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Since the dawn of the social media age, viral success has been a PR goal. The idea of scoring maximum coverage for little outlay is often too exciting to pass up. But that doesn't mean companies should chase this goal recklessly. There are a huge number of risks, and campaigns designed for viral sharing often fail or worse backfire. Actually getting brand content to spread organically requires a little luck - and a careful grasp of the media.
Viral success doesn't spring up out of thin air. The sharing and spread of stories are spearheaded by well-connected personalities, and PR decisions are increasingly involving these influencers. Forbes contributor John Hall recently explained that in 2017 and beyond, organizations will be able to find and keep track of the influential voices in their particular fields. By doing so, they can decide where to focus their efforts.
Getting content to draw viral attention is not a one-step process. As such, PR departments' tactic of choice is often trial and error. Media intelligence makes learning through trial and error possible, with mentions and attribution checked in real time. One campaign that draws some attention can lead to another that specifically targets the main influencers who emerge. Hall specified that once PR professionals have detailed knowledge about how information spreads, they have a much better chance of achieving viral status.
When it comes to viral success and failure, avoiding the latter may be more important than achieving the former. Well-informed PR teams with strong media intelligence components will be able to adeptly avoid failures, while others may stumble.
The Financial Post recently shared an example that all companies should take to heart: A mining company made a crass attempt to achieve viral shares by having bikini-clad models recite facts about the industry. Instead of being shared enthusiastically, the piece drew serious condemnation for what the news source called "a tone-deaf effort to appeal to customers in a traditionally male-dominated industry."
The mining company's loss can be our gain, as The Financial Post gave a few important takeaways from the situation:
Taking the above lessons to heart may bring about immediate and positive PR change. Companies going for a quick burst of sharing and coverage stand to end up with negative mentions that refuse to fade over time. This is the difference between creating content that goes viral - a good thing - and generating media for the sole purpose of going viral - a risky and negative endeavor.
Ragan's PR Daily made a point to explain that there is a serious lack of specificity in today's PR field about what exactly it means to go viral. The term is vague, and it can be hard to tell what companies want when they explain they are interested in creating a viral hit. This kind of communication vacuum can lead to PR disasters like the one mentioned above, in which hastily made assets draw ire.
In the end, the kind of viral hits, which are bottled-lightning moments when individuals spend one exciting minute in the social media spotlight, cannot be planned by brands. Don't lose hope. Well-crafted public relations backed by media monitoring and shared with a targeted list of influencers can produce wide reach for content. While it is more methodical and may seem less impromptu, this approach is very effective.
Organizations attempting to "break the internet"--or adding the latest slang term to their communications--may seem woefully out of touch in a hurry. Real reach and influence tend to be more about good content and smart distribution than quick and dirty moves outside the company's comfort zone.