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Viral vs shareable: Do you know the difference?

I can’t really pinpoint when the term “viral” jumped the shark, but if I had to guess, it would be somewhere around 2007 (feel free to share differing opinions in the comment section below).

More importantly, as we approach the year 2012, I’m saddened by the fact that this phrase is still incredibly common in marketing circles. It’s not that I’m against viral content (I enjoy funny videos and I can haz cheeseburger as much as the next guy). Rather, I find that marketers big and small are very confused as to the pathology of viral content as well as it’s long-term value. Even more frightening is the fact that a fair share marketing executives actually believe that viral content should be the centerpiece – if not the entire piece – of a sound social media strategy.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an executive at a Fortune 500 company (or an agency stakeholder for said company) skim through the real meat of a social media plan or strategy and then assert that they what they really need the next Old Spice idea, etc. and so forth.

Mind you, that’s not to say that having your brand go viral as a result of social media efforts is negative outcome. It’s just that there’s so much more to the social media universe.

But back to the main point of this post: Do you know the difference between something that’s viral and something that’s shareable? If your answer is yes, congratulations. You’re one step closer to social media and content marketing bliss.

If your answer is no, here’s a quick primer that will hopefully put you on the road towards social and content strategy redemption:

Viral Content

  • Doesn’t “just happen” because you have something funny or exciting. It requires a good idea + a solid base of social influencers (e.g. bloggers, traditional media outlets, etc.) willing to share your idea with their readers/followers and/or a massive advertising budget that allows you to reach an extremely large audience. And even when these basic conditions are met, you still aren’t guaranteed viral success
  • Isn’t a “one shot” deal. In other words, if you plan on having viral success, you had better line up a series of good content ideas and not just one big idea. Why? Because even viral pros will tell you that there’s no such thing as a perfect batting average when it comes to rolling out viral content. The grand majority of your “viral” content will fall flat and fail to make the rounds. So if you want a shot at going viral, make sure you’ve got a decent, ongoing budget handy because you’re going to need it.
  • May not end up impacting your business’ bottom line. Guess what? I love those old Southwest “Must Be Football Season” commercials. Never flown on Southwest. I dig the dude from the Old Spice Commercials. Never use their products. I’m fascinated by Intel’s Museum of Me (who doesn’t love a trip down Narcissism lane?) but it doesn’t make me any more likely to purchase their hardware in the future.
  • Can set you, your department, agency, and business up for failure. You can read all the books and blog posts you want, come up with the perfect idea (or a dozen of them) line up your influencers and media buys, yet still fail to go viral. So if that’s your goal, be prepared to come up with some solid answers if, by chance, you fail to reach it despite massive amounts of time and money invested.

Shareable Content

  • Can be anything that provides value to users, or better yet, prospective and existing customers. It doesn’t have to be flashy, funny, wild, risque, etc. Heck, a solid how-to video or education blog post will do the trick. And while building rapport with relevant influencers will definitely help improve your sharing quotient, it’s not a prerequisite.
  • Can happen on an ongoing basis. It’s much easier to create a steady diet of shareable content (blog posts, applications, infographics, how-to videos, etc.) than it is to shoot for the stars with a piece of content (or contest, or giveaway, or commercial, or a microsite, etc.) that’s intended to go viral.
  • Can pave the way for developing rapport with social influencers. After all, having a shareable content engine like a blog allows for things like guest posting opportunities for influencers, linking out to influencers, and offering influencers something that they actually feel like sharing on an ongoing basis. In fact, one might argue that if you ever do want to have viral success, it’s a good idea to make shareable content the cornerstone of that effort, because it will provide you with the opportunity to build rapport with the influencers that are most likely to share that eventual viral content that you plan on creating.
  • Can be designed to directly impact your bottom line. Since the goal isn’t to reach critical mass, you can tailor your content to be relevant to your consumer base and to very subtly target potential customers as part of a slow-drip approach to nurturing new business. Even B2B businesses can get in the act!
  • Can set you up for long-term ROI. Google knows what they’re talking about when they say that content is king, and in today’s increasingly social landscape an ongoing stream of highly shareable content is becoming the king of kings.. And not just because of long-term SEO benefits it provides. I would argue that the biggest value shareable content provides is the organic, word-of-mouth brand building and trust building that occurs when consumers are able to perceive your business as a legitimate thought leader and value provider above and beyond the tangible product or service that you’re selling. That’s the type of long-term marketing equity that no amount of viral success can provide.


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  • http://www.professionalseoconsultant.com/ Miguel

    LOL, the social media director at my last agency HATED it whenever anyone mentioned the word “viral.” Just for the reasons given above. Most SM folks feel the same way because clients think that there’s some sort of magic formula or that if you pay enough you can “go viral.”

    Shareable content goes a long way and is evergreen, meaning you can benefit from it over and over again. Plus it makes you more of an authority, while viral campaigns make you more of a “creative” brand than an authority.

    • Anonymous

      Glad to hear it, Miguel! Unfortunately, there are plenty of marketing executives (and agencies) that haven’t gotten the memo yet.

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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    If you ever create marketing materials for the sole purpose of “going viral” you are missing the point. First, it’s impossible to determine what will or won’t go viral. Second, your target audience isn’t everyone, so you shouldn’t try and appeal to everyone. Create something that your current and potential clients and customers would appreciate.

    • Anonymous

      Well put, Nick!

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