Viral Isn't A Four-Letter Word

But the word "plan" is. I'm officially over talking about a "plan" for viral social engagement. This could be my Jerry Maguire moment, so prepare for either a rant or a manifesto -- you tell me which.

Viral videos are either "lucky" or an act of "faith" -- fittingly, both five-letter words just like "viral."

The reason I hate the words "viral" and "plan" put together is that they usually connote an expectation of cheap costs, no advertising support and wildly successful sharing. It's similar to the old creative adage: You can have cheap, fast or good, but only two at a time.

Here's my request. My plea. My call from the mountain top... Every time you are about to use the word "viral" in a request, replace it with the word "successful." Let's look at the math:

  • Cheap Costs + No Advertising Support = an act of faith. You're putting something out there, but you know it might not gain traction, and the small amount of money you spent is a pure gamble you have to be willing to lose.
  • Cheap Costs + Wildly Successful Sharing = something fueled by advertising support, so this makes it “successful” and not “viral.” If it happens quickly inside your distribution network without advertising, that's not viral either, it's simply targeted communications. If it happens slowly outside your distribution network, that's being patient, not viral.
  • No Advertising Support + Wildly Successful Sharing = a budget to make really amazing content. This certainly doesn’t guarantee it becoming viral, but it certainly ups your chances.



So, you see, I’m not against the idea of viral, I’m against the current connotation of the word “viral.” I’m against expectations that something will be cheap, unsupported and have wildly successful sharing.

Call something viral after the fact. NEVER say you plan for something to go viral.

Instead, say you are taking a viral gamble. And, like playing blackjack in Vegas, you can up your odds in this gamble. I’ve written for Mediapost in the past about "10 Factors of Viral Propensity":  Authentic, irreproducible, odd, funny, musical, surprising, impressive, parodied/copied, painful/embarrassing, and pop culture timeliness.

But, while you can up your odds by counting cards, you can’t guarantee a win. That’s why it’s called gambling.

If you’re going to hold people accountable to success, then ask for a “successful” video, not a “viral” video. Spell out the terms of that success.

Otherwise, test a concept. Take a gamble. Let a creative have fun. Be quirky. Bond as a team.

All those 10 factors mentioned above have the propensity to go viral. Know that. Plan for that (once again, see the post linked above). But don’t set expectations for that.

For every Dollar Shave Club (cheap costs, minimal advertising support and wildly successful sharing), there’s also a Red Bull Sky Diver Breaking The Sound Barrier (wildly high costs, massive advertising support, wildly successful sharing). For every Orabrush Tongue Man (cheap costs, minimal advertising support and wildly successful sharing), there’s an Old Spice Guy (high costs, massive advertising support, massive sharing).

Calling all four of those examples “viral” is simply confusing. If you want to be vague, by all means, ask for something to go “viral.” But, if you want to be clear, accountable and actionable, don’t use the word “viral” until after the fact.

What do you think? Rant or manifesto? Let me know in the comments. Then, share this article with three people. I promised my boss it’d go viral.

4 comments about "Viral Isn't A Four-Letter Word".
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  1. Cara Scharf from Fearless Media, LLC, October 10, 2012 at 3:49 p.m.

    I couldn't agree with you more. Very well put.

  2. Ford Kanzler from Marketing/PR Savvy, October 10, 2012 at 4:14 p.m.

    "Make It Go Viral" - Yeah! Its kind of like someone expecting you to promise you'll control the weather. Umm, viruses (at least in the biological arena) aren't typically controllable. Understanding that concept would help those with misguided/ill informed expectations.
    Your "10 Factors..." are on the money. Having a client/boss who let's the producers run with some of those approaches is great. Having a client/boss that wants a copy of another online video that went big isn't.
    I once worked in an ad agency where an art director's wall sign read, "When you see the color drain from the client's face, you know the concept is great." :)

  3. Aaron Mann from Socialarc, October 10, 2012 at 4:23 p.m.

    Very well said, I vote for Manifesto! From my perspective the words I least want to hear are viral within five words of video. As in "And let's do a viral (branded) video!". We tend to use the word "shareable" a lot. Is the content something you would share? Sets a much more realistic bar than "viral". And if it gets a good amount of sharing you can accelerate with paid.

  4. Jay Davis from --------, October 10, 2012 at 10:37 p.m.

    Someone once said a "viral video" isn't a plan, it's a prayer. Thanks for spelling it out.

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