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Is Viral Marketing Finally Dead?

Vincent Flood 06 December, 2021 

In the early days of online video, there were a lot of companies promising to make brands’ content “go viral”. Publicly, it was often portrayed as being a form of online marketing alchemy. Privately, ‘viral success’ was driven by a combination of paid media and seeding the content on forums and content sharing platforms across the Internet. 

In 2021, whilst virality continues to be something marketers desire, the term ‘viral marketing’ is one that has fallen out of fashion.

This is partly because it has become far more difficult to get noticed online. Ten or fifteen years ago, there were fewer platforms, especially when it came to video. And there also was far less high quality content available online. So a brand with a seven to eight figure marketing budget was often able to break through the noise, particularly if the content was well produced and humorous. 

Today however, brands have to compete in a world where 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. And that’s before you start to consider Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snap. 

With so much content available, only a tiny fraction of that ever goes viral, says Yuval Ben-Itzhak, chief of strategy at Emplifi. 

“There is an enormous amount of content being created every second. So for content to stand out, it’s hard, and to go viral it’s really 0.0000001 percent of content that actually achieves that,” Ben-Itzhak said. 

That doesn’t mean brands can’t go viral, but it’s usually quite difficult to predict what is likely to take off. Recent research from Semrush, an online visibility platform, found that 83 percent of viral TikTok videos came from unverified accounts, meaning that brand or influencer status doesn’t always equate to viral success.
Accidental virality

Recently, one global brand saw their content go viral on TikTok without any action on their part whatsoever. Starburst, a Mars-owned confectionary brand, saw their “berries and cream” ad campaign go viral organically without any effort from their marketing team. 

This slightly bizarre ad was first broadcast in 2007, but went viral in 2021. It features a “little lad” dressed up in old-fashioned garb, doing an odd jig and singing about “berries and cream”. The berries and cream refers to Starburst’s berries and creme flavour, which was released in 2007.  

The ad was strange, but it is perhaps even stranger that it went viral in 2021. TikTok users reenacted “the little lad” dance, and remixed the strange song with pop hits. Starburst itself took a while to hop on the trend, eventually re-hiring original “little lad” actor Jack Ferver to reprise the role. The brand has also teased the idea of relaunching the berries and cream flavour. 

The berries and cream trend on TikTok is something that probably every brand wants to create; however, in this case it did not come from the brand themselves, but started organically.

Following trends provides challenges

Brands themselves may struggle to recreate this sort of phenomenon, says Natalie Stagnaro, head of campaigns at Fanbytes, but she believes they should still try to keep up with trends. 

“Organic TikTok trends are always going to trump paid ads and branded content, simply because they are so authentic. However, that shouldn’t put brands off creating trend-led content,” said Stagnaro.

“Trends come and go so quickly that it’s crucial to jump on them at the start in order to stay relevant,” she said, “The best branded trend content is when the brand has put their own spin on the trend. Don’t just reproduce a trend, make it unique to you.”

Emplifi’s Ben-Itzhak is more cynical about brands hopping on to the latest trend. 

“I’m not sure the brands can be agile enough to join in with these trends, as they come and and go so fast. The other question is whether they want to be a part of it, it’s important to consider the brand identity,” he said. 

However, one trend that Yuval Ben-Itzhak believes that brands should be aware of is how social media content is contantly changing. 

“There are always new content formats that have been introduced by the different platforms. It is important for brands to test these out to keep their audience engaged,” he said, “For example, images on Instagram seem outdated, but just three years ago, it was the thing. Now it’s all about short video, which is an evolution from long-form video where YouTube used to be the thing. Imagine how AR is going to move forward and where all the metaverse discussion will lead us. Brands should be paying attention to all that’s happening there.”

No set recipe for viral success

The only thing that viral content has in common is its randomness, says Emplifi’s Yuval Ben-Itzhak. 

“Around a year ago, we used our AI and data scientists to look at the pieces of content that went viral. We tried to identify some commonalities with them, and we tried to understand what made them stand out,” he said, “The thing they had in common was that they had a surprise effect, but we couldn’t attribute anything similar in terms of creative strategy or timing to these pieces of content. The nature of viral is that you cannot programme it or plan it.”

Ben-Itzhak cited the Instagram egg, or the blue and black/gold and white dress as examples of viral content that people tried to copy the formulas of and did not succeed. 

Fanbyte’s Stagnaro agrees that there is no set recipe for viral success. However, she believes there are things that viral campaigns have in common that brands can try to replicate. 

“Though a set formula would be a marketer’s dream, there isn’t necessarily a guaranteed blueprint. That said, there are a few key things that all viral campaigns have in common. Self-awareness is key, with brands like fast-food chain Wendy’s or budget airline Ryanair poking fun at their own brand and offering,” she said. 

“Being bold is another key ingredient. This doesn’t mean they have to be completely out of left field, but having an element of unexpected surprise, without being forced, is crucial. Lastly, timing is everything. Trends come and go so it’s important to be aware of current trends and trends that have already passed,” Stagnaro said. 

Ben-Itzhak says the different platforms require different strategies. He says that often it’s more wise for brands to pinpoint who they want to reach, rather than attempting to go “viral” to achieve mass reach. 

“On every platform, you’ll find different profiles of people in terms of age range, gender and region. They are also topics that these users engage more with on one platform than on another,” he said. “You want to know who you want to engage, and identify the platforms where these people are engaging with content, create content there, and focus your effort there,” he added.



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