Groovy plimsolls, hipcat!

Sound dated? Yeah. That's what I thought when I found this classic of viral content online a while back.

So many buzzwords, so little time!

So many buzzwords, so little time!

I tweeted it because it made me laugh. Not as in funny haha laugh, more like if I don’t laugh, I cry. It was so stale, old, overdone. Viral videos have become internet classics, but the eagerness to make everything that even thinks about appearing online “go viral” is a tired, outdated cliche that continues to hang around, like that weird German exchange student in the bar that one time. Oh, was that just me? 

Viral content was a thing - 10 years ago

Viral took many forms, and it still is relevant in one of them - viral marketing. That’s an exception, though, and the concept of viral content - wildly popular videos and insta-share articles - is long past its sell-by date. It’s not hard to find examples about what used to blow up - the posh kid and the baby, The Evolution of Dance, and my personal favorite, The Old Spice ad - but I’d argue that we haven’t seen any new contenders in quite a while. 

A side note: Video was by far the most effective channel for "classic" virality. That’s not to say that articles and images never went viral - they did - but the visual, immediate nature of video made it the most lethal and direct.

Now, it's true that what qualifies as “viral” is pretty subjective. Google tells me it’s the tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another”; and I’d have to agree (but not with that capital I). I asked Robin Chedgey, web marketer and digital trainer, the same question. He had this to say;

"It tends to be something spontaneous that resonates with the Zeitgeist of the moment, which makes it very hard to predict or control".

This history of virality from Business2Community (written 2014), says the last viral video was What Did the Fox Say, but although it was very, very popular, I’d stop short of calling it viral in the same sense as Isaiah Mustafa’s “two tickets for that thing you love…”.

Why do people even talk about virality anymore?

Ease. Laziness. Like the old redneck saying, “I don’t know much about art, but I knows what I likes” (incorrect pluralization optional) illustrates, it's difficult to classify the “goodness” of creative endeavor. It’s also popular currency. Everybody knows about classic viral content: that’s why it was viral. It’s an easy shorthand for identifying “it”, even if we’re not entirely sure what “it” is. 

People also talk about viral content when they don’t know any better. Whether it’s that they don’t know any better about copywriting or web strategy, it’s easy to talk about ninja rockstar viral content and wow the general public, even if the copywriters and web strategists themselves are shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. 

I’ve also seen website owners in search of “viral”. People with a product or concept. They know what viral attention looks like, and they want in. They think “If I can just get a ninja content creator to produce some rockstar viral shizz, millions of people will know about me, and money will pour in”. But there's a problem there. As Robin says:

"Considering that the nature of successful marketing is in the targeting and the message, you'd have to consider if you really want to launch a 'viral' campaign". 

See how Robin put the emphasis on successful there? That's the key. Sure, widespread exposure can HELP a business, but the connection between internet “fame” and untold wealth is shaky, to say the least. Has Rebecca Black managed to retire to the Bahamas yet? Nope, I didn’t think so. 

Why not strive to go viral?

Ok, I hear you say, viral of yore might not be the same as viral of today, but why shouldn’t I want my content to be wildly popular?

1.  Virality is not a good goal

It does not serve your visitor, and therefore, doesn’t serve you. If you are seeking to create viral content, you are simultaneously NOT seeking to create quality content, which is really the only thing that matters.

The ironic thing is that if your content is of excellent quality, it’s got the best chance it can have of going “viral” or the next best thing these days: being all over the bloody internet. But it’s because it was so useful, timely and entertaining that it becomes wildly popular, and does not become useful, timely or entertaining as a result of being popular. See the difference?

I also spoke to Naomi Sirmans, an independent content specialist, about virality in today's online world, and whether it should be a goal in itself. She had this to say:

"...creating strong, emotionally compelling and interesting content that has viral potential is still a good strategy, so long that it aligns with your core goals and relates your message clearly, even if it does not go viral". 

See? We're still back to strong, emotionally compelling and interesting! Let's continue...

2. It’s horrifically impractical

The golden age of viral content happened when not everybody was able to produce it. Robin reminds us that "the majority of truly viral content is extremely trivial in nature", and that has two consequences. No matter what you do, you can't force virality.

See the video with the cat and the cucumber? It’s a cat and a salad vegetable in someone’s kitchen, filmed on a phone. It’s everywhere, and there are thousands of pieces of content like it made every day. The competition is huge. Literally anyone can make an internet phenomenon, and when anyone can do it, well, it takes more to be truly impressive. 

3. Google doesn’t like it

Google has evolved, like those velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It likes a little more meat on its bones these days and is more canny about how to get it. Being super-popular is not enough. Your content must also be organic, unique, substantial. If you tick all three boxes, and your content is also super-popular - congratulations. That’s the holy grail. But your video isn’t viral, it’s simply great content. Digital marketer Robin agrees:

"That's not to say that if as a Digital Marketer I were to create a piece of content that went viral, I wouldn't be fist-pumping while doing the 'yeehaa' dance on my desk! But I would have concerns about beginning a task with that as my brief."

Quality is the new black

You know the way “x is the new black” is a really tired, overused phrase? Yeah? Underwhelmed? Good, because I’m preparing you for the new reality. Compared to the age of virality, the age of now is really quite pale in comparison. It’s the age of quality. Quality content, well-maintained sites, a competent understanding of digital strategy and “SEO”, whatever that is these days. The concept isn’t cool, in itself. 

Looking for a “Creative, experienced content creator” isn’t as sexy as a rockstar ninja. Talking about solid web strategy and hiring a graphic designer so you’ll have some killer visuals isn’t as…immediate as strategizing this cool thing with a Kardashian, and the Old Spice guy and a baby on a Roomba, but these days, it will probably get you more leads, or sales, or enquiries, or whatever it is that makes you your money. It’s also probably a lot easier - have you ever tried to get a baby to stay in one place, let alone hang on to a Roomba? I’ll take my chances with the web strategy, thanks.

Conclusion

  1. Viral is dead, or at the very least, irrelevant
  2. Viral content had its day in the sun, now it's time to move on to a new goal
  3. The new goal isn't as sexy, but like comfortable footwear, it's just a better plan

Instead of viral content, try:

  • Quality
  • Helpfulness
  • Relevance
  • Targeting
  • Promotion

If you’re looking for life after viral, research your market, learn to plan for quality, dominate promotion, and make great content. You’ll see the benefits, and there won’t be a Kardashian in sight. What? I thought that was a good thing...

Think viral is dead, or am I just nitpicking the difference between “viral” and “popular”?

Image credits

Not-terribly-grumpy cat used in social media images thanks to

Update

Lightly edited and links added 30/05/17

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