How to Go Viral: Just Don’t

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I read a great post recently by a social media marketing expert I really admire, Susanna Gebauer. In it, she cautioned against using “going viral” as a marketing strategy, and I agree wholeheartedly. Purposely cultivating a targeted audience is far more valuable. Gebauer notes that “going viral” is a best case scenario of all the hard work it takes to build that audience, but I would actually caution that you might consider avoiding it altogether. If you have a tailored, engaged audience, you don’t need viral content, and I’ll tell you why.

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I was on TV every day for the better part of 15 years, and achieved precisely the amount of “fame” to make my life annoying, but not any better. I was a journalist, which ruled out free stuff and I’m an introvert, so I hated getting recognized. Besides, typically the people who do recognize you tend to do so when you’re at the pharmacy at ten o’clock at night in your rattiest sweatpants buying something embarrassing. I’m not the kind of person to put on lipstick just because people might notice I’m “that news lady.”

I’m also not the kind of person to leverage the modest level of notoriety one earns in local news for a dinner reservation. Okay, one time, I upgraded my B.B. King tickets, and I stand by that decision because HELLO, blues legend. But my husband and I had such an enormous fight at that concert that King’s music is now kind of ruined for me, which is probably karma.

I digress. My point is: any advantage to the heightened level of attention that comes with being on television was most certainly cancelled out by all the disadvantages; the additional scrutiny, the internet trolls, the forced conversations with nosy strangers, the people yelling disgusting obscenities at me on live television. This was my experience as a local news reporter. I can’t imagine what it’s like for actual celebrities. My observation is: if they love you, they also love to tear you down.

So think long and hard, as a business owner, before you set out to get a lot of attention for yourself. I encourage the idea of producing great content for your own personal tribe. Your customers, your target audience, your workforce and potential workforce.

However, time and again I have clients and potential clients tell me they want to create content that will “go viral.” My response is always the same. Think about the phrase for a second, “go viral.” A virus moves from cell to cell, overtaking its systems, changing constantly so we can’t control it in any way. Does that sound like part of a good business plan to you?

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Let’s look at a best-case-scenario of “going viral” first: The Ice Bucket Challenge. Who would have ever thought that dumping a bucket of cold water on yourself would take off like social media wildfire AND bring in millions for ALS?  Although I did not dump ice water on myself on video, (see introvert comment, above) I DID donate a lot of money to others who did.

It was very meaningful to me because my beloved father-in-law had died of ALS just months before the Ice Bucket Challenge took off. I knew firsthand how hard it was for ALS charities to compete for donation dollars with other, worthy organizations who were better understood by the general public. I was excited for ALS charities to get this publicity.

“With windfall comes scrutiny.”

 

However, with windfall comes scrutiny. People thought the amount of attention and money being raised was disproportionate to the number of people who get the disease. Some people even complained it wasted water. The more successful the campaign became, the more it was scrutinized and criticized.

Then, there is the example of Ken Bone. Dear, sweet Ken Bone. For something like 24 hours, he was a folk hero, a modern day Johnny Appleseed. His earnest demeanor was embraced by the audience when he questioned candidates in the U.S. presidential debate and became a viral sensation.

There was actually an article in GQ, begging the internet not to do what the internet always does: look for dirt on a seemingly nice guy. But you can’t stop a virus.The Internet dug and dug until it came to rest on anything unflattering about Ken Bone. Ken Bone probably wishes he and his red sweater just stayed the hell home.

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Viruses want to rage on until their host is dead. It’s what they do. Your “viral sensation” will be no different. In 15 years of reporting, I never saw anyone escape their 15 minutes of fame unscathed. Not. Once.

Once, I interviewed this sweet mom about a delay for an ambulance to arrive after she called 911. She got threats because people didn’t think she had a good enough reason for calling emergency crews. Threats, people. Threats. I felt horrible, like I should have somehow predicted that. But how could I predict that?

That’s my point. You can never predict where your 15 minutes of fame will take you. That mom will think twice about ever “seeking attention” again, believe me.

You don’t need the whole world to be your audience, you only need your audience to be your audience. If you go looking for external validation, you are at the mercy of external scrutiny. Better to be secure in the knowledge that your offering is tailored to those who are in the market for it, and speak confidently, directly to them.

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