Going Viral

‘Make it go viral’. If I had a shiny R5 coin with Madiba’s face on it for every time this phrase has been casually deployed in a marketing brainstorming session, I would be basking in the sun on an isolated beach somewhere in the Mediterranean, my yacht bobbing softly in the distance to the motion of the tides as my personal chef whips up a gourmet spread just in time for lunch.

Anyone who has spent time stuck in the black hole of productivity commonly referred to as YouTube will understand that viral content is often completely unexpected and culturally relevant.

Going Viral - Clockwork Media


In the past year, we’ve had the good fortune to witness the almost instantaneous emergence of some of the most popular online content yet.

The key elements

South Korean pop star Psy’s Gangnam Style hit one billion views in just a few months – a YouTube first. The Harlem Shake inspired offi ce workers across the globe to writhe around in sleeping bags while their colleagues bounced about enthusiastically to an underground dance track, and how could we forget the plethora of goats?

And yet, none of these online singularities were advertising brands.

In his 2011 TED talk, YouTube Trends manager Kevin Allocca explained that only a tiny percentage of the 48 hours of video uploaded to the portal every minute gains any significant attention within the online environment.

Generally speaking, the success enjoyed by a remarkable piece of content is defined by three key elements: tastemakers, communities of participation, and unexpectedness.

Tastemakers are defined as individuals with significant influence. In the South African context, this might include the likes of 5fm DJ Gareth Cliff or comedian Trevor Noah.

With thousands of active followers, tastemakers are often responsible for introducing the wider market to an emerging trend. It was Gareth Cliff himself who first exposed me to the earworm that is Rebecca Black’s Friday. Weeks later, like a stuck record, it was still forcefully interrupting almost every thought I had.

Communities of participation are groups of individuals keen on sharing content with likeminded people. One can scarcely imagine Derick Watts and The Sunday Blues’ Braai Day gaining much traction in Iceland, for example. These groups are a key element in the distribution of unusual content.

Saving the best for last, unexpectedness is often the least predictable, yet most important contributing element towards viral success. Who could have predicted that a baby monkey riding on a miniature pig would capture the hearts of millions? No one, but it did anyway.

Although there are a few great examples of corporate brands using unexpectedness to their advantage, it’s often a difficult nut to crack.

For this reason alone, I have a natural aversion to any request relating to making a piece of content ‘go viral’. Not because it’s impossible, but because it’s highly improbable and terribly difficult to predict.

Corporate entities looking to get involved online should simply focus on creating great content tailored to a relevant audience. If it’s really that good, it will inevitably attract the right kind of attention.

Tom Manners – Managing Director, Clockwork Media

First Published in Brainstorm Magazine – April 2013.

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