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Why you shouldn’t waste your time trying to “go viral”

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I honestly get shivers when I hear the term “viral.”  If I had a dollar for every time an executive has asked me to create a “viral” something, well, I could probably buy myself something quite pretty. Trying to create something that goes viral is like trying to win the lottery or predict the stock market. Sure there are people who have “methods” but if they really worked, those people would be living on an island sipping cocktails rather than discussing their methods with you at a cocktail party.

And in case anyone ever asks you to create something viral, here are some incredibly capricious examples of successful incidences of viral-ness to prove that the internet is as weird as people are, and just as fickle.

Exhibit A (and yes, I just got out of jury duty, so I will henceforth speak in lawyer talk.) Alex from Target

Last week a 16 year old Target clerk was captured in a cell phone pic bagging groceries in a Texas store by a teen girl who thought he was cute. She shared the photo on Twitter. Apparently her friends and followers agreed that heh was cute and within an hour Alex went from 144 followers to more than 5,000. Now he has more than 600,000 and his own #alexfromtarget hashtag.  Here he is on the Ellen show, discussing how he did nothing to become the latest viral sensation.

Exhibit B: Cute Convict

Jeremy Meeks was arrested this summer for gang-related crimes and his mug shot, which was posted on the police Facebook page went viral. Apparently the ladies thought he was swoon-worthy and his Facebook page rocketed up to more than 25,000 likes. Meeks has since been offered a modeling contract. I guess he can take advantage of that once he’s out of prison…

Exhibit C: Ridiculous Political  Campaign

Case in point of what happens when you try to be cool. If you’re really bad at trying to be cool, you can actually get negative viral-ness. This video (and there are others, but I don’t recommend pursuing it) has more than 200,000 YouTube views. Maybe that’s ok with you—the all publicity is good publicity angle. But for me, I’ll stick with good publicity thank you very much. This ad doesn’t fit the bill. And, in case you’re wondering, it didn’t work for voters either. Mike only won 6 out of 96 districts in this run for State Senate. Ouch.

Trying to go viral, is kind of like trying to be cool. The second you try, it becomes uncool. I know, you might be thinking right now, what about Buzzfeed, don’t they take viral to a new scientific level? I won’t disagree that Buzzfeed gets a lot of visitors and they have perfected the art of click bait. Anyone ever take the What State Do You Actually Belong In? quiz? Yeah, me too. And so did more than 41 million other people. Buzzfeed has figured out a formula that sells advertising. It’s good for them. But unless you sell advertising, it’s difficult to translate this kind of approach into selling goods and services—particularly B2B.

Cody Johnston of Cracked makes more excellent observations in 4 Reasons Viral Content Stopped Mattering in 2013.

So my advice to you is to keep producing great content that your target audience will really want to consume and you will earn the right kind of audience. And if that’s not good enough for your executives, show them the videos above. You’re welcome.

 Photo courtesy of NAID via Flickr Commons