associated with going viral, and it’s easy to see why companies might be enticed by the promise of instantly broadening their audience by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. The problem, however, is that the definition of viral content changes with every new phenomenon.

Back in the early days of YouTube and Facebook, a video or post with 10,000 likes or more might have been considered a viral success. Today, anything with less than a few million is a mere drop in the bucket, as exemplified by the recent example of the Instagram page world_record_egg.

Created with the express goal of becoming the most-liked post on the platform (beating Kylie Jenner’s measly 18 million likes on a photo of her newborn baby), the account’s only update – a stock photo of, you guessed it, an egg – currently boasts a whopping 44 million likes and counting.

That’s the kind of audience money simply can’t buy, but before you start planning your own egg-based marketing campaign, it’s worth taking a closer look at whether it will succeed and what the benefits would be even if it did.

Why going viral is a bad goal

The first reason attempting to create viral content isn’t the most efficient or effective goal is that it’s unpredictable. Using the example of the world record egg, there was no indication that the post would achieve anything like the success it’s had, with the post’s spread a completely random occurrence that could only happen in the age of the internet. In another time, the exact same success could have been had with a photo of something else, or the egg could have quickly faded from popularity with only a few hundred likes.

Of course, there are certain factors that can play into viral success, such as hopping on to a popular trend, mimicking other successful campaigns or attaching a brand to a popular influencer. Even with all of these characteristics, there’s simply no guarantee, making attempts at viral campaigns an often expensive waste of time, money and energy.

The next reason why viral video marketing and other forms of rampant online success aren’t always the best option for businesses is that there’s no real next step. If you reach an enormous audience with a well-timed piece of viral content, that very rarely translates into meaningful leads or conversions. Nobody is buying eggs through Instagram.

As with many aspects of content marketing and digital advertising, it all comes back to the idea of quality versus quantity. All the web traffic in the world won’t help your business sell more product, and while raising brand awareness is a good goal in its own right, that awareness needs to be within an audience that may decide to convert at some point in the future.

Finally, viral success is short-lived. Even though the world record egg is currently a big deal, it will only be a matter of time before something else comes along and eclipses it. For this reason, viral marketing isn’t a sustainable investment, unlike higher quality content such as informative blog posts or whitepapers that have a long shelf life.

Viral success is short-lived. Even though the world record egg is currently a big deal, it will only be a matter of time before something else comes along and eclipses it.

Viral marketing gone wrong

If you needed more convincing that viral marketing isn’t the best approach for a business, it’s worth keeping in mind that in addition to the strategy’s drawbacks, there’s also a very real potential for viral videos, articles and other content to spectacularly backfire.

We’ve talked about this before, using the example of Kendall Jenner and Pepsi, but it’s worth looking into some more examples of when traditional businesses have tried to go viral.

At particular risk are viral campaigns centred around social media. The appeal of this approach is it allows  users to put their own stamp on a certain piece of content by interacting with it, but the risks are significant. One recent example is Southern Rail, which attempted to get users to have their say on the effects of its employees’ rail strikes in the UK. While the campaign certainly went viral, the responses were definitely not what Southern Rail wanted to hear.


Similarly, when Coca Cola encouraged online followers to ‘gif the feeling’ as part of a rebrand, it was probably expecting a series of wholesome images reflecting how people feel about cracking open an ice cold can or bottle of Coke.

Instead, the company was treated to a wide variety of gifs that ranged from anti-capitalism messaging to explicit content.

These examples underline the very real dangers associated with going viral, which come down to the simple fact that it’s impossible to predict how users will react to a particular campaign. For every wholesome share of a photo of an egg there’s a hijacking of a well-intentioned viral strategy. The risk of falling victim to this sort of backlash makes viral marketing a risk too great for many businesses.

So, instead of attempting to go viral, which guarantees almost nothing in terms of success, it’s a far better idea for businesses to play the long game and focus on generating quality leads through long-term plays that can be controlled, calculated and tweaked as need be.

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Ben Lange
Ben Lange About the author

A Castleford veteran now based out of England, Ben writes across a broad variety of industries, including construction, education, recruitment, banking and film and music. He’s a regular contributor to the Castleford blog and writes for clients such as Hilti Australia, TRC Group and Beyond Bank.

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