Why I Hate The Word “Viral”


It’s not so much the word that I have a problem with, rather when people ask me or my team to make something “go viral.” If only it were that simple. My team and I would wave our viral wand and next thing you know, you’d have a “Charlie bit me” phenomenon on our hands. However, something that goes viral isn’t necessarily concocted in a science lab or even in a digital agency; it’s creative, fun, typically unbranded and evokes an emotion that resonates with the internet audience. Viral is defined as: becoming very popular by circulating quickly from person to person, especially through the Internet. It’s not a formula or even the same kind of content that goes viral it’s unpredictable and highly unrepeatable.

As I said above, you can’t necessarily make something to go viral. You can create a witty image, a kick-ass video that is hysterical or meaningful and you can find the right placements for the highest visibility and it can still flop. The point is: your goal shouldn’t be to have your video go viral. Your goal should be something much more meaningful and more tangible than that. Creating a viral video or an image that goes viral can definitely help your brand, but think back to some of your most favorite internet videos – do you remember if they had a brand associated with them?

According to TIME YouTube’s 50 Best Videos – there is only one video that includes a brand name. But, once you find the video, you realize that it is not a brand-sponsored advertisement. What made these videos go viral is the fact that they are funny, stupid, relatable, timely, and evoke some sort of emotion within the viewer that they want to share it, over and over again. Now, since we’re talking to you (most likely a brand), let’s take a look at one of the most popular and dare I say it, viral branded vides of 2015 and see how they were able to achieve essentially the holy grail of the internet, a viral video.

Introducing, Extra Gum’s “The Story of Sarah & Juan” – the video was released just about two months ago and in that time frame, it has received over 13 million views on YouTube and who knows how many other views, shares, tweets, likes, loves and more.  I stated above that some of the most popular and viral videos that are out there are unbranded and now I’m showing you a branded video, what?! Well, as a client and a brand, you want your product to be in the video and you want to show off your brand but in a way that is meaningful and not the focal point of the video. Think of your product as the strongest supporting actor, ready to win that Oscar.  So with that in mind, let’s analyze how Extra was able to create an internet sensation with their story.

An Emotional Storyline

It starts with a glance and follows the story of two high school sweethearts as they grow up, graduate, deal with long-distance, move in together and eventually get engaged.  Its feel good storyline has girls fawning over the romantic gestures and all of the relatable scenarios.  If you sift through the 17k retweets and quotes that the brand received on Twitter, you can see what we mean.

  • “They got me all up in the feels”
  • “Hey Extra, stop messing with my emotions”
  • “I never thought a gum commercial could make me so emotional”

It was just the right kind of message and the perfect timing. The video was released in October, so students are back in school and new romance is sparking. So whether young or old, you can think back to your first high school love and remember all of the good times as you sit back and watch Sarah and Juan fall in love.

sarah and juan

Smart Product Placement

I’m typically a strong advocate against including a product in a video spot. Whether a commercial or a “viral video” – the product has to naturally fit in the scene for it to be successful.  Extra has a perfect balance of product inclusion and storyline. The story is front and center, and the gum is just a character in the background. While I will say, I never had a stick of gum stop an argument, props to Extra for testing it out in the commercial. And at the end (spoiler alert) when he proposes using all of the gum wrappers from their big moments – I think all of our hearts melted! Or maybe that was just me…

Feel Good Music

Everyone knows the song whether they love it or hate it doesn’t really matter. The cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” sets the mood and the tone of the entire video. So, when deciding what song to have in your next viral video – be smart and pick something that matches the video and your audience will appreciate. (Hint: it’s not a stock track song).

Alright, so maybe I don’t necessarily hate the word viral. But, I hate the way it gets tossed around. I want to make this go “viral” – is not really that simple to do. Do you think the team at Extra Gum just said – let’s create a viral video and this story came to life? No, they thought about their goals, their audience, their messaging and how they could bring that to life through a video and voila…quality content was created.

So next time your boss comes to you and says “let’s go viral” – take a step back and ask him (or her) some critical questions.  Ask them:

  • What’s the goal of the video?
  • What message are we trying to promote?
  • Who is our target audience?
  • What does our target audience care about?
  • What’s the tone of our video?

I think you get the point! There should be a real purpose behind the video, not just to create something “viral”. And be sure to prep them and say that you can’t predict the outcome of a video, but what you can do is create something great with the hopes of going viral. And if it doesn’t go viral this time, then get back up, dust yourself off and try it again. I don’t know if Charlie’s mom let him keep biting his brother, but it sure would be funny if she did.