How to create a viral campaign (you'll also need a bit of luck!)

What is the secret of creating a viral campaign? Well according to many of our experts, it is important not to focus too much on virality, as this isn’t something that can be guaranteed. However, by creating quality campaigns and ones that stand the test of time, you are more likely to get noticed and shared. Here are their top tips for achieving this:

Focus on quality

Beth Nunnington, PR director at performance marketing agency Journey Further: “It's never guaranteed that a campaign will go 'viral' but if you ensure your idea is relevant, is on brand, is simple to understand and has shareability (something that will get people talking about it on social media and also in the pub with their friends and family) then you're onto a winner.

“I would always advise clients not to get too hung up on the quantity of coverage and links though, and instead to focus on the quality. Getting great coverage that's full of relevant brand messaging, on publications that your target audience will actually be reading, is arguably a better strategy. The danger of becoming too focused on going 'viral' could see your brand putting a story out there that's not right for them, and if it's irrelevant could potentially even do more harm than good.”

Think simple, shareable and ownable

Will Cooke, head of strategy and creative at communications agency M&C Saatchi Talk: “Being asked for a ‘viral idea’ can be a blessing and a curse. The viral curse is that it tends to mean there is minimal budget and maximum pressure, but if you can manage expectations then it can be a catalyst to brave and remarkable work.

“Ultimately, we’re here to earn attention, so we should always have an ambition for virality. But starting with ‘viral’ tends to lead to short-lived and forgettable work. We’re always pushing for ideas that are simple (flipping expectations), shareable (baking in kudos) and ownable (making it meaningful) but sometimes you need a bit of zeitgeist luck. ‘Let it out’ for Iceland was a great case in point (and just won a slew of Effies) as it was already a smart idea, but just caught the mood perfectly and was able to make the leap from campaign to culture.”

Be authentic

Eddie Hammerman, managing director of integrated digital content agency The 10 Group: “The first question we ask is why ‘go viral’ - what impact should a campaign have on the company or brand? Is a fleeting moment of brand fame enough? It’s essential to think about a client’s business objectives first and explore what motivates their audience to have real commercial benefit.

“In our experience, when clients ask for a viral campaign they are often looking for the additional value of earned shareability and talkability across news and social.

“With so much noise across so many channels, curating the company’s inside story is essential in keeping it authentic. Post-Covid, consumers are even more aware of a company’s identity and purpose - and are more inclined to question motives behind campaigns.

“All clients have a target audience in mind so trying to ‘Ice Bucket Challenge it’ usually isn’t necessary and involves wasted time, energy and creativity. Brand moments or shareable campaigns have their place if the objectives are well defined, but tend not to have the long-term impact if approached standalone.

“Building brands and companies is a long- term game and require powerful stories and a creative thread that ties everything together. A consumer might love a viral moment, but this can only take a brand so far.”

Aim for long-term rather than viral

Jessica Pardoe, account manager at agency Source PR: “Viral campaigns are wonderful, sure, but I think we can often get swept up in vanity with them. I genuinely think that virality is overrated and there’s much more value in PR campaigns that stand the test of time, for example Coca-Cola being subtly linked to Christmas and its iconic and instantly recognisable bottle shape. If you dig into it, you’ll often find that viral campaigns are very superficial and seldom yield real results.”

My favourite viral campaigns

Camilo Lascano Tribin, creative director of PR agency Hotwire Global discusses four campaigns that got his attention and explains why they work.

  1. Something that can be instantly copied, recreated or tweaked to make a variation on the original idea - like this video featuring Jennifer Lopez and Derek Hough to promote World of Dance TV show
  2. They’re nostalgic - like Steve from Blue's Clues making a return for a campaign for Nick Jr.
  3. They shock or subvert your viewer’s expectations - like Balenciaga’s latest OOH billboard with Fortnite; it surprises the viewer and makes them want to watch more.
  4. They take a lighthearted tone to an issue - like Emily’s Crisps launching OOH ads during the pandemic.

Many PRs shudder when their clients demand viral campaigns, but at least this is not as common as it used to be. As Julia Smith, founder and MD of digital tech PR agency The Digital Voice says: “The PR industry was filled with clients aspiring to ‘go viral’ five years ago, but going viral has its drawbacks and often leaves a negative impact. When viral goes wrong, it goes wrong big!”

Smith believes that viral is less sought after these days as brands have shifted their focus from reach to producing engaging content; she concludes: “Over time, brands have realised the importance of engagement and really focusing on the customers' interests to further deliver. Quality over quantity has taken over the ‘going viral’ chant!”