How to go viral: 9 steps to increase your audience reach
“Make it go viral.” An assignment so notorious it’s become a cliché.
Social marketers know creating viral posts isn’t their most important goal. In fact, it might distract them from reaching their target audience and taking care of their team’s mental health.
social media managers
what's the most ridiculous job goal / objective / target a boss has given you?*
*other than "make it go viral"
— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) September 22, 2022
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from viral posts and campaigns. Strategic viral marketing boosts brand awareness, increases engagement and builds loyalty. The right viral content can help brands gain mega fanbases.
We’ve found that the brands whose viral marketing achieves long-term, sustainable growth follow these nine principles. Use them to expand your brand’s social reach (and they might even help you go viral).
What are the chances of going viral?
First, how likely is it that your post will go viral? According to a Stanford University study from 2016, the chances of going viral are one in a million.
If you know, you know. #socialmediachallenge #socialmediamarketing #fyp #foryoupage #brandtok
However, trending platforms like TikTok offer more opportunities for brands to go viral on social. But there are no quick hacks to produce a viral video. Going viral requires equal amounts of skill and luck.
Follow the content best practices of these nine brands who have created viral magic to improve your chances.
1. Read the room
Understanding the people you’re trying to reach is the first step towards going viral. If you haven’t already, define your target audience.
A target audience is the group of people who are most likely to be interested in your brand or product. Members of this group often share common interests, hobbies and behaviors. Zero in on your target audience by monitoring who follows your brand, how they interact with you and why they follow you. Keep a pulse on the external factors impacting them, too.
For example, during the first COVID lockdown, the Shedd Aquarium knew their audience was wrestling with uncertainty and anxiety. To help bring happiness to their feeds, they shared a video of a penguin named Wellington exploring the aquarium and meeting other animals at Shedd.
Penguins in the Amazon?! 🐧🌴
Some of the penguins went on a field trip to meet other animals at Shedd. Wellington seemed most interested in the fishes in Amazon Rising! The black-barred silver dollars also seemed interested in their unusual visitor. pic.twitter.com/KgYWsp5VQD
— Shedd Aquarium (@shedd_aquarium) March 15, 2020
Soon after sharing, delight ricocheted across social media. The original post received 3.7 million views on Twitter alone and kickstarted a viral “Penguin Tour” campaign.
No products were being sold. No special deals touted. The genius of this campaign boiled down to sharing joy and adorable penguins.
2. Post at the right place and time
Each social platform has a unique audience and serves a distinct purpose. Facebook is critical for customer care. TikTok is known for its discoverability. Instagram is a hub for influencer partnerships. And that’s only scratching the surface.
Every platform serves a vital role in the social media ecosystem. After you narrow down your target audience, figure out which platforms they spend the most time on and why. Map out their digital journey with your brand.
Once you identify where, focus on determining when your audience is most engaged. Sprout data determined the best average times to post on each platform, and posting at optimal times can help your content stand out in crowded feeds.
Ultimately, the best time for you to post depends on the behavior of your target audience. Experiment and find what works.
When Google jumped on the #NationalCoffeeDay trend, it was clear their target audience was most active on LinkedIn. The post received almost 45,000 likes and over 560 shares from entertained fans—an impressive rate for the platform.
When and where is your audience spending the most time on social? Use your answer to guide your publishing cadence.
3. Make an emotional connection
Creating an engaged brand community requires building an emotional connection with your followers, whether you pull at their heartstrings or make them laugh until they cry. Get in touch with the emotions you want your audience to associate with your brand.
Use your content to make them feel like they can trust you and you understand them. According to the 2022 Sprout Social Index™, company alignment with personal values is 74% more important to consumers than it was in 2021.
By building an emotional connection, you compel people to take action—from following you on social media to shopping at your stores to making a positive impact on the world.
In Starbucks UK’s viral, award-winning #WhatsYourName campaign, they tell an emotional story trans/nonbinary people know all too well.
The video uses the famous Starbucks ritual, writing a customer’s name on a cup, as a symbol of recognition and acceptance. The campaign reinforces that everyone is welcome at Starbucks.
When creating an emotional connection with your audience, lean into your shared values.
4. Quality over quantity
To increase your chances of going viral, invest your resources into making quality content. Avoid deploying too many posts or posting just for the sake of it. That can overwhelm your audience, burn out your team and hurt your engagement rate.
So, how often should you post on social media? According to Sprout’s research, you should post across all your platforms no more than 11 times per day. Follow these cadence recommendations:
- TikTok: one to four times per day
- Instagram: one to two times per day
- Facebook: four to five times per day
- LinkedIn: no more than once per day
- Twitter: three to four times per day
- Pinterest: no more than once per day
In UGG’s latest viral campaign, #UGGSeason, they share two videos per day on their brand’s TikTok account, a share rate that’s within our recommended range.
Yep. That’s the vibe and we have big love for @SIERRA RENA in the Tasman. ❤️🔥 #UGG #UggSeason #FeelsLikeUgg #FYP #StreetStyle
The campaign videos feature models, creators and actresses donning the famous boots. In recent months, UGG has transformed their brand image, with their boots becoming an essential high fashion staple. By only posting a couple videos per day, they retain a sense of sophisticated mystery.
So far, #UGGSeason has 64.2 million views on TikTok. Remember: quality is always more chic than quantity.
5. All about the “a” word: authenticity
Authenticity is more than a buzzword: it’s an essential aspect of every viral post or campaign.
There are no quick hacks that can help you build long-term exposure. For example, adapting a tongue-and-cheek brand voice just because your competitor is doing it isn’t authentic. Your sophisticated audience will see right through you.
Instead, create content that is genuine, original and rooted in your brand’s identity.
Ask yourself if your content checks every box in the authenticity checklist:
- Is your content relatable?
- Does your audience feel like you “get” them?
- Are you being true to your brand?
- Do you have an effective content mix—tailored to your audience—on each channel?
The UK bakery, Get Baked, oozes authenticity. When the bakery was reported to a local Trading Standards agency for their use of “illegal sprinkles,” the brand’s boldness on social turned #Sprinklegate into a viral sensation.
Sprinklegate Update:It’s not good news.We have heard back from Trading Standards, and have been told that we must…
Posted by GET BAKED on Monday, October 11, 2021
Seemingly overnight, they gained hundreds of thousands of followers.
This incident is a good reminder that overly polished content often falls flat. Keep it real with your community.
6. Tap into your audience
When creating content for your brand, don’t forget about an invaluable resource at your fingertips: user-generated content (UGC).
UGC is unpaid or unsponsored social posts that people share about your brand, product or service.
To source the best UGC, ask your audience for the type of content you want to share. Create campaign hashtags and social media contests to encourage your audience to get in on the fun.
The #IceBucketChallenge in 2014 was one of the most successful viral campaigns ever.
AMAZING NEWS! If you took the Ice Bucket Challenge, you helped deliver AMX0035, the first newly developed treatment approved for ALS in years. Over 17 million of us took the Challenge and donated over $115 million to the ALS Association. THANK YOU! AMX0035 slows progression of ALS and extends life for people living with ALS. This is the first approved ALS treatment funded by Ice Bucket Challenge donations. In 2016, we invested $2.2 million to help develop and test AMX0035. THANK YOU to the entire ALS community for their advocacy in pushing the FDA to approve early. And THANK YOU to everyone living with ALS who participated in the clinical trial, particularly those who have passed. We are especially thinking of Pat Quinn and Pete Frates, who championed the Ice Bucket Challenge and inspired the world. We thank them and their families, and the entire ALS community, for changing the fight against ALS forever. THANK YOU!Read more: https://bit.ly/AMX0035-approved
Posted by The ALS Association on Thursday, September 29, 2022
The challenge was simple. Film yourself getting drenched with ice water, make a pledge to donate money to the ALS Association and challenge your friends to do the same.
In total, the challenge had over 17 million participants and raised over $115 million dollars. The challenge quickly accelerated ALS research beyond what many could have imagined.
In 2022, the ALS Association announced that the challenge directly led to the funding of a new ALS treatment that will improve people’s lives.
Don’t underestimate the power of your audience.
7. Make your content useful enough to share
Creating highly relevant, useful and educational content is an easy way to improve your chances of going viral. To increase your social media shares, make your content easily digestible and shareable. Think infographics, short-form videos and interactive content.
In National Geographic’s viral tarantula video, they share the fascinating process that unfolds as the spider sheds its exoskeleton. Many people will never get close enough to see this 7-hour molting process in person. The sped-up video is an educational tool (and incredibly mesmerizing).
This tarantula is literally crawling out of its skin pic.twitter.com/Lbk4j8fl4c
— National Geographic (@NatGeo) September 29, 2022
The video currently has 1.5 million views and almost 3,000 likes on Twitter. Replicate its success by sharing something informative in a shareable format.
8. Partner with the right influencers and creators
The creator economy is booming. Influencers and creators are now an essential asset in your overall marketing strategy, and they can up the ante on your viral marketing campaign.
Influencers and creators can increase your brand’s reach, boost awareness and help bolster your community.
When you find an influencer or creator you’d like to partner with, ask these crucial questions:
- Does this person’s brand align with our brand’s mission?
- Which metrics matter to us most? (Note: if you’re trying to go viral, consider seeking out creators with high average impression metrics)
- Does our audience overlap with this person’s audience?
By partnering with Dolly Parton and a handful of other creators, Taco Bell took its relaunch of Mexican pizza to the next level.
Two icons in the same dang musical!? Join us LIVE, 9/15 5pm PT / 8pm ET.
Each video in the viral Mexican Pizza: The Musical campaign garnered thousands (sometimes millions) of views.
Whether you’re launching a new product or trying to expand your audience, working with the right influencers/creators can help your brand surge on social.
9. Consider current trends
Staying immersed in internet culture and up to date on current trends can help you capitalize on viral moments. A word of caution: don’t try to jump on every trend.
Use social listening to discover which conversations are happening around your brand and industry.
If your community’s conversations intersect with a viral post or campaign, then you’ve captured lightning in a bottle. Act fast to add your own special twist to the trend.
For example, Chipotle created a viral masterpiece with their take on the #corn trend by recruiting the corn kid himself.
Wait for it #corn
With 7.8 million likes, 250,000 shares and 40,000 comments (and counting), their video is internet gold.
There’s more to going viral than meets the eye
While going viral isn’t the be-all end-all, there are important lessons we can learn from brands who have shot to social media stardom. Even if you can’t control your luck, you can optimize your content to extend your reach for the long-term.
Use this list of best practices to fuel your content strategy. Your content will resonate with the right audience—whether you go viral or not.
Looking to fine-tune your overall social media marketing strategy? Going viral is just the start; to capture and engage your target audience, you need a social media strategy.
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