“Just make it go viral!”
This phrase was the bane of every digital and social media marketer’s existence in the early 2010s. You don’t just make virality happen. And you certainly don’t make it happen with a boring piece of brand-focused, culturally irrelevant content that has been through 10 rounds of cross-functional review.
The nature of online community–and by extension, virality–has evolved since Oreo reassured us you could still dunk in the dark. It’s easier to go viral than ever. Or at least it’s easier than ever to create the impression of virality for a targeted group of people.
Let’s dig into what changed and explore a few models that brands and marketing teams can use to enjoy some sweet, sweet viral attention.
A Recent History Of “Going Viral”
Four conditions must exist for an idea to “go viral”:
- A platform with a lot of attention/eyeballs
- An event that is humorous or uncanny enough to attract additional attention
- That same event is “broad” enough that viewers are compelled to share with their friends and family (i.e. you don’t run the risk of outing yourself as “weird” for sharing)
- Enough organic distribution that the event is picked up by the broader media, reinforcing the cycle
Going Viral Before The Internet
Before the mass adoption of the internet and the invention of social media, traditional advertisers, mass media, and celebrities owned the virality cycle. They were the only ones who owned platforms with enough eyeballs to create a mass phenomenon.
In this era, advertising tropes frequently went viral. A brand would launch a campaign like Budweiser’s “Whassup?!”. The campaign would get broad, paid distribution on prime-time TV. It would become part of the “cultural conversation” on late-night talk shows (unclear if this was actually organic). And then you’d start to hear people around you repeating the phrase.
Sometimes celebrities would stage their own “viral” moments in an attempt to cash in on this hype cycle. The Madonna/Britney kiss at the VMAs in 2003 and Janet Jackson’s “Nipplegate” in 2004 are examples. These staged moments were an evolution of the traditional publicity stunt, combining TV ratings with an event that felt organic but was probably staged.
Social Media Democratizes Virality
The mass adoption of the internet–especially broadband internet–upended the established order. YouTube classics like “Charlie Bit My Finger” and the “Bed Intruder” song were completely organic and turned civilians into celebrities, although there was no clear path to monetization. This was the Wild West of virality–for the first time, brands were cut out of the loop.
That changed with the ascendance of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr in the early 2010s. These companies were more sophisticated than their predecessors. They proactively courted brands and advertisers and partnered with advertising agencies to develop brand-friendly use cases for their platforms.
Brands suddenly saw a way to get back in the game of viral publicity: using social networks to comment on hot cultural topics. Instead of driving viral trends, they would ride existing waves.
This was the Wild West of virality–for the first time, brands were cut out of the loop.
The Algorithm Eats Virality
By the end of the decade, there were fewer mass cultural topics to go around. Social media was no longer America’s water cooler; instead, social media users splintered into factions based on demographics and niche interests. You weren’t on Twitter anymore, you were on DTC Twitter or High Fashion Twitter.
What drove this change? Large, ad-supported social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter moved away from a chronological feed. Instead, the feed was populated by a personalized mix of content that was customized to maximize “engagement”–aka keep people using the site for longer stretches of time.
Politics was the only domain broad enough to cut through personalization and harness mass attention. Fittingly, it was the genesis of most viral moments in the back half of the 2010s.
Continuing improvements in internet speed, mobile phone adoption, and word and image processing tools added a new component to “going viral”: the meme. In 2008, you needed an Adobe Photoshop license and a graphic design degree to publish images online. In 2015 you really only needed a smartphone.
When memes entered the conversation, the lifetime of an individual viral moment was greatly reduced, but meme formats (independent of specific ideas) were kicked around for years. I won’t go into specifics, but you can find a refresher here if you really want it.
Outside of politics, viral moments were more likely to remain contained within niche communities. I tried to make a list of viral topics that popped up over the last five years: Fleetwood Mac Cranberry Juice Guy, "Is It Cake?", and the Tabi Snatcher.
None of these are getting coverage on the evening news. And forget about late-night talk shows–the format is hanging on for dear life. You might share “Charlie Bit My Finger” with Pam from accounting, but are you going to share the Tabi Snatcher TikTok? She’ll probably think you’re weird.
Although viral concepts tend to stay contained within a single online community, meme templates often cross communities. “Starter packs” is one of thousands of memes that pop up everywhere from Tinx’s TikTok to right-wing bodybuilder Twitter; there is even a StarterPacks Reddit.
Brands Can Still “Go Viral”–Here’s How To Do It
I have a confession to make: I participated in a manufactured “viral” moment.
The year was 2013. I was working at a niche cable network owned by a larger conglomerate. Miley Cyrus had helped twerking break into the mainstream. I worked with some very creative people who decided to…write a song about a twerking Thanksgiving turkey. And then make a music video about it.
We released the video on YouTube on November 20th, 2013. By Thanksgiving Day, we had surpassed 100k views on YouTube and the song was getting played on the radio in the NY Metro area. But this “virality” had an assist–outreach from our PR team and some paid seeding of the video.
Internally, our team viewed Twerk Your Turkey as a major success. We went viral! We achieved cultural relevance for the channel! But there was no follow-on ratings impact or surge in web traffic, so the higher-ups questioned what the point of it all was.
The moral to this story: brand-related content goes viral, the outcome is rarely 100% organic. And organic or not, it’s difficult to translate virality into sustainable business results.
That said, there is still value in virality. When you succeed, you can drive a lot of new customer acquisition at a low cost. Seeking out these opportunities helps your brand diversify away from paid media. And if you get really good at it, you can increase your brand’s cultural relevance and build real growth momentum.
Here are five ways to approach virality in today’s media and cultural environment:
#1: Activate Where Multiple Cultural Communities Intersect
If you create uncanny content that appeals to more than one cultural niche, it can go viral in several places at once. This cumulative chatter gives you a chance to break out of the niche and into the (relative) mainstream: a 1 + 1 = 3 effect.
Fake Out Of Home (FOOH) is a great example of this approach. FOOH are AI-generated video clips of uncanny out-of-home activations in iconic locales. The Maybelline “tube on the tube” and L’Oreal nail polish car are two popular examples. But Marc Jacobs recently did a real out-of-home activation designed to look like FOOH.
These activations sit at the intersection of fashion/beauty, technology, and advertising. The arresting visuals make them easy to share. And these communities love debating if an activation was “good”, so it generates engagement.
#2: Seed Product To Micro-Influencers
Creating broad, mass-media virality out of thin air is almost impossible. But capturing the attention of a niche internet community is very, very possible.
You can create the impression that everyone on #BookTok or #SkinTok is talking about your product by gifting it to thousands of micro-influencers who create content around those hashtags.
The steps in this process are simple but labor-intensive. First, develop a list of 1,000-5,000 creators who post about your category. Then, reach out to each influencer directly, letting them know that you’d like to send a gift, obligation-free. The goal is to get their shipping address. Finally, ship out your product in attractive packaging and wait.
For every 100 influencers you contact, around 30-50 will provide a shipping address, and up to 10 will post organic content about the product. If you run this playbook consistently and stick to a niche, you’ll create the impression that everyone is talking about you.
(Of course, this is not guaranteed. These stats are averages based on other brands who have used this strategy.)
#3: Create Products With Viral Potential
If you release something that breaks category conventions, is wildly expensive, or intersects with the cultural moment, you increase the odds that people will talk about it. And that talk often translates to web traffic, which can translate to sales.
Jacquemus set Instagram on fire with the Chiquito, a bag that could be looped around one’s index finger and was too small to carry…much of anything. Rowing Blazers put its name on the map by reproducing the “Black Sheep” sweater famously worn by Princess Diana, releasing it at the moment The Crown had renewed interest in her personal style.
#4: Fake It
If you’ve ever seen ads on Facebook or TikTok that open with some variation of “I had to try this (product) that went viral on TikTok”...they’re probably lying. The product never went viral on TikTok. In fact, the product may have launched a few days ago.
It’s impossible for the average consumer to fact-check this because TikTok virality is often confined to a niche. Maybe the product went viral on #CleanTok, and your vibe is more #FoodTok. The fact that the product might have gone viral somewhere is enough to pique the viewer’s interest.
Of course, you can’t abuse this tactic. If all your products “went viral on TikTok”, no one is going to believe that.
#5: Go Back In Time To The 90s
Perhaps you wish we could return to the halcyon days of mass media, mass culture, and mass distribution.
Good news: you can (kind of). Seek out the last bastions of the IRL community: high schools, colleges, and the Utah LDS-adjacent mom-blogger community. If your product is physical, distribute it in stores that reach almost every household in America: Target and Walmart.
Utah mom bloggers + broad physical distribution is how the Stanley Tumbler became ubiquitous on both social media and IRL. Targeting high schoolers helped Gas App come from nowhere to drive 7.4 million installs in six months.
Understanding the behaviors of both brands, and the people they serve, is key to driving virality online. But online virality doesn't always equate to "results" — in order to build a sustainable business you need the right strategy, learned first-hand experience, and a lot of trial and error.