Next month, the Council will launch “A Story Takes Flight,” a new video campaign intended to alter perceptions about public relations among young people entering the job market. Our research has suggested that the 18-29 crowd has an “old school” view of public relations and doesn’t fully understand the exciting and fulfilling career opportunities our field offers. With “A Story Takes Flight,” we hope to start a new conversation about public relations that will entice the best and brightest to consider our field.

Since the Council has never done a video campaign quite like this, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what it takes to create a breakthrough result. How can an organization get a video to go “viral” on the Internet? And is it possible to try too hard and defeat your own purposes?

I put the question to two social media experts, Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategy at Peppercomm and co-author of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media, and Daryl McCullough, Chief Executive Officer at Citizen Paine. Both emphatically did think that companies sometimes force viral videos, and both had helpful ideas for what to do—and not do.

If you’re creating a video for the sole reason of getting it to go viral, you’re making a mistake right there. “The problem,” Ford noted, is that you can’t make something spread…. When a company or agency has created something that circulates rapidly–and across a range of communities—it’s often because they understood the audience they wanted to reach and designed content in ways that made it potentially spreadable.”

Great point. We’ve all seen companies that have attempted to artificially generate interest in a campaign, soliciting friends and employees to visit a site or “like” it on Facebook. As Ford reminded me, these companies wind up looking bad—like that kid in high school who is always trying too hard to get attention. “What’s most dangerous is when a company just wants to see the numbers go up, and doesn’t think nearly so strategically about who’s actually looking at the content….[t]he consequences for a brand that’s forcing it might be to be seen as the ultimate punishment: lame, or desperate.”

Starting from an authentic knowledge of your audience is one thing, but you also need to be absolutely clear about and accepting of whom you are. As McCullough commented, “We believe too many brands want to force things to go viral when they don’t have a clear vision of what their brand stands for or a lack a defined understanding of their own social voice. Brand content that effectively goes viral comes more from a focused place of creating authentic and engaging visual content that gets people so excited that they share…. In the age of video view bots, eyeballs can be purchased if your sole purpose is numbers. Viral to us is more about an emotional link on some level with the viewer.”

Once we start from an authentic place, the question becomes how to generate content that an audience will find naturally compelling. Ford emphasizes the importance of keeping track of what’s happening in the world, so that the organization shows that it “has a shared sensibility with an audience it is seeking to reach,” as well as “an element of mystery for the audience to figure out or is incomplete in some way that the audience can help fill in.”

This sounds like a creative or artful task, but according to McCullough, science plays a role, too. “Creative (even smaller-budget online work) can be tested with consumers, rather than merely crossing our fingers and hoping something is successful. We’ve used what we’ve learned in the online and traditional media relations spaces to create our own scientific model–connecting bloggers with influencers, getting celebrities tweeting about an initiative, and designing successful flash points into a WOM campaign that includes top social influencers as well as connection with all traditional media outlets. We do our very best to coordinate a cascade of content, information and assets and when it really works perfectly, we will see the engagement with the consumer shift from a push mentality to one where the consumer is actually pulling through and distributing the content for the brand.”

All this sharp thinking had my head buzzing. In coming up with our video, we at the Council had started at the right place—with a clear strategy, a clear sense of our audience and ourselves, and a clear sense of how our video might serve a useful function for its audience. Now, it’s a matter of release, track and respond in the most thoughtful, scientific way possible, and “repeat as necessary.”

Look out 2013—our viral media experiment is about to begin. In the comments section, we hope you will share your own thoughts about what makes content go viral, as well as any experiences you’ve had and wisdom you’ve learned.

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