This is a question social media managers get asked all the time. Every organization wants to go viral. Nonprofits around the world saw the Ice Bucket Challenge flood their newsfeeds in 2012 and wondered with envy, “Why can’t we go viral like that?”
And who can blame them? More eyeballs on the cause you're working so hard to promote? Who wouldn't want that?!
The problem is, when nonprofits chase after that shiny viral pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, 999,999 times out of 1,000,000 they fall flat on their face. And on the way down they end up wasting their time, wasting away their marketing budget, and even hurting their social media presence more than they help it. What's more, by judging their social media success on whether or not their campaign/video/article/post went viral, they're setting themselves up for disappointment and missing out on the opportunity to cultivate a smaller, but more authentic and engaged community of supporters that have the potential to actually help their cause instead of just like their video.
No matter what internet gurus try to sell you, there is no magic formula for going viral. And it’s really hard (some might say impossible) to plan for. Viral status happens when there's a cosmic combination of appealing content, visibility, and the right public appetite for what you're offering.
But beyond virality's elusive replicability, going viral is the wrong metric for nonprofits to pursue for a few reasons:
- Virality usually happens by accident. The Ice Bucket Challenge itself wasn't planned by the ALS Association–it was sparked serendipitously by supporters of the organization. When organizations set out to go viral, they typically look like they’re trying too hard. That kind of inauthenticity drives people away FAST.
- By trying to go viral, nonprofits end up diluting their message. The number of people who want to share cat videos will always be higher than the number of people who want to share your nonprofit's video (no matter how cool it is.) Many nonprofits try too hard to capitalize the kind of pop content that will attract as many eyeballs as possible in the hopes of going viral. This approach can end up diluting their real message for the sake of popularity, which in turn alienates their core supporters.
- Virality is very, very fleeting. It’s the darling of the internet for a few days or weeks and then everyone moves on.
- Virality isn’t always a positive outcome. In fact, it can backfire in some pretty ugly ways. Many campaigns go viral based on criticism, and it can lead to the swift demise of the organization, as it did for Invisible Children’s infamous Kony 2012 campaign.
Instead of chasing viral status, nonprofits would be much better off focusing on creating quality, sharable content that connects with a focused, target audience. Instead of asking "How do I make my nonprofit's social media campaign go viral?" shift the question to:
“How can I create a kick-ass content strategy that connects with my target audience?"
The key here is focusing on connecting with YOUR target audience instead of trying to attract the whole wide world. In social media marketing, it's easy to get distracted by big numbers. But nonprofits need to keep in mind that their social media presence is only valuable to the extent that it drives meaningful impact, whether that's advocates for your cause, volunteers, donors, or clients. A small, engaged audience is much more valuable than a huge but disengaged audience. That means your content doesn't need to be seen and liked by everyone. It just needs to reach and engage the right people–the ones who love your mission, want to be champions for your work and join you in your cause.
Craft your social media presence with that audience in mind. What do they want to engage with? What do they care about? What does your organization have to offer that brings value to their lives?
A solid, long-term, engaging content strategy might not sound as sexy as going viral, but it’s guaranteed to steadily build your tribe of supporters. And if something you produce as a part of that content strategy does end up going viral (in a good way)? Hey, congrats, superstar!