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It’s a phrase that PR agencies and clients like to trot out – more often than not during the pitch – and everyone says “yes, great idea!” and then it usually goes one of two ways. It withers on the vine, due to lack of resources; or ends up as some horrifically over-branded marketing content that’s never going to be shared.


So what makes a video go viral? I’ve had two videos on my Facebook that have had considerable shares and while the things they covered are very different, the basic principle is the same. Unique content that is unusual, compelling and interesting enough that you want to show other people. 

FireworkBrixton Evening

For news organisations, that means getting the story out first. But this obsession to be the fastest with the mostest can cause problems. Last summer, Buckingham Palace had to issue a denial that the Queen had died after a junior BBC employee tweeted that she had passed away. The reason? She’d seen a rehearsal (which all news organisations do for very famous people) and assumed it was the real thing. It wasn’t. To be fair, Ms Khawaja’s tweet did go viral, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Queen Tweet

For PR, marketing and the like, tapping into a breaking news event is unlikely to be successful and can often backfire as Crocs found out to its cost trying to promote a brand off the death of a celebrity.


So what this means is that you need to be creative and come up with something that is either unique, topical or funny. What’s more, it’s got to not be overly contrived or branded. And if it is set up, don’t get caught. The internet went wild about an old man performing grime on Carnaby Street until Vice got hold of someone who said they saw a two-camera shoot when he first appeared and the ‘Hunt for the Grime Grandad’ lost its momentum. Great idea - flawed execution.

Some companies – such as Troll Station – stage real life dramas which then go viral. Its clip of a transvestite being subjected to homophobic abuse who eventually fights back went everywhere: although in this case, they were indirectly driving traffic to their channel – rather than promoting a brand – and that might be a bit too ‘edgy’ for some companies to associate with.

But even if you’ve got all the elements lined up, how do you get your brand in? Do you make the video pertinent to your topic? Do you go for something way out there and hope it works? The 2001 John West Tuna viral advert (probably the first true branded viral video clip) had the brand/pay-off at the end and it worked. But creatives like that are rare – and these days, the general trend has been to hire a celeb to give the campaign a boost, not always with success.

In truth, there is no magic formula; just avoid the tail trying to wag the dog. If you can get the key elements into the idea – unique and interesting content that grabs the viewer – you are three-quarters of the way there.


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