Going Viral

Websites are an important tool for organisations to communicate with their target publics. Generally speaking, they are the lynchpin through which an audience is aware of an organisation, and the key platform on which the organisation’s message is spread.

However, with the growing use of the internet it is no longer viable for organisations to rely solely on their website to communicate with their online publics. As per Holtz (2002), PR practitioners need to use a variety of methods and tools to promote an online strategy to the widest audience possible, just the same way as with any other PR message [1].

There are a number of tools and platforms to help build online communities, including social media strategies, SEO, affiliate networks, and online advertising. However the organic and participatory nature of the internet means that audiences can share and distribute whatever content they want amongst their personal networks. Savvy PR practitioners understand this, and accordingly focus on creating interesting content that their target publics will not only want to hear/watch/read, but will also want to share with their friends and family. If a piece of content is shared often and in a short time period, it is deemed to have ‘gone viral’.

Going Viral

In the same way that people trust word-of-mouth recommendations, messages communicated virally are often perceived as credible by the recipient because they trust the sender [2]. Going viral provides huge volumes of extra traffic to their online space (be it their social profile, website or blog), often to a variety of people who either are not traditionally their target public, or to people who are their public target but were not aware of the organisation.

The publicity created through viral promotion has been formally recognised as a legitimate form of word-of-mouth promotion, to the point that  there is now an entire sub-sector dedicated to the practice. One merely needs to type ‘how to make a viral video’ into the Google search bar to find a plethora of organisations, consultants and experts who claim to have the strategy to make messages go viral. But the truth is that Viral messages are random; an organisation doesn’t know where a viral message will go or who will see it [3].

In my opinion, some of the best viral campaigns are TV ads. But whereas ten years ago the audience of TV ads were restricted geographically (unless they were amusing enough to be picked up by a ‘funniest ad’ compilation variety show), video sharing platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo allow TV ads to go viral globally. This is particularly relevant for global companies which present ads to local markets (for example the Doritos ad premiered at the most recent Super Bowl) which are then spread to their global public.

However, just the same as with other key PR messages, the success of viral campaigns can be difficult to measure. While a communications team can measure the amount of ‘shares’ on Facebook, re-tweets on Twitter, or views on YouTube, it is impossible for an organisation to know just how many times that piece of content was emailed between friends or shared on social platforms not linked to the organisation.

The risks of viral

But there is a huge risk to going viral. While one of the benefits of the phenomenon is that an organisation has little control over the extreme spread of the message, this is also a significant risk. If a message goes viral that does not show the organisiation favorably it can do significant damage to an organisation’s brand and harm their online community. Of course, the difficulty with this is that often an organisation is damaged by somebody else’s viral campaign (whether it be an individual or an organisation) rather than their own.

One such example is the 2010 KitKat palm oil campaign launched by Greenpeace. With over 1.5 million views of the 1 minute video condemning Nestle for destroying the Borneo rainforests to produce Palm Oil for their KitKats, the campaign provided amazing PR coverage for Greenpeace, while simultaneously damaging KitKat’s brand.  KitKat’s brand was further damaged when they choose to delete accusatory Facebook posts from Greenpeace supporters, rather than respond to the concerns of their online community in an honest and open manner. The issue was further compounded when Nestle successfully petitioned YouTube to have the video removed, where upon Greenpeace supporters re-focused their efforts towards the campaign and continued to upload the video to various other social sharing sites.

(For a full write-up of Nestle’s disastrous management of Greenpeace’s campaign, check out this blog post.)

Another great is example is Dave Carroll’s ‘United Breaks Guitars’ campaign. When his  guitar was broken on a United Airlines flight and the airline repeatedly refused to respond after a year of complaints, Dave wrote a catchy and humorous song, which went viral with over 13 million YouTube views. While the campaign was catastrophic for United Airlines reputation, it provided unseen benefits for the otherwise unknown musician, Dave Carroll, as well as the guitar company Taylor Guitars.

And finally, I’ll leave you with my favourite viral campaign of last year which I shared on my Facebook page and forwarded to at least a dozen friends, the London Paralymics ‘Meet the Superhuman’ campaign.


[1] Holtz, S 2002, Public relations on the net, 2nd ed, Amacom, New York.

[2] Horton, JL 2002, ‘Viral PR?’, Online Public Relations, retrieved 23 July 2012.

[3] Ibid.


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