How NOT To Go Viral: Four Ways to Doom a Viral Marketing Campaign



From the CEO’s desk, marketing looks like a pretty simple prospect. Slap together a funny video, post it online and wait for it to “go viral.” If it were only that easy. In fact, the quickest way to doom a viral campaign is to try to make it go viral. Just like with search engine optimization, content is king when it comes to viral marketing. A remarkable message will be shared, while a blatant ad will be seen for what it is and join the long list of failed memes on YouTube.

You don’t have to fall into that dreaded trap. I’m a firm believer in learning from mistakes, and thanks to the immortality of the Web, there are literally millions to learn from. Taking a hard look at the bad can help you avoid those same gaffes in your next campaign. So without further ado, here are four surefire ways to fail when it comes to going viral.

1. Forcing It

Ever try to intentionally give someone a cold? Not only is it rude, but once people figure out what you’re trying to do, they’ll avoid you like, well, the plague. The same holds true online. Trying to force a would-be viral video, blog post or website down someone’s throat will result in a new message going viral: You’re a spammer.

Just take Habitat, the British furniture retailer that spammed Twitter during the Iran elections. Seemingly unaware that hashtags are there to help interested users follow a conversation about a trending topic, Habitat used tags like #mousavi and #iran to essentially interject their ad for a gift card drawing into the conversation. You could argue the message went viral, but this is one case where all publicity was not good publicity. One fired intern later, we all learned a valuable lesson that viral failure can extend beyond just video to any shareable medium.

Twitter Fail

2. Copying It

Hey, that bed intruder video got 63 million hits. Why not do a reenactment of it with your site’s URL at the end? Not a good plan. You may see a high number of views, but consider most of those are people watching the first 3 seconds before realizing it isn’t what they were looking for. And if they did reach the end before realizing you weren’t the real Antoine Dodson, then they’re probably upset with you for taking two minutes of their life.

That’s not to say you can’t play off of other viral successes. But instead of copying an idea, build off of it. Create something unique in its own right. Just take the bed intruder song cover arranged for Tsugaru Shamisen. If you’re like me, you’ll spend the first minute trying to figure out what happened to his guitar, and the next amazed by what he does with it. Over 2 million views later, the video has surely pushed a fair amount of traffic to the artist’s site. What you’re supposed to do when you get there is anyone’s guess, but that is a topic for another article.

3. Faking It

This is a tough one for a lot of brands. You want to wow people and get them talking. However, at the end of the day, you want them talking about your product and not how you deceived your audience. Just ask the people over at Sony who tried to pass a corporate blog off as a little boy’s plea for a new PSP for Christmas.

But don’t rule out faking it as an option. Just be sure to make your stunt so over-the-top that the discussion isn’t about whether or not you’re being deceitful but rather how you pulled your special effects off. Reebok’s fantasy football video campaign is a great example, with players jumping through open car windows and ringing a bell tower with placekicks.

4. Crappy Content

This should go without saying, but there are millions of examples online that prove otherwise. Before putting something online, be it a video, tweet, status update, blog post, or otherwise, ask yourself if you’d share it. If the answer is no, head back to the drawing board.

There is one exception, and that is content so terrible that it becomes fantastic. This might include embarrassing childhood photos, videos of people falling on ice, or my personal favorite, a group of food distributor sales reps recreating the famous Super Bowl Shuffle. I’m not sure if this company still exists, but I want to buy their stuff solely because I feel bad for laughing so hard at them!



Richard Kraneis
Feb 09, 2011

Why go Viral when you can use Infographics?

Somewhere along the way, corporate executives have heard the phrase "going viral". More than once I've heard a friend or a potential client express their interest in a "viral campaign".

Very recently a clothing company used Twitter and #hashtags to try to use words like #mubarak or #egypt to promote their clothing line. A great example of viral stupidity.

Sadly, Groupon here in Chicago stepped into a viral mess when they tried your #3 of Faking It. We all watched intently when a Super Bowl ad mentioned Tibet or Saving the Whales. Only to find a tacky ad for Groupon. They're such a good company, they needed someone with gray hairs on his head (like me) to give them a good old fashioned "no" on that campaign.

When viral campaigns are so difficult, so easily mismanaged, why aren't people considering infographic link campaigns instead?

WordStream alone has a serious infographic marketing method that has brought them tons of links and visitors. Just do a Google search on "WordStream Infographics" and you'll find 3-5 WordStream infographic campaigns on the first SERP.

So when it comes to corporate executives, they need to innoculate themselves against viral campaign fantasies and think infographics instead.

Infographic campaigns can be effective. Just ask WordStream.

Chuck Ferraro
Jan 18, 2012

Thank You for the well written article. I have never gave much thought on what not to do and you have shed light on some things that every website owner should pay attention to!

Geoff Moore
Jan 31, 2013

Hi Peter,I feel the best advice is to is create content that is unique, informative, and authentic.Let's face it, if your blog/website is fortunate enough to become a viral hit , chances are it has a lot to do with LUCK... Thanks for a good read guys.Geoff Moore

Home Equity
May 02, 2013

For me, getting viral is actually one of the plans that I need to pursue but that also depends on what kind of business, your target audience would be and etc.. this requires an extensive research.

Viral Marketing
Oct 09, 2013

I am a youtube lover and always trying to earn money from youtube. can you provide me how to search keywords that can could go viral. also Is there any way to propmote faster on web? thanks

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