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Viral Marketing Doesn't Exist: Here's Why

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

Over the years I've had clients ask me to get them noticed by "social influencers" or to help them "go viral."

One example that comes to mind is when I spoke with a company that felt they had a solid-gold marketing idea to help promote a charitable message.

In a nutshell, they came up with something that they felt was entirely unique and fun. They had already decided that a celebrity was sure to sign on as a spokesperson, and that it was going to take off and eclipse the Ice Bucket Challenge, which was trending around that time.

I was given the unenviable task of telling them that this wasn’t going to happen overnight.

They were shocked. I’d told them that their underlying motives were fantastic and I’d applauded their goals. Why was I now telling them that this wasn’t going to happen immediately? “Where has your enthusiasm gone?” they asked with a mixture of anger and surprise, like a jilted boyfriend.

I explained my enthusiasm remained the same, but we had to approach this rationally.

Their idea had some problems. Now that’s not a deal-killer! But the massive obstacle I faced was their demand that we make it go viral, when there is really no such thing as a viral campaign.

Yes, you read that right.

Let me repeat it.

There is really no such thing as viral marketing.

Trust me: I was surprised when I finally realized this. I spent years in marketing and PR, wondering why I could never quite make many of my fantastic ideas go viral. I was always kicking myself all over the place, studying stats, wondering why these campaigns were almost always good, but not great.

What I was missing was perspective.

But that’s where Derek Thompson comes in.

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine and a weekly news analyst for NPR's "Here and Now." He’s a triple threat, with a triple major in journalism, political science, and legal studies. He has appeared on Forbes' "30 Under 30" list and Time's "140 Best Twitter Feeds."

One of his most recent books is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. The book addresses common misconceptions about marketing and publicity, and gives incredible insights for anyone interested in either.

In answer to the question “Do ideas really go viral?” Thompson writes:

The answer appears to be a simple no. In 2012, several researchers from Yahoo studied the spread of millions of online messages on Twitter. More than 90 percent of the messages didn’t diffuse at all. A tiny percentage, about 1 percent, was shared more than seven times. But nothing really went fully viral—not even the most popular shared messages. The vast majority of the news that people see on Twitter—around 95 percent—comes directly from its original source or from one degree of separation.

His entire book cites numerous studies, and deals with what we often perceive as a ‘lucky’ break which, in reality, took time and persistence in the face of almost sure defeat.

In other words, if something comes across your radar today, it was most likely at least months, if not years, in the making. And this is what I had to tell my potential clients: There are no easy fixes, no easy answers, and no short cuts.

Viral marketing is a myth we'd love to believe in, just like we'd like to believe something as simple as vinegar can cure all ills. It makes the complex understandable and achievable!

But now that I've popped that balloon, let me offer you some hope.

The good news is that with hard work, persistence and investment you stand an excellent chance of being noticed and eventually having your campaign take off and 'go viral.'

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