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Adam Stetzer

Brands Going Viral (For All The Wrong Reasons)

Adam Stetzer
Brands Going Viral (For All The Wrong Reasons)

What if your company could go viral tomorrow? What if you could earn dozens, possibly hundreds of precious inbound links from major websites, while becoming a trending topic on social media at the same time? It sounds like every digital marketing agency’s wildest SEO dreams come true, and it is.

Be Careful What You Wish For...

If going viral like that sounds too good to be true, remember:

Your viral SEO fantasy is virtually identical to your worst digital nightmares. And thanks in large part to social media, it's never been easier to step on a landmine and go viral for all the wrong reasons.

And once the digital mob mentality kicks in, the results can be devastating. How bad can it get?

Digital mob mentality - how bad can it get?

Ask Walter Palmer of Minneapolis, aka Cecil the Lion Killer, aka Public Enemy #1 in October 2015.

Or better yet, ask the men and women who worked at his dental clinic.

Virtually every piece of digital marketing advice urges companies to invest in social media marketing, but often without a warning about just how high the stakes can be.

SEO and Social Media Outrage: Can You Recover From Going Viral?

But how would going viral affect your SEO rankings? I asked Todd William, the founder and CEO of Reputation Rhino, an online reputation management company in New York City.

“A company could theoretically boost their search rankings following a negative story that goes viral, but at great cost,” William says. “First of all, searches for the company brand name and key products and services would share Page 1 real estate with multiple negative blog and news articles. Second, Google autocomplete and suggestions would likely include negative keywords, like ‘scam’ or ‘lawsuit’ or ‘scandal.’ Third, the company may find that it is also ranking on Page 1 for search terms related to the negative news story.”


Such viral incidents usually follow a similar pattern. A person or business says or does something bad. The statement, video, or Tweet goes viral; a mob forms. Under intense pressure, they issue a public apology. They may even start receiving death threats. Then... someone else goes viral, and the fire dies as quickly as it started.

So what happens next? Can a business survive a brush with social media vigilantes? We can only look to anecdotal evidence.

In September 2014, Hot Springs, Arkansas gun range owner Jan Morgan went viral after she publicly declared her indoor shooting range a "Muslim Free Zone." After her 15 minutes of fame were up, business was booming. Not only that, but Morgan's gun range dominates keywords like "Arkansas gun range." Plus, the websites she used to communicate with the press, a personal website and the range's Facebook page, also show up on page one.

Then there's the famous case of Epicurious, a cooking and recipe site that in 2013 decided the Boston Marathon bombings were the right time for some brand marketing.


The company apologized, profusely, but the mea culpa didn't undo the damage they caused to their brand or the hurt they caused. Still, the brand largely recovered. If you search "epicurious" today, you have to wade into the third page of the SERPs to find a story about the Boston incident. Of course, your company probably doesn't have the resources of Condé Nast, which owns the digital cooking brand.

If it seems like we’re exaggerating just how common the outrage cycle has become, just spend a minute poring over Slate’s interactive calendar, “The Year of Outrage 2014,” documenting 365 days of outrage. The whole calendar is worth a look, but here are some highlights:

  • July 21: "A teen takes a selfie at Auschwitz."
  • September 10: “DiGiorno uses an anti-domestic violence hashtag to sell pizza."
  • November 17: "An Uber exec suggests at a dinner that the company start opposition research, digging into the lives of journalists."
  • December 11: "Best Buy tweets a joke about "Serial," [angering] people who remembered that "Serial" is in fact about a murdered teen girl."

Social Media Marketing: Sink or Swim

Social media marketing can be a great tool for digital success, but like all tools, it can also be incredibly dangerous.

Let’s talk frozen pizza marketing: in 2013, DiGiorno conducted a live-tweet of NBC's "The Sound of Music" live event. It was a clever, spontaneous-seeming way for the company to get people’s attention. It worked.

But in 2014, whichever unfortunate underling was watching the company's social media account saw the Twitter hashtag #WhyIStayed. He or she tweeted, "#WhyIStayed You had pizza."

Unfortunately, #WhyIStayed was a domestic violence awareness campaign. You can probably imagine what happened next. DiGiorno tweeted hundreds of individual apologies, as well as a blanket mea culpa.

In the cases above, you have to click to page two or three of the SERPs to find results about the negative publicity. But what if you don’t have the reach of a multinational corporation? Google Breanna Mitchell, the teenager who took a selfie at Auschwitz, and you'll find nothing but pages and pages of viral infamy.

“For smaller companies and local businesses, word of mouth and immediate financial pressures means that a reputational crisis can be, and often is fatal, absent a fervently loyal fan base,” William says. “The advent of the Internet and the democratization of public opinion via social media has changed the equation and it seems, at least from my perspective, that tolerance and open-mindedness is an increasingly rare commodity online.”

Final thoughts on going viral

With speedy brand management, it is possible to recover from viral fame, but the odds (and the SERPs) are stacked against you. One possible strategy would be to issue public statements on a personal website or social media accounts. The subsequent links to those pages would help ensure your social media accounts show up on page one in the future, crowding out at least some negative headlines in the process.

But if all else fails, just console yourself with the fact that you’re in a large, if slightly infamous club.

Adam Stetzer, Ph.D. is President and Co-Founder at HubShout, a leading SEO Reseller and SEM software and services provider. He holds a Doctorate in Industrial Psychology from Purdue University and has over 15 years’ experience in the Information Technology fields, building enterprise software for Fortune 100 clients such as General Electric, Coca Cola, Pepsi, AT&T, Verizon, Nissan Motors and ChevronTexaco. A serial entrepreneur, Adam believes that owner passion and organic growth are the secrets to start-up success. Dr Stetzer has been building software in the SEO space for the last 8 years. He lives and works in Rochester, NY.

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