View Twitter chat schedule: #SMTLive

Why You Can't "Go Viral" (And What to Do Instead)

On October 1th, 2002, Felix Baumgartner jumped from a plane 24-miles above our planet.

About 8 million people watched live as Felix flew towards the ground. Over 52 million people have relived it on YouTube.

And all of them sat and watched as the Red Bull logo was splashed across their screens again and again during the jump which was named the Red Bull Stratus Mission.

All for only a reported $65 million.

The moral of the story? "Viral campaigns" don't just happen. In fact, they're usually incredibly expensive.


Why True Virality is Incredibly Rare

Social media enables people to spread your message faster, further, and easier than ever before.

That's great for "word-of-mouth", and exposing your brand to new people. But it's not enough. Because you (and I) aren't Facebook.

For a company or website to grow organically through elusive "viral growth", you need a viral coefficient of greater than one. That means each new customer you get has to be generated by one of your existing customers.

In theory this is the perfect marketing plan. But in reality, it's nearly impossible.

Only a few companies have been successful at it, and most are software or technology companies like Facebook, Dropbox, and YouTube.

Chances are, your business doesn't have strong enough network effects, and isn't revolutionary enough to achieve sustainable, profitable growth through pure viral marketing.

Otherwise, you need to have such an awe-inspiring event or campaign that's so remarkable people will naturally talk about it.

How do you do this? Spend $65 million and drop a human from space.

If you don't happen to have a spare $65 million laying around, then here's what you should do instead.


Step #1. Seeding

Most "viral" campaigns are actually "seeded" to a big enough audience to eventually cause a tipping point.

One of the best ways is to "seed" a campaign is through business development. Identify larger communities, media properties, and influential people that also cater to your target audience. Then you partner with them by providing something they don't have, in exchange for something they do have (e.g. eyeballs).

Usually at this stage, you're investing sweat, time, and skill. (Spending money will come later.)

It's not easy. But there's good news. What you're promoting is usually more important than who's promoting it.


Step #2. Distribution

Next it's time to pour on the extra effort. So determine how many people you want to reach, how you're going to reach them, and how much it's going to cost.

For example, let's say we want to reach 1000 people. And we're going to use Facebook ads to reach them. If the rate is $1 per click, well then the cost is $1,000.

Most viral campaigns have no opt-in required, because they're more for awareness, branding, and social activity.

But it's easy to make this investment now that you have some idea of a minimum reach due to your "seeding" efforts.


Step #3. Incentivize

Last but not least, why should someone share or refer something? What's in it for them?

It usually starts with how appealing your "thing" (i.e. the product, campaign, infographic, tool, asset) is to your target audience. How useful, interesting or moving.

Then it needs to benefit them more by sharing or recommending it. This is incredibly difficult in reality. But it could give them money for promoting it (like a revenue share), or peace of mind knowing that they're helping someone else with a common problem. Or it simply could just give them momentary recognition. Most social butterflies online are narcissistic. (Harsh, but true.) So make them the center of your marketing campaign.

True virality is incredibly rare. And it's usually limited to a small subset of software or technology companies. For you and me, things don't usually just "take off" on their own.

And waiting for something like that to happen is a terrible way to market your company.

It's very possible to cause a ripple effect for your next campaign.

But in most cases, you have to engineer it from the start. And you have to invest serious time, energy, and money if you want to see the payoff.

Join The Conversation

  • bbmcKinney's picture
    Oct 2 Posted 3 years ago bbmcKinney

    Making your products or services viral doesn't mean you have to spend a huge amount of money. All you have to do is to look for some cheaper options yet very effective if done right.Thanks for the tips Brad!

  • TomM's picture
    Oct 1 Posted 3 years ago TomM

    This was a great read. I've done a lot of research (and work building campaigns) in the social media space and going "viral" is an interesting subject. The campaigns you're speaking of with Red Bull or any viral video like Gangnam, etc. are just pieces of content that are more viral than others. The important thing to note here is that, in fact, all internet content can be viral to some degree. 

    It's not as simple as a "viral coefficent" or "k-factor." That's an often misunderstood algorithm for virality. What k-factor tells us is more of an adoption rate or growth/acquisition rate. It's main use is for things like "signups" or app installs, etc. Yup, opt-ins as well (as you go on to talk about).

    However, when it comes to the spread of information and content sharing, k-factor or your "viral coefficient" is not what you need to be using to measure how viral that content is. Instead, what you need is a comparison and ranking algorithm (much like For an example here; if we were going from content to users/influencers, we also then have things like Klout, NetBase, Moz, etc. etc. There are many sources to rank influencers (and conversions), but very few to rank content. If you want another example of content ranking, you can check out Unruly's viral video charts (though it's just limited to some YouTube videos and is a pretty basic approach).

    So each piece of content across the internet actually has the ability to become viral more easily than you might imagine. The question is then, ok, "how viral?" That's actually the first, most basic, question that people often skip. Without understanding that, you can't really understand viral media - at all. For without knowing that, you also don't know when content ceases to be viral or when it became viral. You don't know where it stands in relation to other content. Therefore, people not measuring and understanding this, are simply unqualified to label anything viral. 

    This is more problematic than it sounds. Bear with me for a second, I will get back to why your observations were very important. So with a site like say, Mashable, you see stories about what the most viral Instagram pictures were for the week, day, whatever. The truth is, those weren't measured. Someone simply went over and searched for a few images (say with a query of "cat") and took the first five and said, "OK, these are most viral!" Or, they were actually paid to promote certain "cat" content and falsely (or truthfully after people saw the article and went to the content) labeled it as viral. The reality is that the authors had no idea if the content was viral or not. They couldn't prove or measure it.

    This brings us back to your article. What's important to note here is what, like you said, $65 million dollars were spent making this viral campaign. Obviously a lot went into the entire operation when you think about the costs involved with sending some dude up to lower orbit. However, it's important to also note that a lot of that money went into PR as well. Perhaps it came a bit easier for them, because sending a guy into space is a little harder to ignore...But for most companies this PR comes with a cost. Like you also noted, advertising can help with this push.

    Again, like you said, "true virality" or waiting for it to just happen without any guidance is really rare. I agree, it is! But there is more "organic" virality out there than you may think. It's just a matter of how viral.

    If you take the Red bulls and the wrecking balls and the Gangnams out there...You're really only talking about less than 1% of all internet content. So when you think about it, doesn't it make sense that more content is viral? We, as a collective of internet users, have heard about (and share) more than just that. Even this very article is being shared out there and it didn't cost you a cent, right?

  • IceMachinesPlus's picture
    Oct 1 Posted 3 years ago IceMachinesPlus

    We've found that with the help of social media, content has a LOT better chance to go viral than without. Before we integrated social media with our blog (, our articles would receive a scant amount of attention (anywhere from 1 to 9 clicks per article). Our content, due to its nature, is not going to appeal to the masses, but with Facebook, and especially Twitter and Google Plus, we can locate those in our industry far more easily, and garner more attention and clicks this way. Now our content ranges from an average of 50 clicks per article to nearly 500 on some of our most popular pieces. Not bad for an ice machine based company!

Webinars On Demand

  • May 09, 2017
    With all of the technologies available to marketers today, have we lost that personal touch? Join VP of Content Marketing for ON24, Mark Bornste...
  • April 05, 2017
    In the ever-changing world of digital marketing, operational efficiency, quick turn-around times, testing and adapting to change are crucial to...