5 Steps to Make It Go Viral

It Takes Both Planning and Luck

Hey folks đź‘‹, I'm Kenneth Burke. #BurkeBits is where I share stories, data, and frameworks to help you become a better marketer. Subscribe for free to level-up.

Want to see a marketer roll their eyes and question their existence?

Ask them to make something “go viral.”

We all want this—an idea or piece of content to spread exponentially—but it’s tough. You’re much more likely to fail than succeed, and so most of us in marketing don’t even try.

Yet there are creators, celebrities, brands, and agencies who create viral marketing on command. What can we learn from them?

5 Things to Keep in Mind

1. Things have “gone viral” before the internet.

Juicy gossip and breaking news have always spread like wildfire. One person tells two people who tell six more, and so on. The internet makes it much easier to share things with more people, and algorithms can add fuel to already-burning fires, but the concept of something spreading exponentially isn’t new or trendy.

2. “Viral” is relative.

A small business owner could get 10,000 views in their niche and be overwhelmed with new business. A Fortune 100 brand may get 1,000,000 views and still not break even on their marketing spend.

What it takes to “go viral” and see incredible results differs drastically by business. For any planning you do, make sure you think about your specific business needs first.

3. People will dislike, discredit, and disrespect you.

Haters gonna hate. Things often go viral because of a dissenting view (more on that later), which means some people—maybe most—aren’t going to like you.

That can get heated quickly, and you may not want that kind of attention, despite the potential upside.

4. It’s not for everyone.

No one cares about your local credit union. Even if you got a billion views, those viewers can’t work with you. It becomes a fun blip—enjoy it!—but it won’t significantly impact your business.

This is one reason why trying to go viral is not a marketing strategy. You have to have a massive potential audience that you can convert into revenue. Most don’t.

5. At some point, going viral is just good marketing.

Taylor swift does anything, and it gets more attention that you’ll see in your lifetime. She and her PR team built a massive, obsessively loyal audience, tons of goodwill with the media, and powerful distribution. For them, “going viral” is standard procedure.

Creators like Mr. Beast and Sahil Bloom, any successful politician or celebrity, and brands like Virgin Group and Coca-Cola figured out how to get tons of attention that gets people talking and makes media outlets want to share it. And they’re able to do this repeatedly.

Not everyone can do this, but campaigns and content that go viral have these 5 things in common.

The 5-Step Formula for Viral Content

These are not law, but if you look around at business content and ads that went viral and brought in significant revenue, they tend to do these 5 things.

1. Entertain: They grab your attention.

People aren’t actively looking for this (at least not before it’s viral), so you’ve got to have something to grab people’s attention.

It can be a hook, a gimmick, or an exaggerated emotion like excitement or outrage, but you’ve got to have something that makes people pause and go “Oh? What’s this?” Squatty Potty used a pooping unicorn.

2. Interest: They share new info or a well-articulated feeling.

Once you’ve grabbed someone’s attention, you’ve got to give them a reason to stick around. Often, this is done by sharing something new and interesting, or by expressing an emotion your target audience feels but struggles to articulate. E.g. you tug on their heartstrings or explain why something is so frustrating. Viewers sit there thinking “Yes! Exactly! You get me.”

3. Differentiate: They speak with a unique voice or from a unique position.

If you sound like everyone else, you’ll fall into oblivion. That’s why some people and brands curse in their advertising. It’s a stark contrast from the usually more professional and even-keeled professional environment.

Just make sure how you differentiate fits within your brand—your values, messaging, and voice. Avoid doing something for shock value unless you’re going to back it up everywhere else. Otherwise, you hurt your brand and your revenue.

4. Create tension: They spark drama, disagreement, or emotions.

Politicians are great at this. They’ll loudly condemn the other guy’s view and stir up emotion. Sports analysts do the same thing, and it’s all to get you emotionally hooked so that you want to become part of the conversation.

A lot of brands will also use this strategy to highlight how they stand against something. Apple raged against boring, corporate Microsoft. HubSpot raged against outbound marketing and how bad the buyer experience was. ShamWow raged against messy spills.

5. Call-to-Act: They tell people what to do.

Buy our product, call your senator, share this with a friend, subscribe to our channel, etc. To make “going viral” palatable for business, you’ve got to tell viewers what to do. You’ve got to harness the attention and emotion you’ve created, and direct it towards growing your business.

It’s far from guaranteed, but when you create content and ads with these characteristics, there’s a strong change they’ll resonate and spread.

7 Tactics to Do It Better

You’re strategy should not be to “go viral,” but great content marketing with a chance at spreading wildly usually involves these tactics.

1. Mimic the scripts of other viral content you like.

Don’t copy or plagiarize, but treat this content like a course on what you can also do and say.

2. Focus on creating great content regularly.

You’re almost always better off shooting for base hits rather than home runs. The odds are so much more in your favor. And as you create that great content regularly, your audience will naturally grow, increasing your chances of going viral (kind of like getting a bunch of base hits to earn runs rather than swinging for the fences every time).

3. Be willing to spend more to create it.

And be okay with losing that money! There’s always risk that your content will turn into nothing, but viral business content that brings in revenue is usually high quality. If not in production, at least in impact.

For example, Stanley gave a lifetime supply of cups to someone who’s car burned down with her Stanley cup inside and still had ice in it afterwards! The announcement was recorded on the CEO’s phone and shared first on TikTok.

4. Aim for quick engagement once it’s published.

Most platforms reward engagement with more engagement, and they typically use data from the first hour of it being live to make those decisions. So definitely follow step #5.

5. Share early and often.

Distribution is key. Share this content everywhere ASAP. Message friends to jump on to comment and share, send it to your subscribers immediately, and keep sharing it ongoing. You’ve got to put some momentum behind it. If people like it or stay engaged, platforms will expand its reach to more people.

6. Use someone else’s reputation, if possible.

The most “viral” content often comes from people of influence sharing your pitch, your story, or the content you created. This is why influencer marketing, done well, can bring such high returns.

Find other marketers, associations, key customers, and content creators in your industry whose opinions your audience cares about. Build relationships with them, and as you have something to share, ask or pay them to help you spread the word.

7. Turn that attention into more media attention.

If your content really resonates, other media outlets like news channels and industry leaders will want to cover it. This is ideal for getting the most bang for your buck, so once something has traction, see how you can turn it into a story these outlets are interested in telling.

A Word of Caution

You can use this framework to help spread your message and generate revenue, but “going viral” is not a strategy.

Be sure you have a product or service people want, a defined view of your ideal buyer, and clear messaging that you know resonates with them. Create “base hit” content that’s a little better every time, and use that to steadily grow your sphere of influence.

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Have questions about this topic or something you’re working on? Ask away! I’m an open book and happy to help.