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Virality is not always the goal (not just in regard to COVID-19)

I have always been intrigued by viral content. Although the term “viral” may be ridden with negative connotations in times of COVID-19, when applied to social media and marketing it is something that we may all dream of achieving. Viral content is material that is rapidly spread online through various platforms. However, how to best emulate that “je ne sais quoi” that drives masses and makes our content gain overnight success?

The answer is still an enigma.

Although a secret formula would be ideal, the reality is that there is no one real way of measuring or predicting what will attain viral success. If we look at content that has gone viral over the past years, not everything has great messages or amazing production value. In many cases random, semi-entertaining material is what reaches the masses. Although brands and content creators may strive to create viral content in hopes of reaping the benefits of their extended reach, going viral may be more harmful than beneficial.

If campaigns reach the viral status, why might they still fail?

In some cases, campaigns and ideas that sound amazing when discussed in a conference room simply do not translate to the real world. Messages are lost in the noise and not correctly decoded by the receiver.

In other cases, brands seem to have forgotten who their target audience is and behave in ways that may be perceived as culturally insensitive.

What follows are some of the marketing blunders in viral campaigns of the last years.

  1. Kendall Jenner and Pepsi

Pepsi attempted to project a message of unity, peace and comprehension in a video in which model, Kendal Jenner, manages to prevent police intervention during a protest by giving them a Pepsi. The ad was seen as highly insensitive as it portrayed images reminiscent of Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

The ad provoked outraged after going viral. It was quickly pulled but continues to be seen as one of biggest marketing fails of the last years.

  1. Hyundai Suicide Ad

Marketers wanted to spread the message that their new car lowered carbon emission rates. What better way to do this than by showing a man attempting suicide in his car? Huyndai tried to remove the ad from YouTube but the content had already gone viral. This was another case in which brand sensitivity was inexistent and message encoding was not well executed.

  1. “Up for Whatever” Bud Light

The beer company sold bottles with the message: “The perfect beer for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night”. Although the campaign intended to encourage fun night outs, it undermined the importance of consent and acceptance that no means no when preventing sexual assault.

What can we learn from these failed viral campaigns?

First of all, virality does not equal success. Although some argue that all publicity is good publicity, these blunders have the capacity to tarnish brand image and diminish sales for many years to come.

 In order to avoid similar mistakes, we can do the following:

  1. Know your audience. Who are you talking to? What do they care about? How to best frame your message so that they understand?
  2. Be up to date with current events. What is going on in the world? How can we take this into account and avoid being insensitive?
  3. Double check before publishing and monitor results. It seems like some marketing departments did not use common sense before creating these campaigns. Talk to other individuals before publishing and make sure you monitor your content to evaluate how it is being received by your target audience.

Viral content can garner benefits if well executed but can generate great damage otherwise. Instead of focusing on what you cannot control (can/will it go viral) focus on creating quality content with a clear message and constantly monitor and improve your content. Benefits may not be exponential, but they can still be measurable and consistent.

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