I always thought the whole point of something ‘going viral’ on the internet was that it happens spontaneously. A funny tweet, a photo of a weird-looking dog, or a video clip of a politician’s embarrassing gaffe gets picked up and circulated all over the net where it explodes into a meme. Then suddenly the owner of a cat with a squashed face can find themselves quitting their job and making millions managing their cat’s career, complete with merchandising deals, TV appearances and book tour.

But recently I saw a job spec which actually stipulated “we need someone who can produce great content and make it go viral”. This is something marketers and advertisers would wish to achieve with every campaign they create, but is it even possible? Can you really engineer viral content?

Jane Ditcham is co-founder of eric, a newly-launched content marketing agency, and has worked on numerous high profile marketing campaigns for big brands including UBS and Hewlett Packard.

She says the viral ad campaign which stands out in her mind was one of the first ones, a 2007 video ad for Cadbury Dairy Milk which featured a gorilla playing the drum part of Phil Collins’ hit ‘In the Air Tonight’. It was a huge win for the company, which was trying to recapture the hearts of British consumers after suffering negative press around a product recall. The ad gained 6 million views on video sharing sites in the first two months after launch, gave a huge boost to the brand’s appeal, and lifted year on year sales of the chocolate bar by 9%. It also spawned at least 70 Cadbury’s gorilla appreciation groups on Facebook. But why was it so successful?

“That ad went viral because it talked a moment, it had a great track, and it was pushing a product that appealed to everyone,” Ditcham says. “It had as many boxes ticked as possible to capture the zeitgeist.

“You can’t say ‘I’m going to make this go viral’ but what you can do with the technology available is to massively increase your chances. You’ve got to be very lucky for that to happen every time you do a marketing campaign, but if the content is credible and worth consuming, it helps,” she says.

Timing is really important, and is one of the most obvious things marketers need to get right, and for this they need decent data analytics. Many large content and advertising agencies have ‘social listening’ teams, Ditcham explains. Their job it is to monitor what’s being talked about on social networks to find out what’s hot, and to make predictions about what will be in future. This helps them time their output correctly for maximum impact.

“For example, Mumsnet mums would recently have been talking about Halloween and back to school. If I were Asda, I’d have been posting recipes for ghoulish snacks and treats and telling mums ways they can make their parties better,” she says.

“Another example would be fuel companies. They could start seeding the market with their content when people are beginning to talk about winter and the weather. This can improve their chances of talking about the right thing at the right time. It’s not so much based on luck, more on analytics, but it has to be coupled with good content and amazing creative or people won’t share it.”

So there are certainly things marketers can do to encourage their content to spread like wildfire across the net, but success is partly down to a combination of luck, data, and timing. And, of course, to light any fire, you need a spark – the hard part is coming up with that brilliant idea for your brand.

Hannah Smith
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Hannah Smith

During almost ten years spent as a journalist, Hannah has held a number of senior roles in the B2B space, including acting editor and deputy editor of Investment Week, and news editor at Fund Strategy. She specialises in asset management and also has a passion for personal finance.
Hannah Smith
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