Marketing Briefing: How the meaning of ‘viral’ has changed with social media fragmentation, overuse of the word

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If you spend any time on a platform like TikTok or Instagram Reels, it won’t take long to see an influencer talk about something being, or going, viral. Whether or not you believe that thing — be it a product, recipe or something else altogether — is actually viral may depend on whether or not you’re in the same cultural niche as said influencer.

As social media has continued to fragment, it’s become harder and harder for content created with a specific cultural niche in mind to go beyond that niche and hit mainstream audiences. Virality, then, may mean something is simply viral within that niche rather than hitting a level like the Ice Bucket Challenge, according to marketers and agency execs, who say that the difficult landscape has changed what viral means.

“Virality is contextual — as media is more segmented and content quantity increases, being viral doesn’t mean everyone has seen your content,” said Vickie Segar, founder of influencer marketing agency Village Marketing. “Virality where the entire world stops Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce-style is reserved for cultural moments, not usually set by brands.” 

Segar continued: “Brands shouldn’t just have the expectation that a lot of their content will create a cultural movement [although it does happen from time to time with brands who have the right strategy and often are the risk takers among us], the goal should be to be a participant in that cultural movement in a way that is valid [i.e. the Barbie movement].” 

Even as there’s a recognition of the difficulties marketers, brands and influencers now face when it comes to the possibility and probability of going viral, the overuse of the word in recent years has made many skeptical of whether or not something actually is viral or not. That’s because some marketers and influencers have used the word “viral” in the hopes that the use of the word will help that come to fruition. 

“Marketers often label their products as ‘viral’ to leverage the powerful psychological principle of social proof, where people are influenced by the actions and approvals of others,” said Kyle Hoffman, director of growth strategy at Function Growth, a direct-to-consumer growth accelerator agency. “By suggesting widespread popularity, they aim to create a bandwagon effect, encouraging more consumers to engage with the product based on perceived popularity, even when actual virality hasn’t been achieved.”

Brendan Gahan, entrepreneur and former chief social officer at Mekanism echoed that sentiment: “Marketers can take steps to increase the likelihood of something ‘going viral.’ One of those steps is building in ‘social proof’ — when you see others talking or sharing a piece of content you’re more likely to click, watch and engage. It works just the same way that a long line outside of a restaurant works —  if everyone is doing it, it must be good. However, nothing can guarantee virality — and calling something viral doesn’t make it so.” 

The use of the word “viral” may seem like it’s increased for products that aren’t yet viral if you’re spending more time on TikTok, in particular, following the introduction of TikTok Shop in the U.S. earlier this year.

“[It] has only magnified the issue,” said Sara Robino, director of creator marketing at communications firm Exponent. “Since September, nearly everyone has become eligible to earn commission on the sale of products, leading to even more dependence on the word ‘viral’ to grab attention.” 

“Influencers and users are simply drawing from the same playbook that marketers, publishers and the platforms have used to build hype and drive action online,” she added.

That may only lead to more skepticism when it comes to use of the word by marketers, influencers and creators as “rampant misappropriation of the word ‘viral’ has led to a dilution of the word,” noted Kevin Mulroy, executive creative director and partner at creative shop Mischief @ No Fixed Address. 

“Going ‘viral’ takes a perfect blend of human truths married to cultural insight—and lightning speed,” said Mulroy. “This only comes from strategy. Brands looking to make a huge impact in culture must figure out what to say, before they decide how to say it.”

3 Questions with Arin Schultz, vp of sales and marketing at organic mattress company Naturepedic

What are Naturepedic’s current marketing and advertising goals?

Customer acquisition is probably number one. It keeps the doors open and the lights on. Something that we left along the way with past regimes is forgetting to fill up the funnel. Everyone was so concerned about bottom of funnel. Where the marketing team has put in more of a fixture on is middle and top of funnel, creating a lot of brand awareness. We’re trying to be a resource for parents. Luckily, what we’re able to do that with is we fill a lot of different categories from baby cribs to adult [mattresses]. If we were only selling crib mattresses, it’d be a different story. But we have a lot of opportunities to raise awareness for our customers. We also have, in first quarter of next year, way more products in the organic category than we’ve ever launched in the history of the company.

What does influencer marketing look like for Naturepedic as a mattress company? 

We’re very influencer heavy. We have a three-person team internally that works on nothing but influencers. We also have been putting a lot of weight into our affiliate program. Our affiliate program is a third of our overall revenue right now. That’s really got us through the other side of the pandemic. For every mattress company, it was like a windfall. Everyone was like, “Oh my God. This is amazing.” We were all doing more business than we ever had because nobody was traveling. Nobody was doing any of the extra stuff. So they might as well put more money into their houses. But then comes 2022, when restrictions started getting eased and people started getting out more and going on vacation, they stopped buying mattresses as much as they were before. So a lot of us returned back to pre-Covid. We’re looking at early 2020 to 2019 numbers. 

Economic headwinds means marketing budgets are under scrutiny. How does that change your work?

We’re constantly looking at the ROI of everything that we’re spending on. Google, for example, that’s becoming a lot more of a hyper competitive space, especially in the mattress industry. The cost per click, the CAC on that is huge, especially considering where it was before. That’s why we’ve made a pivot more to the influencers and affiliates. We’re getting on some instances, depending on the month, between a six and eight X return. I’ve never gotten that on Google. — Kimeko McCoy

By the numbers

The rise of AI has been nothing short of rapid and its impact on marketing and advertising continues to grow, with major marketers like Coca-Cola incorporating more AI within their marketing. AI is also making an impact in influencer marketing with over 76 percent of marketers and over 51 percent of influencers saying they’re using AI in their work, according to a new study by influencer marketing platform SocialPubli. See more stats from the study below:

  • Most influencers (71.4%) and marketers (81.7%) believe that AI will offer more opportunities rather than threats
  • Even so, that doesn’t mean all are enthusiastic about the rise of artificial intelligence. 55% of marketers are enthusiastic while just 36.9% of influencers are enthusiastic.
  • Marketers want it to be clear when AI is used by influencers with 84.7% saying they want influencers to disclose if they are using AI in sponsored posts.

Quote of the week

“The ’90s are often forgotten. Most people forget about the ‘90s because they don’t remember it, or a lot of the companies have disappeared.” 

— Martin Kihn, a former Gartner analyst and best-selling author, on the the early days of ad tech for the first in a Digiday series that tracks the trials and tribulations of the industry.

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