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[BackChannel] Why "Viral" Is a Dirty, Dirty Word

BY Allyson Kapin | Wednesday, November 6 2013

There are seven dirty words you can never say on publicly owned TV and airwaves. Every industry has its own taboo words. For me, “let’s make it go viral” will always top the list of the dirtiest words in marketing.

Having worked with more than 100 organizations to develop websites and campaigns, set goals, and craft messaging for advocacy organizations, I understand why nonprofits are attracted to viral campaigns. Your issue is important, so naturally you want to reach as many people as possible. However, the allure of going viral is ultimately a distraction. To win, organizations should invest their energy in creating compelling and sharable content that focuses on:

· Fostering your community and network

· Motivating your target audiences to take action through targeted engagement

· Defining measurable goals connected to specific outcomes

· Being prepared for successes and learning quickly from failures

There are no short cuts to creating social change. You need a mobilized base of supporters who believe in your mission and are consistently engaged across multiple channels.

Focus on Reaching And Engaging Your Community And Network

The most important people to help your organization meet its goals are the people closest to you. This is your community. When you chase after an illusive crowd that you have no connection to, in hopes of making a campaign go viral, you set your organization up for failure. Focus instead on engaging and growing your community strategically.

Of course, this is easier to achieve when you understand what inspires your community and the pain points they face related to your issues. Those insights will help you craft stories and content with the right tone and emotion to motivate people to stand up to take action and share your content with their network.


Image 1: Adapted from the book Social Change Anytime Everywhere

It’s also important to know which channels your audiences prefer to communicate with you on. Do they prefer Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn? Niche blogs? Focus on a few key channels and tailor the tone and length of your content appropriately for each channel.

Be Aware: Content That Spreads Fast Is Temporary

The Human Rights Campaign’s red logo campaign is an example of a well developed multichannel campaign. To build momentum, HRC timed the campaign’s launch to coincide with the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearings on the first marriage equality court case on March 25th. The campaign quickly resonated with HRC’s community on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and their website which spread support for marriage equality to their network and beyond.


Image 2: HRC red logo campaign

Similar to other viral campaigns that have spread quickly, HRC experienced a spike in traffic across multiple channels that quickly returned to normal. According to HRC, 86 percent of the traffic was from new visitors. The surge in traffic also caused the website server to crash for a short period. Over on Facebook, the red logo posts received 189,177 shares and 95,725 Likes.


Image 3: Website traffic on hrc.org from the past 9 months. Traffic grew steadily until the red logo campaign drove a huge spike in March 2013. (Data courtesy of Quantcast)

Since the campaign, HRC’s web traffic has returned to normal. Over on Facebook, HRC remains active but the record level of engagement during the Supreme Court’s hearings was non-sustainable. Of course, with 35 states that still don’t recognize same-sex marriage, HRCs work is far from over.

“Over the years, we’ve been pushing image shares, videos, apps, and a variety of other campaigns to try to engage our supporters online. The lesson for all organizations working to achieve social change is to keep it simple, keep trying, plan ahead for your external moments…”

Anastasia Khoo, Marketing Director for the Human Rights Campaign on the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Define Measurable Goals That Connect To Specific Outcomes

Many viral campaigns tend to be one-offs with limited shelf life. These campaigns quickly fizzle out because they are driven by the indiscriminate desire for mass consumer eyeballs and buzz. You can give your campaigns lasting impact by prioritizing the right channels and engagement with the people you need to help fight for the social change your organization seeks over the long haul.

It’s time to move past measuring the eyeballs and buzz and start defining measurable goals that are connected to meaningful outcomes. For example, when the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans, started its Ban the Bag campaign in Portland, Oregon, all outreach, content, and marketing and PR were focused on getting local residents to pressure the Portland City Council to support a ban on single-use plastic bags. It took 4 years worth of presentations to conservation and recycling groups, promoting stakeholder buy-in through meetings with the Mayor’s office, grocers, and other parties who had a stake in the campaign, and a small but mighty email list who signed up to volunteer at local events to gather petition signatures. After crafting and implementing thoughtful strategies that mobilized the right audiences, plastic bags were banned in Portland and the rest of the state.

Be Prepared For Successes And Learn Quickly From Failures

The truth is, very few campaigns go “viral.” No matter how clever or riveting you think your campaign is, no organization can predict what’s going to spread and when campaigns do spread quickly, it’s usually unexpected. Be prepared to deal with a flood of media inquiries and tough questions from journalists. Determine how you will respond to memes, graphics, and other content that your supporters produce that are inspired by your creative materials, which may be copyrighted.

In addition to preparing for success, you must also be prepared to manage public criticism and failure. When you see that a strategy or campaign falling flat with your audiences, figure out why and test a new approach. Failing quickly is one of the best ways to learn what works.

Educate Senior Leadership

The next time senior leadership at your organization asks you to create a viral campaign, tell them that the best way for your organization to create real impact is to focus on strategies that consistently engage your target audiences through powerful content and actions, set realistic goals that are tied to your mission, and prepare your organization to grow from every win and failure.

No one said changing the world would be easy.

Allyson Kapin is the co-founder of the web agency Rad Campaign, which provides web design, web development and online marketing and social media strategy to nonprofit organizations, foundations, and advocacy campaigns. She is the co-author of Social Change Anytime Everywhere: How to implement online multichannel strategies to spark advocacy, raise money, and engage your community with Amy Sample Ward. Allyson also founded the Women Who Tech TeleSummit to champion women in technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @womenwhotech