I’m not a fan of the word viral. I think it’s one of the most overused terms in marketing. Yet we’re largely to blame for such requests, as a lot of marketing history has been devoted to creating trends and making things go viral.
As impressive as reaching millions of people with a video or having something trend is, these are usually vanity ticks for marketers. I don’t see a lot of intrinsic value in these actions, but I do see value in starting a conversation that hundreds of thousands of people care enough about to contribute to — which is the magic of virality.
Whether it’s Yanny or Laurel, the Ice Bucket Challenge, or the Dollar Shave Club budget video that’s been viewed over 24 million times — there isn’t a perfect formula for making something viral, but there are four simple guiding principles that will certainly help.
Lesson 1 – Have a deep appreciation for human psychology.
As much as we all like to think we’re autonomous in our thinking, hundreds of psychological studies prove this isn’t the case.
For example, if four people step into an elevator and they all face the same way, and then a fifth person enters the elevator, in the vast majority of cases, that fifth person will face the same way as the other four.
Tribal behaviors are further amplified in social environments, meaning that if you engage a herd, the remaining crowd will follow.
Lesson 2 - Learn how to emotionally tap into culture.
Cultural relevance is probably one of the hardest things for brands to crack. Brands are usually slow to react to cultural moments because of fear of getting the response wrong, or simply an inability to be reactive. And a brand joining a conversation two days after it was relevant is the cardinal sin of social marketing.
Despite the risks attached to riding cultural moments, the chances of creating a viral storm without a culturally relevant narrative are next to none.
It’s key for brands to be on the right side of the conversation and pick moments that truly align with their identities. Sadly, not every fashion brand can jump on the grime scene with credibility, and not every food maker can claim to be an artisanal, family-run business, but at some point every strong brand should have a moment that is ownable for them.
Lesson 3 - Understand social platforms.
This lesson seems very obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Social media changes daily. An algorithmic factor I tell you about today may change tomorrow. No matter how experienced you are as a marketer, it’s important to show humility, keep learning, keep reading, keep watching and embrace change.
Lesson 4 – Know how to distribute in the most effective way.
You can use paid methods, you can talk about your brand yourself, or you can use influential voices to talk about your brand in their own ways. Whatever the distribution method you employ, remember that most viral successes aren’t the result of multimillion-dollar media budgets; they’re the result of relevant, smart, timely creative, distributed in a social-first way.
Remember these four lessons, and you may be the person starting the next viral trend.