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Viral Marketing: The New Business Of Going Viral

By Snap Agency December 26, 2013

As marketers, we know how valuable word-of-mouth is to popularize our content and move products and services. When we put that content onto the Internet in the form of algorithms, A/B test it for clickability and shareability, it streamlines word-of-mouth content into a viral sensation.//

There’s a science to it. Not only that, there’s a business to it. Several. New websites have been popping up throughout 2013 that are making it their business to discover and deliver the most shareable content on the Web. They’re called “viral mills;” sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, among many others, are exploding in popularity and generate millions of views a day.

And marketers are starting to take notice.

Lessons from an Online Community: Do Shares Matter?

Recently, I caught a late night interview with BuzzFeed founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti. While not an enormous fan of the cat memes and oddly-numbered celebrity lists, I am intrigued by the viral machine they’ve created, which draws in millions of daily visitors.

Something in particular Peretti discussed during this interview was his marketing philosophy. As he explained his personal views, he said,

“The best viral marketing strategy is understanding the human head and the human heart. If you make things that people will want to talk about with their friends, you’ll have a lot of success,”

While in theory or in a hypothetical Utopian society, this may be an extremely relevant statement about viral marketing, but in practice…

Let’s just say, we have yet to see value behind numbers, BuzzFeed (or Upworthy for that matter). We haven’t seen the justification of Peretti’s aforementioned statement.

Millions of Views – But, Where are the Sales?

As the goal of any business, these viral publishers need to be profitable in order to succeed. Like most traditional news organizations, revenue is generated primarily by advertising. Will BuzzFeed and others be able to generate a clear ROI for companies looking to invest ad dollars in the viral market?

While innovative–perhaps just as novelty, but nonetheless–Peretti and his peers are developing revenue on platforms surprisingly similar to traditional advertising. In that, partnering businesses can’t formulate leads or sales from sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy. They can only build awareness, advance branding and promote engagement with (hopefully) their target audience.

This means that viral machines are dependent upon the millions of page views that generate impressions to sell their ad space. Additionally, they have no talking points about the value of their ad space. While BuzzFeed’s native advertising platform is successful (self-projected $120 million in 2014 ad revenue), advertisers constantly risk associating their brand with an irrelevant contextual element. It seems like a car company would rather have a banner ad on AutoTrader.com rather than a banner ad possibly popping up on an article like, “40-Car Pile Up Caught on Camera.”

Additionally, the demographic base of sites like BuzzFeed tends to be American, 20-30 years old. A million shares means zip for your company if your demographic doesn’t lie in this target and/or your advertising doesn’t connect contextually with published content.

Set a Goal, Don’t Let it Go

Great viral marketing doesn’t only generate massive amounts of views, but it accomplishes a goal for the company. Just like a social media strategy shouldn’t solely focus on building awareness, but driving engagements to build relationships – a viral marketing goal shouldn’t rest solely on page views. Traffic is not a business goal, it is a means to one. Premium content and an effective sharing mechanism are great–but who are you producing this for and to what end? Answer these questions, and you will be on your way to creating the next great viral marketing concept.