Keys To Making a Message Go Viral

I am amazed at how many Organizations have adopted social media with the assumption that their messages will get greater exposure as a result of going “viral”. But, unfortunately that assumption is usually wrong. Most messages don’t go viral and the ultimate reach ends up being considerably less than desired or required for success. I read a Fast Company article on the subject authored by Dan & Chip Heath. They made a statement that caught my attention –

“Viral needs to mean more than ‘free’ and ‘fueled by prayer’. Making an idea contagious isn’t a mysterious marketing art. It boils down to a couple of simple rules.”

I thought it might be fun to explore what those “simple” rules might be. Before we begin, it is important to differentiate between a message that is “sticky” and one that goes “viral”. If it is sticky, the message is memorable. But, many sticky messages never go viral. For example, the phrase “Thirty days has September, April, June and November. All the rest have thirty-one, except February with 28.” That is a sticky message. Ask most grade school students and they will recite a version for you. But, search the social media channels and you won’t find that the message has gone viral despite the fact that it is indeed sticky (memorable).

A Couple Simple Rules

Okay, so what are the simple rules to having your message go viral? Here is what I have been able to find from doing an Internet search.  My conclusion?  It takes as much luck as skill.

There is an Emotion Connection

Viral messages create an emotional connection with people, a connection they want to share with others. The latest example that is all the rage is  You can’t simply join the pinterest movement, you must request an invitation, and then you are placed on a waiting list. Pinterest is reported to be “The Next Social Wave of 2012” .

There is an Element of Doing a Small Favor

People like to do favors for friends. To the extent sharing the message creates happiness, saves money or helps solve a problem, it can be seen as doing a friend a favor. Witness the phenomenal speed that Angry Birds dominated the app world.

There exists an Environmental Trigger

A trigger is a reminder to talk about an idea or message. For example a coffee break at work is a trigger to share the message that Starbuck’s offers a discount if you bring in a travel mug (Make a Difference promotional campaign).

Place Branding Examples

I was able to find some examples of viral campaigns in place branding that illustrate one or more of the three principles. Unfortunately, I found more examples of bad news gone viral that would require damage control than positive news that would position a city for increased capital investment.

Here are a select few examples.

Air New Zealand – Would You Spoon?

Banff Crasher Squirrel

More Fun in The Philippines

New Jersey Map

Traverse City Lip Dub

Sh*t New Yorkers Say


Pinning hopes on having your social media campaign go viral doesn’t seem to be a smart strategy. The probability of it happening is pretty low, particularly if you are trying to communicate something positive about your community. There is a higher chance that your first viral experience will catch you unaware and require you to execute a serious damage control effort. Bad news travels very quick, embarrassing news gets passed on far easier than positive news.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment with creating viral campaigns for your community. It simply means you need to acknowledge that the probability of success is low and if it works fantastic. But, don’t build viral results into your base plan forecast or in your commitment to community leaders.

HELP – If you have examples of successful viral campaigns for communities, please leave a comment with a link to an article or video that shares the campaign. If you have examples of crises created by bad news about a community going viral share them as well. We can all benefit from learning how to deal with the increasing likelihood of having to manage this kind of a crisis.

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