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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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Michelle Sudillo
You definitely have to be careful what you share since you can set off anyone and it can go viral. If your small business your odds are higher to recover and that's why it's important to know what your putting out there.
Chris Wibbe
Is social media just too inherently honest for Corporate America?

No matter what the experience level of the social media manager, won't the massive corporate structures of Conde Nast or Nestle bearing down with ROI mandates eventually force every company into an "accident" ala Epicurious and DiGiorno?

I think so. And I have to say, I am far more disgusted with a big brand shamelessly tagging along on a massacre than I am with some redneck preaching to the choir. At least they were honest.
Matthew Beaulieu
Creating an editorial calendar in advance and reviewing it with your team can help cut down on gaffes
It's always tempting to try to jump in and pull a Superbowl Blackout Oreo move on social media. I agree with the others here -- when in doubt, stay out of the fray.
I don't know about this whole Breanna Mitchell thing. Honestly, I think what bothered people the most is just the way that she's smiling in the picture. She's not making any disrespectful gestures. All she did was document an important visit by taking a photo of it. I think if she kept a straight face nobody would've cared.
Nick at HubShout
Some of these companies tried a little too hard to jump on the bandwagon -- not realizing that the bandwagon was part of a funeral procession.
Nick at HubShout
It also seems that many people just want to jump on the "I'm outraged" bandwagon.
When in doubt, keep politics or anything controversial OFF your business's social media accounts. If you're having second thoughts and think it might upset someone (or the entire internet) then don't post it. Seems like common sense, and yet these big companies still manage to fail at it.
Kathleen Burns
Some big companies put inexperienced people behind their social media accounts. This is where most of the trouble lies!
Kathleen Burns
Absolutely! It's such a new form of media, though, that it can be tough to find people with extensive experience in some cases.

Even small businesses should take heed, though, since they're often doing their own social media outreach. (That gun range owner, for instance. Yikes!)
Kathleen Burns
I don't feel lack of experience is an appropriate excuse anymore. Although it's relatively new, there is enough education online that I feel it's not an excuse for businesses anymore - even small ones! Social media is integrated with every day life and even news stations report the biggest mess ups from brands.
Tara M. Clapper
I often see/am contacted by brands (not even nonprofits) that hope to get a volunteer social media person. If these brands don't treat it like a professional endeavor and pay for it as such, they're going to get what they pay for!

Ultimately I know the big problem is ROI, and a CEO asking to prove social media ROI before a social person is even on board...but it can be a disastrous area of marketing to mishandle.
Even though the ability to spread information rapidly to all internet users is great and important, the instant gratification we've become accustomed to from online information has definitely reduced our attention spans for these things. Moving on from a point of outrage a few days ago, usually just leaves people open to jumping on the next one and repeating the cycle.
Kathleen Burns
Kyle Guercio
Great point! I'll add that sensationalism is the biggest problem with online information and blogging. Sensationalist news spreads quickly and then the story is more about how outraged people are than about the news itself. You see this a lot with social media whoopsy moments.
Bill Finan
Just look at the case of Amy's Baking in Arizona - after a Gordon Ramsay reaming, and a national-TV meltdown, AND a viral disaster, the shop did more business than they ever did pre-crisis. Yes, the bakery eventually closed, but not for lack of business...
Angelina Arnone
It is definitely wise advice to take time to consider what kind of impact your social media post will have before sharing.
Angelina Arnone
Agreed! It's important to not share things on a whim. You always have to keep in mind who will be seeing the post, and what kind of message it's sending.
Andrea Semrau
Angelina Arnone
Yes I think a lot of companies want to get their name out quickly so they don't entirely think through how the post is going to go over.
It's strange how random viral bad news sometimes is. It can range from truly horrible things to somewhat everyday comments just randomly plucked out of the Twitter vortex.

"Google Breanna Mitchell, the teenager who took a selfie at Auschwitz, and you’ll find nothing but pages and pages of viral infamy."

While this is something I think is quite rude and out of place no matter what the intent, I don't think I've ever been to a holocaust memorial in Germany without seeing tourists doing this; it's almost an inherent part of the experience. I wonder what it was about that specific photo that set things off.
Chris Scott
Mari R
Great point - she has to bear the outrage of the world for a stupid, but pretty much harmless, mistake...

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