Viral marketing: 5 myths that need to be debunked

If you’ve worked in digital strategy, you’ve probably heard the following question more times than you care to admit: “Can you make it go viral?” (Cue the head-explosion emoji.)
When the media says something has “gone viral,” they mean it has hit a high threshold of general public awareness over a short period of time. From there, things are slightly less codified. So, if you’re here because you’re looking to “make something go viral,” then read on as we debunk 5 myths about viral marketing.
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Myth No. 1: We can make something go viral

Starting at the very beginning, the secret to virality for any digital content isn’t in the content creator — it’s in the content consumer. What does this mean for an idea that you just know is going to be the next Ice Bucket Challenge? You need to identify the right community to begin what Adam Penenberg calls the “viral loop” — a system starts by turning 1 new user into at least 1.1 new users through referral. From there, more users beget more users, as we saw with the Ice Bucket Challenge: One person is tasked with dumping a bucket of cold water over their head and then asks 3 others to do the same.
What then happened was a group of close-knit people in Boston who were all part of the same sports community began challenging one another, which began to sow the seeds that led to an international movement fueled by exponential growth. As George notes in our Ice Bucket Challenge recap, had conceived of this challenge, broadcast it on social media, and hoped for people to catch on, it would have been a drier, warmer summer.
Bottom line: We can’t make it go viral. But we can help you identify users who can.

Myth No. 2: If you’re creating a viral campaign, leave your brand out of it

So, wait: We’re going to put in all of this time, effort, and tracking into a campaign and we’re going to leave your brand entirely out of it? Where’s that head-explosion emoji again?
Yes, it’s true that there’s a demand for authenticity when it comes to online content. And no one wants to engage with a piece of content that’s overly-branded. That said, if you aren’t making some call to action that places your cause at the center of the viral hurricane, then how are you going to measure impact? What’s more, the data suggest it’s worth mentioning your brand early and (semi) often: A study of 1,000 online videos conducted by Dr. Karen Nelson-Field for the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute revealed that, on average, 90% of viewers only watched the first 10 seconds of video, but only 46% of videos noted the brand in the first 10 seconds. Only 6% included both a verbal and visual note of the brand.
tl;dr: If it’s your campaign, own it. Preferably within the first 10 seconds.
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Myth No. 3: Viral challenges are the lowest common denominator

In analyzing the Ice Bucket Challenge and other charitable challenges like it, Sander van der Linden, a psychology professor with the University of Cambridge, analyzes the tipping point of charity campaigns for being a cultural touchpoint. It’s not that we’re narcissistic, stupid, or lemmings that drove the success of these campaigns, but that, when executed properly, a campaign can create what van der Linden calls the “warm glow” effect: When we see our friends in an act of kindness, we want to do the same.
In establishing “a moral belief that compels people to act” (as Mashable puts it), an effective campaign also inspires “positive reactions, and convert[s] that momentum into tangible contributions.”
What does that mean for your campaign? Create a user journey: The beginning lays the ground of the campaign, the middle creates an empathetic connection, and the end is tied to a tangible, measurable action.

Myth No. 4: Everyone loves a viral charitable challenge

Here’s the flip side of the “warm glow” effect: Clicktivism. As any viral campaign gains momentum, there will be a peak saturation, followed closely by backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash. Does that undo the good work? Absolutely not — the national chapter of the ALS Association brought in $115 million, and an additional $13 million was donated to regional branches in the year of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Some of this money even funded an important discovery tied to ALS and genetics.
However, once peak saturation hits for a challenge, there will be a cohort of people who van der Linden notes will become cynical towards the shallow discussion of the cause benefitting from a viral moment. Clicktivism became a buzzword again following the 2016 election, along with its synonym hashtag activism.
So what? If you’re lucky to see Barack Obama dump a bucket of ice water over his head in order to support your cause, be prepared for the #haters. And be ready to show your receipts: Keep your supporters updated on how financial contributions will be used and how those donations continue to drive real impact.
Viral marketing is like fetch: Stop trying to make it happen. Here are 5 myths debunked, as well as ways to have an effective digital marketing campaign. Share on X

Myth No. 5: A viral marketing campaign is forever

Sometimes your viral moment is just that — a moment. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge worked well as a summer activity that helped people to cool off and donate to a worthy cause. When they tried to replicate the campaign the next year, however, it didn’t have the same novelty or staying power.
Perhaps, in comparison, Movember isn’t the viral darling of the internet every November, but it has become a drumbeat of the Internet beginning the day after Halloween, as well as a perennial hashtag with photos of mustachioed and bearded chaps raising funds for men’s health. Yes, it was in some ways more unique in the first years, but Movember has agilely pivoted to make a cultural moment into a cultural touchpoint — not unlike #GivingTuesday.
Part of this is because Movember plays well with BJ Fogg’s Behavioral Model: Triggers succeed when an action is both highly motivating and easy to do. Spend 30 days without shaving for a good cause? Easy. You’re asking me to take action by not doing something. Dump a bucket of ice water on my head for a good cause? A little bit of a heavier lift (literally), but a successful once given the motivation.

BJ Fogg Behavioral Model

BJ Fogg’s behavioral model

The upshot: If you’re going to put your resources into orchestrating a campaign, or if you have an unexpected viral moment, see if you can make it a low-impact, high-results touchpoint year-over-year for your organization.