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When was the last time you saw a link on your social media feed of choice to someplace like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, or ViralNova? I’m willing to bet for most people, it was the last time they looked at a feed, probably just earlier today. Social sharing is everywhere, and everyone wants their story or product or photo to get picked up by one of these aggregators and “go viral.” For many businesses, the sheer volume of impressions draws them like a magnet, dreaming of all the business that a few viral marketing success stories would bring them. But how do we make something go viral, and should we really be trying for that at all?

The first thing that has to be considered with striving for anything to go viral is what the actual return on investment is going to be. Even if you get thousands of shares of a particular piece of content, how many of those are meaningful? How many of the people sharing your content are actually likely to do business with you? If your primarily goal when creating your content was to make it go viral, likely not very many, and if you got engagement without communicating your core vision as a business, what did you actually gain? Little, if anything. Fundamentally, viral marketing should not be looked at as a distinct type of marketing or as a separate scheme but as as a desirable outcome. Create good content, create content that communicates who you are and what you’re about, and resist the urge to worry too much about whether you’re “trending” or hitting any other algorithmic milestones. Content that is genuinely engaging and interesting will naturally be shared, and those shares are going to mean more than any gained through a transparent desire to make something run wild through the internet.

A lot of the things that go viral do so because their creators were passionate. People connect to the passion, the honesty and fearlessness and you cannot fake that, and if you do, it will hurt your credibility. There was a video a few months back that made the rounds of the social media and sharing sites of a young woman practicing twerking upside down against her door, when her roommate opens the door and knocks her onto a coffee table with lit candles. It was shocking and the woman’s apparent absorption in her dance was endearing somehow and also kind of hilarious in that embarrassing way that tends to get people to share things rapidly. It turns out, though, that the twerking woman was actually a stunt woman and the entire thing was staged by Jimmy Kimmel and his producers. Allegedly it was an experiment on the part of Kimmel and his staff to see how far the video could spread without them going out of their way to share it, but at the end of the day, after the big reveal, I just found myself asking why? Why go to all that time and effort just to play people in pursuit of getting a video shared? There’s a lesson here for more traditional marketing and content people than a TV comedy staff. Your customers don’t like feeling like they were played. They don’t like feeling like they’re being used to further some agenda. More importantly, you cannot really connect with them if you’re using them as part of some sort of social experiment.

While the sheer volume of potential impressions when something goes viral are tempting and potentially valuable, viral marketing for its own sake is basically killing a fly with a sledge hammer. There’s very little if any market targeting and no real ability to think seriously about who is going to be most impacted by your content, so you may get tens of thousands of shares, but how much business will it turn into? How many new viewers did Jimmy Kimmel get out of the twerking girl on fire? I’m going to guess pretty few. But if you focus on quality content that speaks to your vision as a company, the people who share it are going to be much more likely to actually become business. Stay grounded and true to yourself, and don’t give in to the temptation to change your marketing scheme just because viral (or anything else) is the buzzword of the day. You have to know who you are and what you’re trying to do and if a particular marketing trend doesn’t feel like it fits that, or if you can’t find a way to connect with a style or tend or platform genuinely, you’re better off simply taking a pass than putting your name and staking your business’ reputation on content that isn’t true to you and your vision.