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Viral Marketing: Is It Worth Being Viral Because People Talk Badly About You?

When talking about viral marketing, it's not uncommon to hear that "let them talk about me, even if it's bad". The truth is that bad news has the ability to spread quickly, and while it can ruin a brand's reputation, it can also put it on the map.

Some companies dare take the risk of spreading negative news about them, while others try to cut them short for fear of a reputational crisis. Let's see what happens when viral marketing fools around with the dark side.

What Makes Content Go Viral?

Content can become viral for different reasons, both positive and negative. We are going to see what are the triggers and emotions that can make content go viral and how brands can take advantage of them.

The 6 "Buttons" of Viral Marketing

In the book, Buzz Marketing, Mark Hughes points out the 6 "buttons" that, according to his research and marketing experience, can make a piece of content go viral.

1) Taboo content

A taboo content is what a community considers improper, unacceptable, prohibited or profane. For example, sex, lies or scatological humor always get people talking.

Brands can use this button in their viral marketing playing the strategy of provocation, and many do. But you have to be clear that there is always a fairly high risk that it will turn against you.

2) Unusual content

This type of content stands out for being something rare or exceptional. It, therefore, has the ability to surprise the audience and make them go viral. For example, trivia such as "Did you know...?" activate this button.

Mark Hughes himself is responsible for a great example of unusual viral marketing: when he was Half.com's vice president of marketing, he convinced the people of Halfway (Oregon) to change their town's name to Half.com.

3) Shocking contents

Here, the content is extravagant and surprising, that the audience does not expect it and that causes stupefaction.

The downside is that going outside of social conventions can also spark audience outrage, so brands playing impact games should be careful.

4) Funny content

Humor is one of the most popular tricks of viral marketing. Making people laugh generates a lot of positive emotions and helps your content get shared.

It is quite common to combine humor with other buttons, such as shocking or taboo content, with the risks to brand reputation that this implies.

In the same way, humor has to be used in a way that feels natural and consistent with the brand, otherwise it can lead to rejection.

5) Extraordinary content

Content with great creativity and execution that brings great value to the target audience is the one that has the most points to become viral while contributing positively to brand reputation.

This type of content is the Holy Grail of brands: getting it is not easy, but the results are worth it.

6) Content that reveals secrets

We cannot help it: we are naturally inclined to gossip. We love content that tells us something we didn't know, and we feel special if we believe that few people are still in the loop. For this reason, exclusive and innovative content usually works very well to go viral.

The 5 Emotions That Go Viral

As a complement to the previous buttons, we have a study by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman in which they analyzed multiple aspects that contribute to the viralization of content, from style to position within the page. His most interesting contribution is to identify the 5 emotions that make content go viral. Are...

1) Amazement/Wonder

This emotion refers to news that almost seems too good to be true, for example, "A new research discovers a definitive cure for cancer." Inspirational stories and solutions to problems would fall into this category.

In this case, of course, it is an entirely positive emotion that would benefit the brand image of the leading company.

2) Anger

Anger is one of the most powerful emotions, since it moves us to action almost immediately. We want the world to share our outrage and we want something to be done about it.

Content that arouses this emotion has great potential to go viral, but also carries the risk of turning anger against the brand, so it needs to be managed well.

3) Surprise

Surprise is a pleasant emotion that does not generate the "wear" of other negative emotions, which is why many brands try to surprise their audience and make their content go viral.

On the other hand, we're all tired of clickbait headlines that don't deliver what they promised, so we need to use this resource wisely.

4) Anxiety/Fear

Here we go back to the dark side of viral marketing. One of the oldest marketing tricks is to shake the fears of users to then side with the solution, but if not used carefully, this emotion can be a double-edged sword.

Above all, as brands we have a responsibility to spread true content and not stir up rumors or hoaxes for our benefit.

5) Joy

Not all emotions have to be negative: people love to hear the good things happening in the world, so hopeful and inspiring news also has its place in viral marketing. Brands that make people smile have plenty of points earned for success.

3 Examples of Negative Viral Marketing

1) The English Court

Year after year, the campaign back to school at El Corte Inglés tells us that autumn is coming. In 2020, the return to the course came accompanied by a lot of uncertainty due to the situation of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps for this reason, many users clearly read an invitation to suicide in the image chosen by the brand to promote its children's shoes.

The reactions were immediate: the brand became the first trend on social networks and a cascade of memes made blood of the campaign. The impact was probably much greater than if they had opted for the typical back to school campaign, but we don't know what the long-term cost to brand reputation will be.

Finally, El Corte Inglés chose to remove the controversial image from its website and, after a few hours, apologized on social networks for the "confusion" caused by the image and assured that in no case had that been the intention.

2) Marco Aldany

After 7 weeks of forced closure, at the beginning of May the Spanish hairdressers were able to resume their activity. The Marco Aldany chain wanted to announce it with an image that swept the networks: a Photomontage of Fernando Simón with a hipster haircut. For those who do not know, Fernando Simón has been the visible face of the coronavirus in Spain and the one who has periodically given the figures on the pandemic is a renowned Spanish epidemiologist.

The reactions of the users were more than positive, but there was a problem: the image had not been created by Marco Aldany, but was instead a plagiarism of a photomontage that had already appeared in the magazine Thursday. Its creator, Carles Ponsi, denounced the situation by sharing a video in which the process of creating the image was seen step by step. Finally, Marco Aldany contacted him and offered to withdraw the campaign.

3) Pepsi

The Number Fever Pepsi, launched in 1992, occupies a place of honor among the most unfortunate commercials in history and may serve as a warning to viral marketers who want to play with fire.

Pepsi was looking to increase its presence in the Philippines, a country where Coca-Cola accounted for 75% of sales. To achieve this, they launched a campaign based on "number fever": they included numbers under the caps of Pepsi bottles with which different cash prizes could be won. In addition, at the end of the campaign, a number awarded with a million dollars would be chosen at random.

The campaign quickly went viral and was a complete success: sales increased by 40% and it is estimated that more than half of the population of the Philippines participated in the promotion.

But the problem came when drawing the million dollar number: the winner was 349, which was present in no less than 800,000 caps. This made it totally unfeasible to give a million dollars to all the winners, so Pepsi decided to invalidate the contest.

The response was dire: Filipinos, outraged by the broken promise, launched into sabotaging the company's bottling plants and 3 people were killed in the resulting riots.

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