The problem(s) with viral

I’ve long had a problem with the word “viral” when used in phrases like “viral marketing”, “viral video” and related contexts. I haven’t always been able to explain exactly why in a succinct way.

Judging from his blog and the work he does, Kevin Marks is a guy who understands the web. He absolutely nails it with this blog post about the scammy connotations of viral. He suggests we retain the word “viral” but use it solely for “exploitatative applications that violate trust to reproduce against the interests of their hosts”. Love it. It’s worth reading in full, as well as this earlier post How not to be viral.

Marks’ emphasis here is on companies who create software, citing the photo sharing service Flickr as a good example of somewhere that supports “fruitful social interactions”.

Our emphasis is slightly different. In my experience the word “viral” is also used for funny videos and other online content that spreads rapidly.

For marketers discovering YouTube and other services, as methods for spreading a “brand message”, the word viral can be seductive because it implies a smaller investment of effort. (Let the viral do the work and go home early!) But of all the viral videos you can name, how many can you associate with a specific company or product? It makes a good straw poll for colleagues whenever they mention the dreaded word.

Viral videos often merely advertise themselves. That is, you remember the video but seldom remember the company. It comes back to another one of my bugbears, which is the over-emphasis on hit count or view count as metrics of success. We’ve never met a client whose sole aim was to notch up a million video views, it might help the ego but it just isn’t an objective in and of itself.

At Native, we recognise the value of good marketing – but what we do seldom intersects with interruption advertising or one-way broadcast videos and the like.

That’s because we hold that good marketing is far more than spreading a brand message. Good marketing is being aware of what people are saying about you, helping customers with problems, meeting them on their terms, making a quality product or service – and providing or supporting spaces where customers can talk to each other. These principles apply offline. Now online we have some great opportunities and tools to do these things in new ways.

Another benefit of online is allowing niche conversations about all the subjects that relate to you and your business. These take place in text, images, audio, graphic visualisations and yes, videos.

“Viral” annoys me because it’s too much of an abstraction of the real human beings you’re trying to deal with. These people become prospects, targets, vectors, hosts. This is actually how I feel I’m being categorised when I watch TV advertising now. It’s too general and it alienates me. Besides, people don’t really talk like that. The same goes for viral videos. Actually the videos that spread most effectively are the ones that have no product or company behind them, like the “free hugs” movement. People are not stupid, they’ll assess your motives and share the videos that smell genuine.

Incidentally, often the memorable and useful videos I find online are straight-to-camera, lo-fidelity, quick, unpolished recordings, not slick adverts. This is a guideline, not a rule, but if it’s a social media conversation people are coming to expect videos that are like blog posts, not brochures.

All this is about as far from a single-message viral video as you could hope to get.


  1. I like this Carl – I especially like the observation about letting viral ‘do all the hard work’. Viral annoys me too – “let’s just put it out there”. It’s nonsense.

    But I think viral can also just kind of happen too…the crowd at that festival in the States who all join in with the idiot dancing or the people at that wedding who all come into the church dancing like MC Hammer or that fat kid doing his light sabre routine.

    As you point out though, these things aren’t selling anything. Not sure I’ve seen anything truly memorable from a top brand that is.

  2. The Star Wars kid hated the popularity of that video. The “viral effect” happened to him, he was a victim of it!

    Which makes me think about the converse and whether that could also be true. If you desire the “virality” too much, you will NOT experience it!

    With this, I think the first will be last.

    Your “target market” are so good at spotting motives these days, they can smell desperation.

    But they will warm to honesty and innocence. You CANNOT fake these things. (The best you might hope for is a discussion of your advertising campaign itself, rather than the actual product.)

    It could be a hangover from TV advertising where you have to be original to stand out. The web distributes originality more evenly. Therefore the only scarcity is the truly human stuff.