What it takes to go viral

The very thought of an online effort going viral seems like the ultimate triumph: The ROI on a successful viral campaign is huge. Take a fast, meteoric ride on the exponential pass-along curve and you’re looking at the marketing equivalent of striking it rich on a single lottery ticket. So why doesn’t it happen more often?

I see at least two factors standing in the way of an existing brand actually lighting the fuse: Relinquishing control and a sincere willingness to lighten up.


It takes a huge leap to create something and set it free. In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma of using social networks to further a brand — the potential for chaos. Once in the hands of the social graph, a concept can take on a life of its own. And with independent life comes the chance of betrayal.

No one wants to see their viral effort hijacked and distorted into mockery. Unfortunately, it’s this very tension that make viral efforts so fun to watch.


E.B. White wrote the following:

Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

It’s a pity, then, that something as ephemeral as humor is at the heart of a successful viral effort. But it’s true, and in the hands of a committee-driven brand team, a funny concept all too easily becomes so many frog innards. Humor is that fragile.

It was actor and director Sir Donald Wolfit who was reputed to have said on his deathbed, as a parting reassurance, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard!”

So are concepts that succeed in going viral.

This post was inspired by one that I received on Friday that is an unqualified success. I received a get-out-the-vote email from a friend in the form of a personalized video. It got the point across and also elicited several heartly laughs. Try it yourself on a friend (of the right political inclinations — it’s from MoveOn.org).

I’d also like to challenge readers: Do you know of any viral efforts that do not, to some extent, involve humor?

4 Replies to “What it takes to go viral”

  1. Thanks, Tim.

    Another reader chose to provide their examples via Twitter. @TheMosey posted these “tweets”:

    All viral campaigns work off emotion, it is what makes them viral. Most are “humor.” OK GO video and “free Hugs” are two others.

    For that matter most music video virals aren’t humorous but creative.

    These examples make it pretty clear that it’s an emotional driver and not specifically humor that gives pass-along value. Thank you both!

  2. Here is a non-political, non-humor oriented viral effort by starbucks. This one shamelessly geared at fostering warm-and-fuzzies among a loyal (sometimes rabidly so) customer base…


    It was launched earlier in 08 when starbucks started showing chinks in their armor that have since been exacerbated by economic hardships…this effort was matched by others, such as a controversial, yet highly publicized, store closing for staff retraining, the launch of Pike Place roast, and the expansion of the starbucks card program. NYSE: SBUX would not suggest that the efforts paid off, and my mother, a true starbucks junkie, would back that up. you can push for viral until you’re blue in the face, and perhaps your community WILL grow, but if the end-user is to go so far as to perform the viral effort’s desired “transaction,” the experience MUST be quality. Otherwise, your viral campaign might do your brand more harm then good.

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