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The Lies of Viral Marketing
By: Ted Curtin
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How many times have you heard someone express a desire to create a viral video? Between clients who ask for them, or agencies that promise, neither should be trusted. Marketing involves planned initiatives, coordinated campaigns, and targeted messaging. Viral marketing is anything but. How those two words even came together is only a result of brands trying to capitalize on the enormous popularity of widely shared online content. Who can blame them?

The low production costs of viral messaging, non-existent media buy, and unprecedented reach is a marketer’s dream. Imagine if someone was willing to give you 30 seconds of Super Bowl commercial time for free. Better yet, what if it was an ad that everyone specifically wanted to see? Attractive? You bet! Something you can intentionally created? No way! At the heart of any content worthy of virally reaching an audience of critical mass is authenticity.

For the same reasons that you can’t force authenticity, you can’t create "viral." Laughter, tears, and intrigue are all viable fuels for the viral distribution phenomenon, but the one consistent gatekeeper to anything viral is authenticity. That doesn’t necessarily preclude brands from enjoying viral messages spreading across the various social media channels, but if you look at the most successful examples over the years (Will it blend, Mentos Coke fountains, Burger King’s subservient chicken), they were all viral by chance — not by design.

In a world of polished, high-production value content, and carefully managed brand images, the realness and organic nature of viral content has a certain refreshing appeal. The phenomenon of YouTube itself is based on original, imperfect, maybe even rough-around-the-edges content that screams authenticity. It’s regular people capturing extraordinary moments to share. And unlike carefully carved and crafted media flights for an ad campaign, in this ultimate arena of earned media distribution, success is not up to the producers. Viral is the sole domain of the viewer — who is so moved by the content that they can’t resist sharing with their network of friends and followers. Whether it’s a mobile app, a YouTube video, a brilliant ad campaign, or simply a resonating post or tweet, viral is the ultimate democratization of content.

The popularity of viral content doesn’t mean we should abandon well-thought creative and professionally produced marketing campaigns. We love great creative, compelling messaging, and integrated campaigns that don’t just deliver a marketing message, but move us to action. There’s a time for fanciness, but even advocates of a shiny polish will tell you: your brand starts at the core.

It’s not all about influence and followers. Viral distribution certainly gets a boost when people with large networks promote content, but gaining traction with many smaller users can have a force multiplier effect. While high-volume promoters often have reach, they don’t have the same sense of authenticity and they don’t get the same level of attention that smaller, organic networks do. Enormously popular viral videos such as “David after Dentist,” which has well over 103 million views, didn’t reach that point of popularity by being shared and promoted through social media superstars. That’s the type of success that comes from grass-roots, organic networks as small as you and 10 friends. The same can be said about “The evolution of dance” and the “Numa Numa” video.

So don’t bother announcing your upcoming “viral” anything. Make great content. Keep it real. If it’s funny, moving, under-produced, or maybe just a little bit outside your marketing department’s comfort zone, you just may be on to something with the potential to explode. Remember, viral is not the intent but rather the end result of something wholly authentic, which resonates so strongly with the initial audience that they couldn’t resist sharing.

What type of content do you like to share?

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About the Author
Ted Curtin is a recognized strategic marketing leader with over 22 years experience covering online and offline marketing channels. Follow him on Twitter or at TedCurtin.com
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