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Why Going Viral Might Not Matter Anymore

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People talk a lot about creating content that “goes viral.” There’s no one definition of what viral really means in terms of raw numbers, but typically something viral causes a huge traffic spike. For some blogs, that’s 10,000 hits. For others, it’s a million.

Regardless of traffic goals, I think some companies and content creators are putting too much focus on the goal of going viral. I would even argue that creating viral content doesn’t matter as much as it once did. Let’s explore viral content a bit with a few mini case studies.

Funneling the Traffic

One of the problems I see often with so-called viral content is that people can’t even tell you who created it. A good example? The petite lap giraffe commercials. You may still remember them from last year when these commercials were being promoted like crazy both online and through traditional television appearances.

This time last year, hundreds of thousands of people even signed up on their mock site to say, “I want a petite lap giraffe too!” It was a very cute idea.

But can you tell me the company being advertised in these commercials?

I would venture to guess that most people cannot. I know I couldn’t without looking it up. The answer is DirecTV. Now, maybe when these videos first created a craze more people could answer that question correctly, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have been able to…and I loved those commercials.

My point is, going viral doesn’t matter if people don’t know or care who you are. Your viral content should funnel them to some sort of action – clicking through to other videos, subscribing to your mailing list, becoming a fan of your blog, buying a product. Spreading a single video or other piece of content is not enough if the action ends there – and with most viral content, that’s the case.

In other words, if you don’t see a sales spike (or subscriber spike if that’s your goal) along with your traffic spike, viral content doesn’t really matter.

Confusing the Audience

Often, the lack of sales or other action on the users’ parts is because viral content attacks the wrong market. In order to make something “go viral” you usually have to think outside the box. The content has to be funny, unique, original, emotional or somehow otherwise worth sharing. Being useful isn’t enough.”Viral” only happens when people need to share your content because they want to be the first to show their friends.

The problem is, most content that fits this bill gets away from your brand/blog’s goal or purpose, at least a bit.

Earlier this year, I had a call with a potential client who wanted me to produce content for his blog, with the aim of everything I did having super viral potential. Now, you all know as well as I do that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. So, I tried to get that across to the client, to tell him that I could focus on topics with the potential to be very popular, but I couldn’t guarantee that anything would go viral.

His response? “Add more cats. People love cats. That sh*t goes viral in a second.”

Erm. Okay, great. Only…his blog has nothing to do with cats. He went on to talk about how a funny cat video at least once or twice a month would be optimal, and while I agreed that this would certainly be popular if marketed correctly, I couldn’t seem to get through to him that it wouldn’t really help his blog or ultimately his business, which had to do with finance.

When you move away from your content too much for the sake of creating something that will go viral, what’s the point? People who view a cute cat video aren’t going to want to read a financial blog (most of the time at least). It’s too far of a leap. Now, maybe I can do some spin-off posts using that idea, like “What your pet can teach you about budgeting” or whatnot…but there has to be that tie-in. Otherwise, you’ll confuse anyone in your audience who does choose to check out the rest of your site. People who follow-up with the makers of viral content expect more of the same. If you don’t deliver, they don’t stick around.

Viral for All the Wrong Reasons

Viral content also doesn’t make sense if you don’t go viral “correctly” – and that’s hard to control. A good example – anyone want to guess what post Technorati crowned as the most popular (most linked) in 2011? It was a post from Netflix called “Explanation and Some Reflection” in which Netflix admitted their attempts to restructure the company were a mistake. Most bloggers would be ecstatic to have the most popular blog post of the year…but unfortunately, I’m willing to guess that most of the links back to that post were critical. It went viral for all the wrong reasons.

Now, I don’t think Netflix COE Reed Hastings wrote this post in order to drum up some traffic. It was damage control for the company. But what I do see a lot of content creators doing is publishing posts that are extremely controversial for the sake of controversy. They call out popular bloggers or experts in their field, trying to bait them into a reaction. They slam stuff everyone likes. They voice opinions they don’t believe in order to get people to click.

Be controversial…but be genuine too. If not, you’ll go viral for all the wrong reasons, and unfortunately, negativity toward a company or blog is something people remember. You didn’t remember who made petite lap giraffes popular, but I bet you remember which company’s CEO went on an infamous hunt in Africa and tweeted pictures of himself with dead animals.

Going viral isn’t always a good thing, no matter what kind of traffic spikes you see. Again, you need to focus on your end goals, whether that goal is to make sales, get subscribers, build a brand, or something else. If your viral content isn’t helping you achieve these goals, the traffic doesn’t matter.

It’s an ROI Game

I know people cringe when they have to talk about ROI, but that’s really the game here. Viral content isn’t something, in most cases, that you throw together. It’s usually stuff that takes a lot of work. So are you getting a return on investment for your work?

Traffic is not a return. That’s where a lot of people go wrong. Traffic is just the middle man on the way to the real return – your goal. That’s what you need to be measuring, not the crazy traffic spikes you’re seeing.

To give an example, let’s say I spend 10 hours creating a funny video for BlogWorld that goes viral. I use a special link code and determine that the 100,000 hits I got on the video translated into 100 tickets sales for our event. Now let’s say I instead write 10 posts that take me an hour each to write, and each gets about 5,000 hits and leads to 20 ticket sales (because the content is more relevant to the type of people willing to buy tickets than a funny video is). Those ten posts combined netted more ticket sales for BlogWorld. It was a better use of my time, even if the video traffic was nice and flashy.

Or course, it’s not always so cut and dry. Maybe the 100 video sales were people who had never heard of BlogWorld before, while most of the 200 post sales were people who were going to eventually buy tickets anyway. Or maybe some of the video traffic led to fans who weren’t ready to buy today, but who will consider future BlogWorld events.

The point is, study your stats beyond traffic. It’s find to hope your content goes viral, but it might not matter was much as you think. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race after all.

Allison Boyer freelance writer and content marketing consultant. She also runs the food blog The PinterTest Kitchen with her mom and sister. You can follow her shenanigans on Twitter (@allison_boyer) or contact her at allisonmboyer@gmail.com.


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