I can almost remember exactly where I was when I first learned about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014. There was a brief period of time when it seemed like the whole world was doing nothing but drenching themselves in icy water and challenging all their friends to do the same. When people talk about “going viral” today, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is almost invariably referenced as the gold standard of viral success.
The ALS Association’s annual report clocked the figures: the challenge inspired 28 million people to participate, and millions of videos were viewed over 10 billion times by around 440 million people worldwide. $115 million in additional donations was raised for the cause.
Image attribution: Anthony Quintano
Interestingly, the Ice Bucket Challenge, though it may appear a neatly packaged campaign idea, was not invented by marketing executives at the association. In fact, it wasn’t exactly invented at all. Slate claimed that challenging people to dump buckets of water over themselves actually started as a dare among pro athletes and only later did an association to ALS arise. But the rough concept of ice and buckets even predates that—there are various isolated examples of people, ice, buckets and charities that go back months (perhaps years) before the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge rocketed to fame. It’s even suggested that the original idea could have started with a “dumb drinking game.”
But that seems to be the nature of viral content. No matter how much we’d like to be able to recreate the effect in our own marketing campaigns, perhaps we’re missing the point: viral content emerges from similar thoughts being had by separate people all over the world. Even when we have a good idea of the psychological reasons for something to go viral, before a connection is made between these shared ideas, there’s no easy way to say that any one piece of content is going to become viral.
The thing that nobody seems to talk about when they talk about viral content is what happens after the viral honeymoon period. A quick look at a Google trends graph reveals that just as soon as interest in ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge spiked, it vanished, within the span of a couple of months.
This isn’t to say that the viral campaign wasn’t a success—with $115 million in additional donations it obviously was. But going viral didn’t do anything for the ALS Association’s long-term growth. Natured cited that donations reverted back to 2013 levels in 2015, even with the association’s efforts to replicate the campaign that year.
The internet is a fickle audience. They’re happy to flit from one trend to another, and once an idea has had its moment in the spotlight, they’re not likely to give it a second run. This can actually hurt companies and brands. Even the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge received backlash: many people began floating the word “slacktivism” and criticizing the frenzy of donating money for emotional reasons without knowing how that money would be spent. Others said it would drain donations from charities for other diseases that afflict many more people.
The problem is, with viral content, you don’t get to control the message. The internet decides how your campaign will unfold—but you can be sure that once the masses get bored, they will move on, and they’re not very amenable to permitting second winds. They may even actively suppress future marketing efforts knowing that you’ve already had your 15 minutes of fame.
We need to stop making viral content a priority or an ideal scenario to work towards for our marketing teams. Not only is it misguided to think we can invent a viral campaign, but even if we manage to pull it off, short-term gains may have little to no (or even a negative) impact on long-term growth. The more we obsess over virality, the more we get stuck in short-term, fast-food-style marketing mind-sets. Viral content is not the answer for achieving long-term growth and customer loyalty—creative thinking is.
Long-term growth lies in building a multifaceted brand identity and crafting layered stories that guide the kinds of interactive experiences your audiences have with your brand. We should think about marketing efforts not as tools to grab attention but as ways to let our audiences and customers integrate and grow alongside us.
We know that long-form narrative storytelling activates complex brain networks that involve all facets of our thinking ability like abstraction, emotion, and memory. Try thinking of your audience as characters in the epic novel that tells the story of your brand. People are more than just their attention spans and when we can reach a person on multiple levels we become a more stable and permanent part of their own self-concept and daily life. That’s where customer loyalty comes from.
Don’t just jump on a trend bandwagon because it’s what “all the cool kids are doing.” Really think about whether a particular meme or trend that is tempting you to elbow into the conversation is in keeping with your brand image and whether it can work as a piece of your larger story or not. Viral achievements should be a happy consequence of your successful hard work putting together a comprehensive content strategy, not the goal of that content strategy. That approach will ensure you still have a leg to stand on when the hype dies down.
Featured image attribution: Chris Rand