The Danger of Going Viral

November 6, 2014

The Danger of Going Viral

November 6, 2014

Group Gordon’s Alison Berg blogs about the risks and unintended consequences a viral campaign may bring. 11.6.2014

Every music hopeful with a guitar and YouTube account dreams of the day their videos go viral, transforming them into the next Justin Bieber (circa 2009). Many strive to have their stories shared by users, customers, or other third-party validators, who will then share that message with their followers, and so on, until the original source and intent disappear.

The word “meme” actually stems from the biological term “gene”–it self-replicates (is shared), mutates (is replicated, repurposed, or parodied), and responds to outside pressures (garners comments and becomes the subject of debates). On the surface, having your materials go viral sounds like a PR dream—maximum exposure with minimum effort. But when things go viral, you lose complete control over the message, which can quickly turn into a PR nightmare.

The good.

Target’s recent #AlexfromTarget campaign is an example of a harmless viral image. A photo of a young Target employee was uploaded, because of his resemblance to a certain celebrity heartthrob, and shared over a million times. Viral status ensued: captions were added, the photo appeared in different contexts, and the media even reported on the story. Overall, the meme helped Target by bringing a sense of humanity to a huge corporation.

The bad.

Take for example the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which went viral this summer. Nominees were challenged to, within 24 hours, pour ice on their heads or donate $100 to the ALS Association. In the first viral wave, hundreds of thousands of users taped themselves pouring ice water on their heads in the bathtub or backyard, but actual donations were lacking. Few people seemed to understand that ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is an incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease. Advocates for the disease pushed back against the Ice Bucket Challenge, insisting that awareness does not replace the need for education and understanding of the disease. Expanding and deepening the conversation on the disease seemed to work—the ALS Association has raised $115 million in donations since July 29, 2014.

The ugly.

Unfortunately, many times the ways messages go viral are contrary to the original intent of a campaign. For example, when the New York Police Department tried to enhance its public image by showcasing community involvement, it encouraged people to Tweet pictures with NYPD officers using #myNYPD. The campaign went viral—but for the wrong reasons. Many of the photos tweeted with the hashtag pictured police officers taking violent and unnecessarily harsh action. What began as a PR boost ended as a crisis.

Viral campaigns may reach large audiences and gain widespread recognition, but they are almost impossible to control. Often your intended message and goal get lost in the noise. While it can be hard to predict what or when something will go viral, it is critical to anticipate, preempt, and prepare. Although few campaigns end up reaching the scale of the examples above, make sure you’re prepared for your campaign to go viral—and the good, the bad, and the ugly that may come with it.