Going Viral is a Terrible Strategy

2 Reasons Why “Going Viral” is a Terrible Strategy

Before co-founding the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, tech geek and soon-to-be internet pioneer Jonah Peretti invented a seemingly modest but crucially important feature: the share button.

The invention came in the form of reblogging, the first form of online content curation. The feature Peretti introduced allowed people to share and curate content in their own blogs or internet forums, instead of using the messy email chain that was the fashion in the early 2000s.

Though he may not have realized it at the time, he was giving birth to the concept of viral content. And now, with the meteoric rise of the internet in the last 15 years and the advent of social media, everyone seems to be clamoring to create the next Charlie Bit My Finger or Gangnam Style. In fact, brands spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the same number of YouTube views as a woman sitting in her car while wearing a Chewbacca mask.

So, how do you measure viral success? How do you achieve it? We’re going to consider these questions and look at why “going viral” shouldn’t be the linchpin of your content strategy.

Going viral is a hope, not a goal

We all dream of our content going viral. It usually means we’ve created something that resonates with a wide, wide audience. Unfortunately, chasing viral success feels like pinning our retirement hopes and dreams on winning the lottery. Would it be great? Of course. Should it be the foundation of our plan? Absolutely not.

While we can identify viral content as it’s actually going viral or after the fact, no one can define (in real numbers) what that looks like in the planning stage. Sure, countless blogs show us common characteristics of viral content. But so many different things go into a piece of viral content that baking that success into a core tenet of your marketing strategy is incredibly difficult.

In a piece about 10 viral marketing hits, Entrepreneur outlines beautiful videos that were a part of ten different brand campaigns. While each happened to go viral, that wasn’t the goal. In fact, the GoPro example wasn’t even their video to begin with. It demonstrates their ability to recognize and showcase creative, user-generated content, but not necessarily how good they are at creating viral content.

Great content and viral content often share many of the same characteristics. They should provide value, invoke emotion and compel the user to share.

Viral goals set unrealistic expectations

When people set goals that are both specific and challenging, higher performance is the result about 90 percent of the time, according to research from Edwin Locke and Gary Latham on Inc. The article goes on to clarify that “challenging” doesn’t mean “impossible.”

Virality is neither specific, nor challenging. Rather, it’s almost impossible. Creating a video that gets a viral number of views (we’ll say 5 million) needs to be either:

  1. Broad and generic enough — AND beautifully created — to be appealing to a tremendous number of internet users.
  2. So compelling that one person will want to watch it 5 million times.

Unless you’re a digital media super-giant like BuzzFeed, reaching for the number of shares and views required to be labeled “viral” will almost certainly leave you feeling unsuccessful.

Companies like BuzzFeed are great at creating highly clickable and viewable content, but they also produce a ton of it (about 600 pieces of content per day) and spend as much as $1 million each month to promote it.

Set goals that matter to you

Big goals and ideas are, of course, tremendous assets to your organization. But the KPIs that usually accompany viral content (shares or views) may not be the right goals for every organization or every content type.

When you’re crafting your content strategy, think about goals that are meaningful to your business. If you run a small event venue and you’re hoping your new video will help secure more bookings, 10 million views on your video might not be an appropriate goal. Perhaps 10,000 local views and 20 new leads is a step in the right direction.

If you’re revamping your blog strategy, increasing pages visited by 50 percent is a more appropriate, measurable goal than gaining 15,000 shares.

Make your goals specific and meaningful to your organization and you’ll set yourself up for more long-term success.


I don’t mean to sound like a crotchety old curmudgeon, but going viral is for the birds. Yes, you should make beautiful, compelling content that’s tailored perfectly for your audience. But when it comes to setting actual goals, stick to those you have a little more control over. Your content strategy should be filled to the brim with great ideas and big goals.

If you can figure out how to implement that excitement and desire to “go viral” into an action plan that matters to your organization, you’re going to get exactly the results you crave.

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