Have you caught the Viral Virus?

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By Tracey Benjamini, Account Executive, R&J Public Relations

Let’s face it, one of our least favorite statements to hear as PR professionals is, “I want my video/tweet/image/infographic to go viral,” especially when this statement is followed by being shown what may be a beautifully produced, but still run-of-the-mill, commercial which is supposed to be a “viral video.”

Unfortunately, there is no scientific formula for producing viral content, even though every PR professional wishes there were. Much of creating viral content is a “throw it against a wall and see what sticks” process that takes a great deal of content and a great deal of patience. There are certainly trends in viral content to offer some insight into what works and what doesn’t. For example, a run-of-the- mill commercial is, and will always be just a commercial. Sure there are commercials that go viral, but they typically have something unique about them. Also, content featuring adorable puppies and kittens, or anything produced on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon has a better chance than most content to takeoff. But incorporating baby animals isn’t appropriate for most clients’ content, and how many of our clients actually have the budget to pay for celebrity endorsements?

Back in March BuzzFeed’s editorial director Jack Shepard offered some tips the UK newspaper The Guardian on creating content that people actually want to share (which is the definition of “viral”):

  • The words “viral content” are a big N-O — Shepard simply states, “The first thing we learned [at BuzzFeed] about viral content is never, under any circumstances, say the words ‘viral content.’” So it might be a good idea to advise your colleagues, partners, and clients to stop referring to their video as a “viral video.” That seems to be a good sign it will be doomed from the start.
  • Connect with you audience — In Shepard’s experience, people share content that is closely aligned with who they are. Typically the content people share, post, and retweet is a reflection of themselves.  I think this is a good lesson in “know your audience.” People aren’t going to share the content you produce unless it resonates with them in some way. It’s important to really think about who you’re trying to reach, and what are the best means to reach them before producing and distributing any content you’re hoping will go viral. Not only will this produce better results, but it can also help save time and money.
  • Create a positive emotional response — Yes, puppies and kittens create a positive emotional response. Again, they are usually not the most appropriate way to convey your clients’ message. Shepard shares information from a 2010 study on the New York Times’ most emailed articles that found most articles shared were either awe-inspiring, emotional, positive or surprising. Shepard states, “the lesson from this isn’t so much that people like to feel feelings when they engage with a piece of content, it is that when it works – when the thing actually makes them cry or exclaim or feel inspired or shocked or happy – they want to share that experience with others.”

While the above tips are no means a formula for “viral content,” I think they are a great starting  point. By having a little patience and creating emotional content that resonates with your audience you’re certainly on the right track to reach a great number of people.

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