Engin_Akyurt / Pixabay

Before I go on, I should probably make this clear: we’ve previously suggested the kinds of considerations a creator should make if they want their content marketing to achieve the dizzy heights of going viral, like this article from my colleague Joe. That’s not what my current oeuvre is about. Joe’s is a lesson in good content sense – how to increase your chances of success.

This blog is about how you approach your marketing strategy – as in, being clear on your marketing plan and getting your priorities straight. Because if you’re planning to go viral, you will be sorely disappointed.

Viral content is nice, but you need to ask – is it strategic or, more to the point, revenue-generating?

Successful content marketing: a stroke of luck?

Going viral and wanting to go viral are two different things. They rarely have much bearing on each other. If you’ve gone viral, that means that at some point in your content production process, you did something very, very right, so good on you, but you also probably had a stroke of good luck. Maybe you picked exactly the right hashtag at exactly the right time. Most viral videos are an accident and pointedly not marketing campaigns, like last year’s incomprehensible “Damn, Daniel” meme, which a brand very cleverly hijacked. But that’s different.

Wanting to go viral – as in, making virality your marketing end-goal – should send alarm bells ringing. It’s one good sign that your content marketing strategy isn’t a strategy at all. The problem with planning to go viral is twofold:

  1. You’re essentially setting yourself an unachievable aim, that carries with it a lot of effort. It’s effort that is likely to be wasted as the pursuit of your goal will inevitably be a long one.
  2. Unless you can plan for and demonstrate a sure-fire way to turn those viral views into revenue (which is inherently mission impossible), then your efforts are doubly wasted.

Don’t get me wrong. If you magically go viral and reach thousands – maybe millions of views on your content – then more power to you. But even then, what’s the proportion of that audience that you actually want to engage with you?

Viral celebrities

There’s the famous case of the “Will it blend?” series of online videos by blender maker Blendtec, which is always upheld as a benchmark of viral video marketing. And it is: for just $100 (£75) investment in equipment, the company saw a way to increase brand awareness using YouTube, by filming their slightly outlandish methods of testing their blenders by sticking tough objects into them. That was the strategy and marketing goal – raise brand awareness using a video social channel – and it was a solid strategy at that.

But let’s be clear, they weren’t planning to go viral. The reason they did is because they had a great, unique, brand-relevant idea that succeeded in their original strategy and was enormously entertaining to boot.

As popularity grew they realised that they could ramp up their original strategy. So good was the response and engagement that they made more videos because, well, why wouldn’t you? After 186 videos, their sales had skyrocketed by 700%. They suddenly found they could demonstrate a way to turn viral views into revenue, but that was the combination of a good idea to increase brand awareness and a little bit of luck in the sheer scale of its uptake.

You can – and should – try lots of sensible tactics to increase your reach, as the Blendtec guys did, but going viral as a standalone attainment is pretty much insurmountable. Also, don’t forget two points: firstly, their product is mass market. The target audience, i.e. people that want to buy blenders, is vast. Secondly, they’re celebrities now, practically internet royalty. Marketers aspiring to be Blendtec is like a drama student aspiring to be Jennifer Lawrence – you might get that big break, but it’s unlikely.

Digital immaturity

If your content marketing strategy is to go viral, it suggests a lack of digital maturity.

YouTube, for example, announced a few months ago that it was going to start being more discerning about how popular your video content needs to be to start earning advertising revenue; it set the bar at 10,000 views.

Now, back in 2009, a Slate investigation into viral video studied 10,000 videos and found that just 25 – a mere 0.3% – exceeded that 10,000-view threshold.

That was eight years ago. At the current rate, 300 hours of YouTube video are uploaded every minute. To say the odds are stacked against you would suggest those odds have anything to lean on in the first place. Which they don’t.

Digital immaturity means you’re not following the data. If you want to increase your reach, then within the data is where you start. It’s where you find out the content people that are responding to and you capitalise on that.

Do you really want to?

But going back to my original question – do you even want to go viral? In other words, do you want to reach a small proportion of the masses, or do you want to reach a large proportion of a highly-targeted audience? The former is more likely to contain a lot of people at the top of your marketing funnel; the latter almost certainly has a high contingent of potential customers that are ready to move down or in fact are lower down that funnel.

It’s all about your ROI, ultimately. Going viral is a nice-to-have, but if you’re trying some sort of hack – if it’s your marketing goal to go viral – then it’s likely to be the result of many wasted man-hours for scant return. It’s far from any guarantee of generating revenue, even if you do manage to get millions of views, because how many of those views are making sales? These are the definition of vanity metrics.

Instead, spend your time producing creative, interesting, entertaining or educational content that is of high value to your specific target audiences. Make your efforts worthwhile. If you happen to go viral as a result, it just means you did something very, very right. Good on you.