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The financial potential of viral content is enough to make any marketing expert salivate. All that free publicity in exchange for so little work? Sounds great! But how do you manipulate something which is, by its very nature, completely random? Good question.

There was a time when the word ‘viral,’ spoken in context with the web, probably meant you had a pop-up virus on your microwave-sized computer monitor. The word didn’t start to carry clout until the late aughts, when chipper Today Show hosts would announce that some inane cat video had gone ‘viral’ – a contextually new application of the word.

There was no governing law that could predict what content would go ‘viral.’ But it was an esteemed distinction – it meant the internet was lapping it up, sharing it everywhere, endowing it with undisputed relevance, and most importantly: aggressive financial potential.

As a business owner, what kind of viral content can you leverage, in a way that will expand your business?

WHAT KIND OF CONTENT GOES VIRAL?

Business leaders and marketing teams ought to strive toward the creation of viral content, but that is a distinctly problematic goal – because viral content is so hapless and unpredictable. With no unifying element to its many examples, how do you figure out exactly what to manipulate in order to intentionally produce it? Well, let’s take a deeper look.

ONE ‘LIKE’ AT A TIME

First of all – viral status is the direct result of individual appraisals by numerous web users. Each user independently finds merit in the content they’re looking at. Unlike a commercial, they choose to look at it – they’re not forced to. This prompts them to share it with their own audience of friends on social media, thereby perpetuating the content’s journey across cyberspace. The compilation of individual shares and likes suddenly reaches 7 or 8 or 9 figures, and this grows into a formidable tide of outsized recognition. The content is then crowned with ‘viral status.’

The important takeaway here is that any measured attempt at publicity, like official press releases, ad campaigns, commercials, or other methodical marketing effort to reach the widest possible audience, is not fodder for viral content.

This status is attained organically – one like, one view, one share at a time – creating a chain from viewer to viewer. When you put out content with the hope that it will go viral, you have to consider its ability to engage, amuse, awe, advise, inspire, or impact each viewer it touches.

Traditional marketing campaigns and brand omnipresence are, by comparison, a passive way of interacting with a wide audience – an attempt to achieve recognition by always being in front of the viewer, but doing little else. Viral content must, by contrast, have an angle to individually engage viewers with the content, in a way that makes them want to pass it along to their social media audience.

According to the Digital Marketing Institute, a study by Marketo found that users will share content with their friends because it fulfills specific purposes. I boiled them down to an easy mnemonic: VIRAL:

  • Value – provide offers and discounts or tips and helpful hints
  • Inspire – present images and quotes
  • Rally – unite your audience to be part of a tribe (for example, hashtags and movements meant to show solidarity with a particular cause)
  • Amuse & Amaze – display entertaining content or pictures and facts
  • (a)Lert (okay, I cheated here) – share potential dangers

Therefore, when you produce content within your business – be it a blog, video, speech, quiz/assessment – ask yourself if it fulfills any of the above actions.

Perhaps the best part of viral content marketing is just how simple, straightforward, and low-cost it can be: ‘Good Morning Cincinnati” host, Bob Herzog, recently reached national recognition for recording a video in which he parodied makeup tutorials, because he himself sits in the makeup chair every morning. It was recorded on his cell phone and cost nothing. Now his name and face are recognizable by millions of people, raising his professional profile considerably. His angle? He was amusing – people wanted to share his video on that count.

Position your content in a way that it fulfills at least one of the aforementioned purposes, and you are poised for success, because you have factored in the “share-ability” of what you’re producing.

Another defining quality seems to be a combination of informality and authenticity. How many handheld cell phone videos, or spontaneously-snapped pictures – never meant for exposure to a wide audience – go on to become well-recognized cultural memes? These features of authenticity and informality are reshaping the way we market goods and services.

Countless marketing campaigns have capitalized on the low budget/authentic angle that appeals to the modern-day viewer. Take Orabrush, a tongue-cleaning brush. Designed by a 75-year-old retiree, the product was going nowhere. Desperate to get some traction, he teamed up with a college student and, for $500, shot a video in a pool hall and placed it on YouTube. That first video had 13 million views. Each week brought a new installment – each one entertaining, intimate, irreverent. A local Wal-mart executive saw one and offered to stock it, leading to national retail distribution. Orabrush is now being sold around the world and their YouTube channel has over 45 million views.

Or realtor Graham Hunt, whose business selling properties in Spain took a huge hit when the market crashed. Hunt made a series of 100 videos in the span of four days and began releasing them on video sites like YouTube every day. The “100 Reasons to Live In Spain” video series reportedly increased his client visits by 225% and sales and rentals more than doubled.

Whether it’s an ad for a dental office, a financial management app, or a grocery subscription service – many marketing teams have done away with pricey TV ad spots and polished commercials of yore. Instead, you’ll find them handing a cell phone to the product’s spokesperson, letting them record a 10-second video with a front-facing camera, saying to the tune of “Hey guys! You can do XYZ with this product/service. It’s really awesome and useful, so you should get it.”

Viral videos allow small companies and entrepreneurs to share their ideas with everybody, playing on the same field as larger businesses. Done right, they can generate interest and grow your business.