How to make content go viral? 5 reasons B2B marketers should NEVER ask this question

Content going viral won’t necessarily help you as a B2B marketer – it might even undermine your strategy

October 2, 2017

Content going viral won’t necessarily help you as a B2B marketer – it might even undermine your strategy

There’s a huge hidden assumption within digital content marketing that’s almost as old as digital marketing itself. It’s the assumption that the ultimate goal of your content marketing strategy is virality. The true hallmark of success is to create content that whole hosts of unrelated people converge around: they leap on it, engage with it like crazy, take passionate ownership of it, and amplify it enthusiastically across the web. When content goes viral, it proves it’s special – but it also does your work for you. What marketer wouldn’t want that?

If you ask me, most B2B marketers with a clear and focused content strategy wouldn’t. They might not mind terribly if the odd piece of content catches fire socially and drives far higher sharing and reach than usual. But they certainly shouldn’t be focusing their content strategy on trying to achieve it. In fact, the risks of content going viral often far outweigh the rewards that virality supposedly delivers. Trying to generate viral hits doesn’t just distort your content strategy and undermine what you’re trying to achieve – it does so in pursuit of a goal that’s usually pointless for B2B marketing.

Not convinced? Here are five reasons why most B2B marketers should never waste their time chasing a big viral hit:

Virality is outside of your control
Content marketers can control the factors that lead to success amongst a specific target audience. They can leverage insight on hot topics, the formats that engage, the headlines and images that will capture attention; they can adjust the balance of paid and earned media to fit what they need to achieve – and they can test and optimise as they go. They can deliver predictable, consistent engagement. Virality is different. Any idea of controlling whether content goes viral is largely an illusion, no matter what some social media experts might tell you.

The algorithms that decide how visible content becomes within people’s feeds and on platforms like YouTube are constantly changing – and it’s these algorithms that you need to connect with if you are to make the leap to large numbers of unrelated, untargeted people discovering and getting excited about your content.

When you are planning a content strategy, you have to start with a clear idea of how the content you are creating and the budget you are investing in it will link back to clearly defined marketing and business objectives. This view of ROI has to rest on things that you can actually predict – and that means they have to be largely within your control. Any strategy that rests on content going viral isn’t really a strategy – it’s just a punt.

Virality is the opposite of scalable
I heard a great story about a keynote speaker giving a presentation on the basis of a big viral hit that they had created a couple of years beforehand. Eventually, after several audiences had soaked up their insight about the strategy, creative processes and content philosophy behind this success, somebody thought to ask: if you’ve got going viral cracked, how come you’ve never created anything that big since?

I’ve no idea if this story is true. It’s the kind of thing that makes me cringe inside when I’m watching a sitcom – but it cuts to the heart of the virality issue for content marketers. Hang your strategy (and your reputation) on your ability to deliver content with ridiculously extravagant viewing and sharing numbers and you are instantly operating on borrowed time. Every rule in the game is working against you.

Partly because so much of virality is outside your immediate control, very few people and very few brands are able to achieve it more than once. Where was Old Spice’s follow-up to the man your man could be? Who remembers the second Dollar Shave Club ad? Who can name more than one tweet that came from Oreo? Musicians may suffer from ‘difficult second album syndrome’ but at least most of them manage to make one that people can remember. When it comes to viral content, you really are dealing with a series of one hit wonders.

The fundamental truth is that going viral isn’t scalable. Wait until it gets you into a position where you’re asked to recreate it and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Even if you can isolate what gave you success last time around, it’s no guarantee that the same formula will work again. That’s why, if you do happen to light the viral touchpaper with a piece of content, it’s absolutely vital that you manage expectations. Stick to the plan – and the level of engagement you can realistically expect going forward.

Virality and credibility are not the same
The fact that viral success is so hard to replicate is one reason to be suspicious of it. An even more significant reason is the fact that content going viral might actively work against your B2B marketing objectives. This is where the risk side of the viral equation comes in.

Content that gets shared ridiculously widely (and let’s remember, that’s pretty much the definition of viral) also gets seen more frequently. For a discerning, time-poor B2B audience, this quickly starts to become annoying. What was funny and distracting the first time it appeared in your feed starts to lose its appeal on the third or fourth occasion. If your audience sees content more often than that, they’re likely to start mentally categorising it as spam. That’s the last thing you need when you’re aiming to nurture prospects and prime them to look out for your content in the future.

This is a downside for any B2B content that happens to go viral. However, the risk increases hugely when you start consciously chasing virality. This involves an inevitable compromise in the creative process. You aren’t just creating content that’s relevant and value-adding for your target audience; you are trying to create content that’s distracting or briefly amusing for large numbers of totally unrelated people. That increases your chance of baffling or irritating the people you really care about.

Who needs the backlash?
Going viral by definition means putting your content in front of a massive, untargeted audience. It means that your content will have limited relevance for most of the people that see it. They’re not coming at it from any place of common understanding or empathy – and that’s risky. What’s the result of large numbers of irrelevant people sharing content they don’t really understand from a brand they’ve no relationship with? You’d best prepare for some form of social media backlash.

In order for content to go viral, ownership of it must pass from those that created it to those sharing and commenting on it. You can’t predict or shape how these people will present it to their networks; you can’t predict or shape how those networks will interpret and understand it. It doesn’t take much for a negative interpretation of your content to come to dominate the conversation around it. And before you know it, you’re required to devote time and resource to managing that response. The baggage that comes with content going viral can quickly become more trouble than it’s worth.

What would you do with 1 million views anyway?
I’ve outlined some of the key risks that content going viral involves. However, there’s an even bigger reason for avoiding viral content like you would avoid, well, a virus. For most B2B marketers, there’s no meaningful reward to balance those risks against.

The only true benefit of content going viral is dramatically increased reach – but is huge reach amongst people you haven’t actually targeted really something that you want? Let’s look at the best imaginable scenario resulting from your B2B content going viral. Even if you were somehow able to retarget these people, segment them, nurture them and convert them into leads, would your sales team really thank you for the task of wading through a lot of largely irrelevant contact details searching for the genuine sales opportunities? Even if you could convert a large proportion of this huge reach into paying customers, is your organisation ready to handle such a sudden surge in business? Is the upside really an upside?

Great B2B content marketing is an exercise in relevant targeting and reach. Its goal is to add value to the people who matter, generating awareness, interest and demand that can be efficiently translated into quality leads and new business revenues. None of these objectives is furthered by your content going viral; in fact, they might well be undermined or obscured by it. Don't make virality your B2B content marketing objective. Focus on the relevant reach and engagement that’s within your control instead. Your sales teams – and your business – will thank you for it.