Viral Marketing: Know the Medium. Know Your Message

“Viral” by its definition is something that spreads quickly. When planning for good media exposure of your business, a positive viral marketing event is one that nearly all PR people plan for and dream about. While there are quite a few that simply happen due to timing, happenstance or luck, others are thought out, planned and honed to have the maximum effect and optimum ROI.

There are three current viral marketing events that I’ll discuss in this post.

When planning for a viral marketing event, your goal is to bring attention to a cause that is powerful, that has the opportunity to do good, help others and influence the most amount of people to participate. It shouldn’t be something that involves any significant expense, otherwise there will be some that won’t be able to become involved. An action that is self-deprecating is a good choice. Should it be overly challenging? Generally again, if you want the maximum amount of participation you should have something simple.

No Makeup Selfie
What about raising money for cancer research by eschewing makeup? It’s simple, very cost effective, for many women; either who are known for a particular look or prefer a specific appearance, going without makeup can be challenging indeed. Yet in the UK, £8m was generated in just six days by women for the Cancer Research program using the hashtag #nomakeupselfie. The power of the Internet and social media has shown the impact that can be achieved without having to develop a logo, an image, a spokesperson, audio/video clip or multimillion dollar launch. Just a simple hashtag sign and stand back, it’s everywhere. Watch the BBC video below discussing the campaign.


The initial idea wasn’t for cancer research itself, but began as a gesture by author Laura Lippman in defense of an event where legendary actress Kim Novak chose not to wear makeup and roundly was criticized for doing so. Fiona Cunningham saw this and decided to challenge her friends and others to post photos sans makeup online and donate £3 to charity. That was on March 18th. Days afterward, many hundred ‘likes’, Cancer Research UK said as a result of the campaign that they’d received over £8 million in donations. Was Ms. Cunningham a social media expert? Employed by the top firm making generous amounts of money for her expertise? Ms. Cunningham is a self-described “18 year old single mum” that started this from a bedroom in Staffordshire, England.

Yet three simple words preceded by a hashtag sign led to a charitable event that is still generating money today and has spread across the world. What’s equally interesting about it is how the often defined narcissistic selfie became a tool for doing good not only for cancer research, but also for discussion on what defines a woman’s beauty. How much do you think the typical ad agency or social media expert would have charged to produce an ad campaign that was that simple, that powerful, using an action that’s usually mocked, and accomplished what it did? An observation that’s been made is how the complete spontaneity of the campaign was one of the selling points. No rollout, pre-planning, time table, no endorsements, just someone caring and using a social media tool.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
Another successful campaign that used some similar elements is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s origins are varied; in 2013-2014, the Cold Water Challenge was often used in the Northern U.S where one either donated to charity or jumped into cold water. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation adopted this as a fund raiser. The first actual Ice Bucket challenge occurred in June 2014 during a golfing show where the hosts did a live challenge. Golfer Chris Kennedy is believed to the first person to focus the challenge towards ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as he had a relative that was affected by the disease. It quickly spread across formats, media, genres, unknowns and celebrities. The challenge here was a little more involved than simply forgoing a morning ritual; depending on the climate, the person’s health and the enthusiasm of the assistants, it could be quite strenuous. The U.S version was generally defined by a challenge being given by someone and within 24 hours you had to record yourself in one shot being doused by a bucket of ice water. If you accepted the challenge, you would donate ten dollars, if you declined then one hundred was the amount. And of course you picked at least three other people.

This particular campaign operated off of at least two primary motivators; the desire to help others, and the age old competitive spirit involved in one-upmanship. The methods ranged from the simple, someone accepts the challenge, they or someone with them deliver the ice water bath up the complex like actor Benedict Cumberbatch seemingly being stalked and splashed everywhere from his backyard deck to outside his car and even in the shower. The results? The ALS Association reported that since July 29, 2014 their donations exceeded well over $100 million and shared the benefits of the campaign with other similar entities such as Project ALS, ALS Therapy Development Institute and the Motor Neurone Disease Association along with ALS Foundation Netherlands.

One element mentioned by critics is that because the challenge is like many others, on the honor system, groups like the Charities Aid Foundation claim that only ten percent of those challenged actually donated. Another issue mentioned is the focus was being taken off the patients with ALS and the entities doing research and simply being an opportunity for people to exercise their 15 minutes of fame or for celebrities to build their fan base; thus mirroring the self-focused element of the selfie. Something that businesses should be very wary of is trying to claim a viral campaign developed outside of house for their own. The ALS Association reportedly attempted to trademark the term “ice bucket challenge”. Understandably, they withdrew the request shortly afterward after a barrage of complaints and negative comments.

Comparing these two events show that although the ice bucket challenge had an apparently wider media audience, there was also more opportunity for criticism and co-opting of the intended cause for personal gain. This is the dual edged sword that social media campaigns that achieve viral status must be aware of. Anything that becomes popular in all likelihood will be mocked and potentially exploited so a clear delineation of what is the original or true cause and means for supporting it are stated and having the ability to either ignore or adapt to being lampooned.

Harlem Shake
Viral media campaigns don’t always have to be focused on a special, noble cause. They can just end up being wildly popular with some experts still unsure exactly what drives the results aside from people just sharing something on the internet. For example, take Harry Rodrigues. He wrote a track called “Shake” that was initially release in June of 2012 to a somewhat modest response. By February of 2013, it had raced up the Digital Songs chart to number three, a jump of about 1,359%. Why, because this artist, known professionally as Baauer, found his track used as part of an internet meme called, “Harlem Shake.” For the small percentage of people who haven’t seen this yet, the thirty second video typically has one person dancing with other around them ignoring their actions and then the last fifteen seconds cuts to a crowd of people dancing as well, usually in costumes or some other attire depending on the source of the video or the intention of the creator.


What many people took note of was the fact of virtually little if no radio airplay that supported the track, it was entirely supported by the Internet, by the assorted memes and other video compilations that it was associated with. It’s popularity couldn’t be ignored as it was able to bump off the top hit “Thrift Shop” and had very impressive results in other music ratings charts. One might think given the randomness of the internet and the variety of posts that Baauer would be getting little or nothing from all the variations of his song. YouTube has a program called Content ID and along with a company called INDmusic they made a deal with Baauer’s indie label Mad Decent and began monetizing the video views. As of February 7, 2013, over 4,000 uploaded videos were detected, connected and paid Baauer for his work. Channel partners reportedly can take about 55% of revenues from every view. To put it in perspective, the previous music hit, “Gangham Style” by Psy, averaged $2 for every 1,000 YouTube views. That’s almost two million dollars. It’s goofy, it’s irreverent, to some, it’s incomprehensible. But it’s undeniably lucrative.

So what do you have to do to ride the next wave of viral campaign success? You probably shouldn’t have your office go wild with a camera recording everything. What you’ll need to do is closely follow trending activities and have the ability to graft one or more of those together with a video element such a Vine or still photos using a hashtag that makes a quick connection. Being able to plan FOR a viral marketing event is one thing, sitting around and waiting for it happen is like hoping you’re going to win the lottery or the slot machines. You can make some goals about what to do if it happens but as they say, don’t plan for your retirement on it, or in this case, your future business.

The uniqueness of social media has many opportunities and traps that you have to consider when using it. Keep in the mind the medium and the user; quick, catchy, popular, easily accessible. Once it starts, have your plan in place for how to maximize your use of it without abusing it. Will your marketing campaign be the next Internet sensation? Know the Medium. Know your Message.