Should “viral” be a goal for your union social campaign?

A few years ago, I remember regular requests for “viral” content for the union campaigns that my colleague and I ran. This was not only a mostly impossible task, but also misunderstands the utility of social media for unions.

Very few worthwhile campaigns, videos or articles go “viral”. The job is so difficult that it spurred the creators of Upworthy to found their now stunningly successful website:

Upworthy is…

…social media with a mission: to make important stuff as viral as a video of some idiot surfing off his roof.

The New York Times explained it this way:

There is conventional wisdom about what kind of material will go viral on the Internet: celebrity slide shows, lists like 10 tips for losing belly fat, and quirky kitten antics.

Then there is the path of, whose goal is to make more serious content as fun to share as a “video of some idiot surfing off his roof.” Surfing idiots are tough to beat, of course, but Upworthy has shown that by selecting emotional material and then promoting it with catchy, pretested headlines, it can fulfill its mission: to direct Internet audiences to what it deems socially worthwhile subjects. Already the site has drawn millions of people to share videos about sober topics like income inequality and human trafficking. A video featuring Patrick Stewart discussing domestic violence was uploaded more than six million times after it was posted in May.

The way that they achieve this virality is to create about 25 different headlines, then A/B test them all to determine the one most likely to be clicked. Forbes goes into the secrets of viral headlines here:

1. Forget everything you know. Specifically, forget the rules that say headlines must be informative, objective or even grammatically correct. While sites like Upworthy, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post and Business Insider are often mocked for formulaic display copy — “You’ll Never BELIEVE Who Taylor Swift Is Dating Now,” or “These 13 Otters Are So Cute You’ll Plotz” — the quantitative approach has in fact led to major innovations in headline writing and the creation of effective new tropes, says Koechley.

2. Overpromise and Overdeliver. It sometimes feels like everything on the internet these days has to be the MOST WHATEVER EVER, but Upworthy doesn’t shy away from that. Instead, it uses breathless headlines to set the bar for content high. “We write what some people would call clickbait headlines and we try to live up to that,” says Koechley. “We task our editorial team with finding superlative things.”

3. Create a curiosity gap. This is what those “You’ll Never BELIEVE Who Taylor Swift Is Dating Now” headlines do, quite effectively, even if it turns out you will ultimately believe who Taylor Swift is dating now. “Tell people enough to get them interested but not so much they don’t need to click,” says Koechley. “Our goal is to create an itch you need to scratch.”

4. Telegraph emotion. This is something that doesn’t come naturally to most journalists, who think their role is to present facts, not stir feelings, says Koechley. But, for whatever reason, readers like being told what they’re going to feel by a headline like “Finally, Pictures of Gorgeous Women That Make You Feel Better About Yourself Instead Of Worse” or “ Student Comes Out To Teacher In Writing Assignment. Her Response Will Make You Cry.”

5. Don’t write for your audience, write for their friends. Frankly, I’m not sure I quite get the distinction here, but the point is to think about whether your headline is something people will want showing up in their Facebook or Twitter feeds with their names next to it.

The question is, should this virality be the goal for union social campaigns?

According to Allyson Kapin in an article on TechPresident, the answer is no.

For me, “let’s make it go viral” will always top the list of the dirtiest words in marketing.

Having worked with more than 100 organizations to develop websites and campaigns, set goals, and craft messaging for advocacy organizations, I understand why nonprofits are attracted to viral campaigns. Your issue is important, so naturally you want to reach as many people as possible. However, the allure of going viral is ultimately a distraction. To win, organizations should invest their energy in creating compelling and sharable content that focuses on:

  • Fostering your community and network
  • Motivating your target audiences to take action through targeted engagement
  • Defining measurable goals connected to specific outcomes
  • Being prepared for successes and learning quickly from failures

There are no short cuts to creating social change. You need a mobilized base of supporters who believe in your mission and are consistently engaged across multiple channels.

This emphasis on identifying your engaged supporters and mobilising them is something I strongly agree with, and have written about before.

Kapin has an excellent graphic (below) which illustrates this. The point about social media is relevance and engagement. Your union’s campaign messages should be written or developed specifically for your target audience. The “general public” or a vague “viral audience” is not a target audience.

Adapted from the book Social Change Anytime Everywhere

Even large brands that run mass advertising like TV ads use buyer personas to develop their positioning and core messages. One of the most famous viral success stories, the Old Spice Man, was a surprise hit. It wasn’t created to “become” viral; It was developed to target a specific niche, and due to its humour and the unexpectedness of the ad, it became an overnight hit.

If you get asked by colleagues or leaders in your union to create a “viral” meme, graphic or video, I hope this helps you.

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