PR brief: “Make it go viral”…but how?

Clients used to list their “dream results” as being a TV spot or a lead story in the paper…maybe even a lovely double page spread in a glossy magazine. In both an agency and client side PR roles, the demands of your internal or client stakeholders drive the strategies and tactics you design, and in the new media age these desired “press moments” have evolved. At the top of the list for many consumer-facing brands now is the desire to develop and drive brand content that will go “viral”. They want to become the subject of the digital watercooler.

So with this “new school” brief, how do you develop content and a supporting engagement strategy that gives content a strong likelihood of “going viral”? When it comes down to it, we’re using the same core skills of “old school” PR, but utilising them in a new, dynamic context. Storytelling sits at the heart of good communications – Knowing what makes a great story, and knowing how to tell that story in a way that’s going to resonate with your company or client brand’s is ultimately what is going to drive the sharability and talkability of your content. Good viral content finds that seed of a good idea, then utilises a few well planned, social strategy tools to build the content’s momentum and audience.

Karen Cheng, the star of the viral hit Girl Learns to Dance in a Year (Time Lapse), argues that virality is no accident – it takes careful planning and an understanding of where and how connected audiences go to find and share content, outlining her content socialisation strategy in FastCompany:

Day One: 80K views

First, I posted to Facebook/Twitter, and submitted it to social news sites like Reddit and Hacker News. I personally asked many of my friends to share it. I tweeted it at well-known dancers. I emailed bloggers who had covered other viral dance videos. Of all the things I tried, Reddit paid off. It got to the top of the GetMotivated subreddit.

Day Two: 800K views

Bloggers who had seen it on Reddit the day before started publishing articles about it. First Kottke. Then blogs like Mashable, Jezebel, and Huffington Post.

Blogs drove a ton of traffic. Each blog is a giant marketing engine with millions of readers and Twitter followers. It’s in their interest to get the article as many views as possible, because each view is an ad they can serve up. Understand how the money flows. It’s all about clicks and advertising dollars.

Day Three: 1.8 million views

It made the YouTube front page. I’m not sure how it got there, but I suspect the blogs were sending it so much traffic that YouTube’s algorithms picked up on it.

Try many things. You only need one of them to pay off in order for your video to go viral. For me, that thing was Reddit. Your thing might be different. Your goal is to get major blogs to write you up, because their marketing power is ridiculous.

Looking at brand content, one of the web’s recent viral successes is the content gem, Dumb Ways to Die. Rebooting the idea of an educational PSA (Public Service Announcement), the video takes what was otherwise a fairly ordinary, and even morbid subject matter – stay safe and don’t be stupid around trains – and makes it quirky, sharable and memorable (the song will stick forever in your head!). The creative success of the campaign has been recognised just this week with Gold Awards at Spikes Asia (Asia’s version of the Cannes Lions), and is the most awarded campaign ever at Cannes Lions. According to commentary on Gruen Planet this evening, the campaign has now won more than 35 awards from across the globe. Phenomenal results.

The way this content engaged and spread was certainly no accident. With the seed of well-designed, sharable creative, campaign designers McCann Melbourne took to a number of channels to ensure this success – The soundtrack to the campaign was an instant “earworm”, and alongside the launch of the video on YouTube, was posted on iTunes as a legitimate music track. It was downloaded and added to music playlists. Media investments were made to support and spread the content at scale, with the development of social identities, social media listening tools and community management across channels like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook to drive clicks and further conversation around the content. Now that the seed was planted, the audience took over, sharing the content, singing along, reworking and re-recording the content in their own way and sharing it amidst their own social networks to spread the Dumb Ways to Die message even further. Sung in a plethora of languages and even recreated “IRL” (in real life), the campaign had taken on a life of its own.

Not even a year after the campaigns launch, the video sits at more than 53 million views (viral success? check!), with the song shared and sung amongst young and old from all corners of the world.

Speaking of the this success of Dumb Ways to Die and to the evolution of PR in the viral / digital age, Cannes PR Lions jury member David Gallagher said:

“In our business it wasn’t that long ago when most of our content was centred around a press release. Those days are behind us. What we need now is content like this that’s based around real human insight. It needs to bring about real change – in this case the campaign showed a 21 percent reduction in serious injuries related to train accidents. We felt it was a great demonstration of where this business is going.”

New tools and new expectations of brands in this viral content age – An exciting time to be in the PR biz!

Now I’m keen to hear about your experiences in developing or consuming viral content!

What makes content sticky and sharable for you as a media consumer? As a comms or marketing pro, how have you responded to a client or management brief to “make it go viral” in your social or content strategy?


4 responses to “PR brief: “Make it go viral”…but how?

  1. The most recent example that comes to mind is the Hello Flo ‘The Camp Gyno’ viral video –

    It’s been viewed over 6 million times. I think the humour and shock value def went to making it ‘sticky’. Buzzfeed called it “An Amazing Breakthrough In Tampon Advertising” ( And that’s def not something you hear everyday!

    • I love that campaign! Great example 🙂 Done under a tiny budget, resulting in the business growing monumentally following the social buzz of the video. Entertaining and effective!

  2. By understanding why people talk and share, we can craft contagious content. And use it to get our own products and ideas to catch on.
    Also, people tend to use other people for information for example: What restaurant is good? or which service provider should I adopt? You look to others and assume that if many people are doing something it must be pretty good. But you can only imitate if you can see what those others are doing. So, the more observable behavior is, the more likely it is to catch on. If you create a campaign or idea that is easy for people to show, it will grow.

    • I love the term “contagious content” – this is exactly how we’re trying to design content when we have the intent of making it viral! I think your examples of user submitted reviews and such aren’t quite viral content, but they are indeed sticky web spaces that have people heading back to find more valuable content/insights on places and products, or to see how people responded to their comments. Interesting!

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