Go to Blog

Your Viral Marketing is All Wet

Michael Stricker

With the runaway success of the #IceBucketChallenge, many companies are scrambling to apply the principles learned from the viral sensation to their own marketing campaigns.

Many marketers will tell you that they are working on viral campaigns. Some media empires are built on them (Mashable, BuzzFeed, Upworthy). But mob mentality and hysteria are as fickle as human nature. The scale of success cannot be accurately predicted.


By their own admission, the ALS Association did not originate the idea (that was Pete Frates, according to research by Facebook and others). ALSA.org was surprised by the campaign’s growth. The Ice Bucket Challenge was not an officially sanctioned marketing tactic by the fundraising charity. It’s believed to originate from a single challenge by a former collegiate athlete who suffers from the disease. But the ALS Association has since been more than happy to reap the rewards in both donations and awareness!

So, what’s left, once the virality has run its course? Sure, there is the matter of how to spend and invest the $25M or more that was generated. But, how can an organization benefit in a long-term, more sustainable way, from all of that (over)exposure?

How can planning ignite the viral growth? Better still, what can be done to extend the long-term benefit of the campaign? Can overthinking a phenomenon like this squelch the results? How do you extend the hip and shoulder to extend the effectiveness of a viral marketing campaign? How do you manage one while it’s in full stride? And finally, how do you wind it down when it runs its course? How can you hope to reignite a similar level of excitement? 


A viral success is the internet’s version of the great white whale. It remains elusive for all but the luckiest of marketers. But, unlike Ahab, you’re not searching for revenge and you can stack the deck in your favor before your idea even catches fire by being prepared.

  • Use a tool like SEMrush to check your keyword competition. Find what keywords your competitors are ranking and attracting significant volumes of traffic for and use a Content Audit to see if you have relevant material on-site that can be enhanced to attract those searchers. Pay special attention to the Phrase Match Report. Phrase Match can contain very useful long-tail terms and more completely-formed thoughts that will tell you the searcher’s intent – are they seeking information, brand-hunting or are they pricing? That will help determine what content you’ll write to answer their needs and earn impressions from Google’s semantic search. The Related Keywords Report can be a goldmine, because this is what Google has already detected that searchers go on to find in their search sequences. Use Google’s own AI to find logical branches to similar topics. It won’t take long to notice related terms of commercial and action-oriented intent. Google apparently likes to present actionable terms that make searchers happy. Pay attention. They may be within your reach. Decide if you’re going to go after terms that you already have a strong influence over or target something outside your current strategy.
  • Identify seasonal trends for any keyword, in your own rank tracking history, in Google Analytics. You can use this data to identify which day, week, or season is most advantageous to release your content. Get the big picture over time in Google Trends.
  • Prepare scheduled messages for the most common eventualities. Your Social Media team should have plans in place for best-case and worst-case scenarios. Typical Customer Service-related mentions, such as call centers choked with calls at peak hours, can help defuse issues even as they arise.
  • Plan events around the times your audience is most likely online. Consider whether your market is B2B or B2C, as that will affect the Day of the Week and the Time of the Day when social channels and E-mail are likely to be active and effective.
  • Select an appropriate #hashtag. Do your research, use a service such as HashTracking.com or HashTagify.Me. Use the most-popular appropriate hashtag consistently throughout all messaging.
  • Schedule TweetChats and other real-time interactions to support the release of your viral content, make new impressions and stoke the conversation. Your participants will use their own networks to sow word-of-mouth for even broader reach.
  • Build your network BEFORE you need it. You can trust that a small core of followers is going to ignite the spark you need to get your content out there, but the more people you already have following you, the more likely someone will latch onto your content and start the dominos falling.
  • Build landing pages around your viral content and optimize the conversion funnel for those pages. Prepare in advance by testing Conversion Optimization tactics such as different Headlines, Calls to Action, and all-in-one pages. Secure the page. Share the link. Make sure that your host and processing can handle the load with extra capacity that can and will be assigned on an as-needed basis.
  • Identify similar popular content using tools like BottleNose and BuzzSumo to see what kind of stakeholders are interacting with those topics. Use comments responsibly to enhance the conversation and plant seeds.
  • Cultivate generous relationships with well-followed social netizens. Retweet them. Share their content. Converse. Then, reach out to the most influential members of your community in the hopes that they will share the content with their own audiences.
  • Check Google Trends for other topics, events, shows, celebrities that trend during your season and build bridges through social outreach.


It worked. You're all wet. Now what?

When the wave hits, it can be hard to keep from being swept away. All the new attention can threaten to pull you and your team in too many different directions. It’s easy to lose your focus when the hits are coming fast and furious. Make sure you stick to your message and intent.

How you handle the extra scrutiny can set the stage for future interactions with some of the influencers who find you via your viral content. Be consistent and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Virality is all about everyman and everywoman, not you. It is the inspiration and emotion of the masses that is the real story.

Enjoy the ride, but stay afloat.

  • Being transparent is important. Keep things on the up-and-up by publicizing dollar amounts and numbers of collections and pledges. People want to know.
  • Popularize key donation pages. Highlight donations by phone, text, matching funders, e-mails, and thank donors directly.
  • Get volunteers to engage participants visibly and socially, unless donors express the desire to remain anonymous.
  • Distribute social and web widgets that can track the results dynamically.
  • Go on the PR circuit, seek out speaking opportunities.
  • Offer public thanks to originators and get them in front of cameras if they're comfortable.
  • Engage the social networks themselves – with so much traffic moving across their social graph, Facebook woke up and did some interesting time-tracking and geographical charting that showed the spread of the phenomenon and traced it back to the point of origin.


And finally, once the wave has passed and you’re left gasping on the shore, it’s time to wrap-up the campaign and make sure that this isn’t a one-time windfall. Duplicating these results in the future becomes paramount.

  • Announce a final donation tally, and thank everyone profusely.
  • Publicize your plans for how to distribute the funds. Focus on the future, and talk about benefits that will result.
  • Form content partnerships with any secondary organizations that may benefit from your influx of funds.
  • Alert the public that this will be your annual event and your month. Make it part of your branding.
  • Seek public legislative endorsement to officially set aside this time period as being dedicated to your cause.
  • Find a celebrity who has personal ties to the issue and garner their support.
  • Work out merchandising, bundling and other co-marketing opportunities in advance.
  • Develop quiet reminders - sight gags, related stunts, videos and Vines - to stay in people's memories until the next fund-raising period.
  • Prepare for the next challenge.

So while you can't always count on something going viral, you can maximize the impact a piece of viral content will have on your brand by being prepared, having definitive action plans in place, and being agile enough to act on trends while they are fluid.

Like this post? Follow us on RSS and read more interesting posts:

Michael Stricker is a former SEMrush Director of Marketing. His industry musings can be found on Twitter and on our blog. His last post was "What are the Top SEO Issues Impacting your Site?"
Share this post


2000 symbols remain