3 social media experts on how to go viral
“We need to go viral.”
This request has struck fear in the hearts of social media managers for years. And if you’re reading this, you probably just got this request yourself and wondering how the heck to do it.
Going viral is a feat that nearly every social media manager strives for, but very few achieve. It’s not something you can just make happen—there’s no secret recipe or algorithm. So when you receive this kind of request, how do you even begin to go about it?
I had the privilege of speaking to three pros who know social media inside and out to learn about the allure of going viral—Ashley Rector, Founder of Quimby Digital; Chris Cox, Founder and Principal Consultant at C3 Media; and Melissa Dawson, Freelance Social and Community Consultant. They had some great advice to share for social media managers chasing virality.
What does “going viral” mean?
At its core, going viral on social media means widening your reach and talking to a brand new audience—and ideally, a new group of customers. The key to virality is shareability, and the measure of going viral is different from brand to brand. A million views on a video that results in zero new followers can be considered viral; five thousand views on multiple videos that attract 100,000 new followers can be considered viral.
What’s considered “viral” for a large, established brand with a million followers won’t be the same as for a small business with a thousand followers. The bigger you are and the wider your audience, the harder it will be to truly go viral and reach a new group of people. Virality is an ever-moving goalpost that social media managers chase.
Sometimes, you’re in control of going viral—you created a post that really took off, and you capitalize on that success. Other times, virality is completely out of your control—your brand can go viral without it being a post you made on your accounts. A content creator or influencer talking about your brand can cause you to go viral, whether it’s beneficial or not.
TL;DR, going viral means something different for everyone but always involves finding a new audience.
The “dark side” of going viral
Opening up your brand and content to a wider audience is great news for shareability and awareness, but sometimes that audience isn’t one you would have wanted to reach anyway. They may fundamentally disagree with you or your product, especially if it’s very niche or even political in nature.
“Going viral can open you up to an audience that doesn’t agree with you or align with your company’s values. Your narrative can get overrun by people you don’t necessarily want to have reached. And a lot of the time, people just enjoy being the counterargument and having hot takes, and your brand could get caught in the crossfire. Expect that if and when your brand goes viral,” says Dawson.
9 ways to increase the likelihood of going viral on social media
1. Get comfortable with relinquishing control.
Because virality is so unpredictable, there’s only so much social media managers can do to influence the outcome of a new post. Plus, platforms know which accounts are companies versus individual creators—and they’ll treat you as such by pushing down your reach so, ideally, you pay for greater reach.
Being so beholden to the algorithm and preference for paid boosting or promotion can make it really difficult for brands to reach the audience they want to reach, much less an expanded audience. Social media managers are often more successful when they go with the flow and focus on creating inspiring, fun, and educational content and celebrate if and when virality happens, rather than trying to bend the algorithms to your will.
You’re not in control of whether or not your brand will go viral, so do yourself a favor and put down that burden. Focus on quality instead.
2. Let technology take some of the guesswork out of it
Going viral is an art, not a science.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to let technology, research, and metrics inform your content and give you better chances of success.
One way to amplify your chances of going viral is to leverage viral trends—and tools like Google Trends and SparkToro can help you see what is currently trending online and on social media. Hitching your wagon to already exploding content can help boost your reach.
You can also experiment with generative AI as a keyword, hashtag, and content generator. AI is the ultimate pattern identifier: It can give you clues around what similarities viral content have that you can incorporate into yours.
3. Don’t simply follow what other brands are doing, but take inspiration instead.
Love reading through Wendy’s Twitter feed or watching all of Duolingo’s videos? Us too—but that doesn’t mean you should copy what they’re doing for your own brand.
“There are always tactics to be gleaned from other brands or lessons to be learned. You have to be aware of what other brands are doing, but don’t just look at brands as a whole and do what they do at face value,” says Cox. “Take a step back and look at your company and niche, look at your competitors and which strategies they’re employing on social media, and find out what makes your company unique and helpful. Then take the top lessons from the big brands—formats, frequency, and so on—and put your own spin on the things going viral, either in your space or at large.”
4. Don’t blindly follow new social media trends.
Want to use the latest TikTok sound, Instagram meme, or another fun trend you saw on social? Okay, have fun with it—but make sure it truly fits your brand.
“Not all trends are going to fit your brand. You have to put a stake in the ground on what your values are and some trends will fall by the wayside of that,” says Rector. “The trends that are on brand matter, and the ones that aren’t, don’t. Only you know what’s going to resonate with your target audience.”
5. Know your brand inside and out, and make decisions with the company’s ethos and presence in mind.
Social media managers are the public voice of their brand. They have to know the brand like the back of their hand—what the voice is, what the company’s values are, what kind of posts will match the brand, and what kind of reaction the company wants to elicit with its messaging.
“How does your brand get portrayed on social media? You’re chasing virality, but for what reason? Make sure you feel aligned with how the brand persona should come to life,” says Cox. “It takes time to develop the muscle of making your social media content feel authentic to your brand messaging, but the time spent will really pay off in the long run.”
6. Learn everything you can about short form video.
Video is the new photo on social media. Photos and collages used to be the types of posts to go viral, but now, social media managers need to get comfortable with making and editing videos to get the views and engagement they want on social media.
“Video content is what’s going viral lately these days; it’s rare that it’s a static post. The platforms demand it,” says Rector. “If you want to go viral, you should start understanding how video content works in short form. The most impactful thing you can say in the first two seconds is probably your most likely chance of going viral. The attention span is getting shorter and shorter; 10 second videos are even getting long in some respects.”
7. Interact with your comments—and let technology help you triage
The lines between social media management and customer support started to blur in the 2010s, and now they’re almost synonymous for a lot of brands, especially customer-facing ones. Waiting too long to address an outage on your website or other issue can turn into a negative PR situation quickly. Having a team member dedicated to responding to comments and fielding questions can go a long way for how your brand is represented.
Plus, it’s a great boon for engagement and interaction. “For one of our clients, when a video would go viral and a ton of comments would roll in, we would station somebody to respond back to comments almost in real time. The commenter would see the response, come back to the video, and view it again. It would count towards views for TikTok, and up it in their virality ecosystem. The longer you’re on the platform and the more engagement you get, the more it’s going to reward you,” says Rector.
The good news is that this doesn’t need to be as manual and tedious as it used to be. AI monitoring technology can help you identify comments or sentiments that are mission critical to address or just help you keep tabs on a post that’s going viral. Tools like Koalifyed help you categorize the comments on your account and can also detect on an overall, product, and category basis. This can help you triage comments and get an overall sense of how users or consumers are feeling about your brand.
8. Don’t keep social media siloed from the rest of the company.
Some of the best, most engaged brands on social media have a team behind them. This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more than one social media manager, but that the whole company is aware of and contributing to the online presence. For instance: Other team members can re-share social content or engage with it in some way or customer support and sales teams can provide additional context around customers and their pain points to influence the content strategy.
When social media managers work in a silo—whether they want to or not—they’re missing out on great content they could share with a large audience.
“Working on social media in a silo without having other people in the organization to pull from is going to make it very challenging to create strong content that has a chance of going viral. Social media is a collaborative effort,” says Dawson.
9. Know how you’re going to respond if you go viral without expecting it—or for the wrong reasons.
There was one thing all three of the pros I talked to mentioned: preparing a crisis communication plan when the unexpected happens.
“What’s your plan when something does go viral?” asks Rector. “Most brands figure this out when it’s too late, and their reactive actions can come back to bite them. Have a plan in place before that happens.”
Dawson agreed. “Even if you don’t think you’ll ever go viral, you very well could, even for the smallest businesses. You need to plan ahead for what you’ll do, with separate actions for if the narrative is positive or negative.”
Here are some questions Dawson suggested thinking about and making a plan for as a company:
- Do you have a plan for if your brand goes viral over the weekend?
- Do you have a way of socializing that virality is happening with leadership and management?
- Do you have any procedures and approvals to go through before making a response to the virality?
- For any negative comments, do you respond to them, block the commenters, or delete the comments? If you respond, what tone will you use?
- If the virality is positive, how do you plan on expanding on that success?
Cox had an excellent piece of advice to add to this plan: “Half of a social media manager’s job is expectation setting and management, especially if you’re working with leadership who may be unfamiliar with how social works. Part of your communications plan if and when you go viral needs to be directed internally.”
Take inspiration from the Girl Scouts and “Be Prepared.”
All of the advice from Dawson, Cox, and Rector can be summarized with one phrase: Be prepared. By creating accounts on social media platforms, businesses open themselves up to both praise and critique from anyone and everyone. Preparing for both possible outcomes—not just for the social media manager, but across the company—will only benefit you in the long run.
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