Understanding That Viral Isn’t Really Social Media

With all the touting of how successful Old Spice’s “social media” campaign was, and now Elmo from Sesame Street, it made me ponder: Is “viral” really social media? I argue that in most cases, it’s not.

Sure, viral efforts can get to social media sites like Digg, Delicious, and YouTube, but going viral is more akin to “word-of-mouth” than social media.

Word-of-mouth, viral, and social media are closely related, but they aren’t interchangeable. One medium aims to serve a different purpose than the other: viral aims to quickly create buzz, and social media aims to build engagement opportunities with fans. With that said, let’s examine some key differences between viral marketing and social media marketing.

Where’s the Consumer Engagement?

For most tactics launched with the aim of going viral, very few inspire interaction. Beyond giving it a thumbs-up or writing a comment on a video or a submission, there’s no social interaction between the creators and the audience. Old Spice, in a sense, could be a hybrid, since the Old Spice Guy was answering a select few questions people were tweeting to him (primarily influencers).

Now stop and examine this: Is the Old Spice Guy still out there engaging with “fans” in the same way? No. Viral campaigns like these are fleeting. They create buzz and draw interest to get people to talk about them. Social media campaigns are designed to not just engage the influencers, like the Old Spice videos did, but to engage an entire base of fans or audience members, no matter what their influencer rating might be, and to keep those conversations going in the long term.

How Does It Build Trust?

When videos, games, or even memes are launched by companies and claimed to be their social media presence on the Web, they miss one of the most basic foundational elements of what social media involves – trust. By launching a funny video or an intriguing meme, there’s very little interaction with the creator and the audience, and no real chance for conversation unless the creator invites it on their website or on the video itself.

However, when things do go viral, they are either linked to social profiles and watched there, or passed through e-mail, IMs, or other modes of communication that do not encourage the viewer to come back and interact with the creator. When this is done, the viewer generally watches or interacts with the campaign piece and either passes it on to their friends or “deletes” it (from memory or their e-mail box). When this happens, there’s really no opportunity for a trusting foundation to be built between the creator and the viewer.

What’s the Reason to Come Back?

When you start a campaign in social media, the goal is to create interaction between your company and your audience. In order to do that, you need to create a reason for your audience to come back. Viral pieces rarely offer that opportunity, and if they do it’s for a fleeting time, like in the cases of the Old Spice and Sesame Street campaigns.

With any successful social media campaign, a stickiness needs to be created. Take fan pages on Facebook, for example. If there is engagement happening on a fan page, the fans come back time and time again to either view or actually engage with the company’s fan page. With viral campaigns, the stickiness is not really created to make the audience come back and turn them into a loyal follower or fan because the point is it’s “viral for the moment.”

Compare the Lifetime Benefit for the Viral Campaign to Social Media Efforts

Viral campaigns are fleeting. Talked about one week (or maybe a few if people want to know results) and then forgotten about a few weeks later. Social media on the other hand is meant to continue on and build upon itself. The lifetime value of a social media campaign can be tracked across a greater amount of time, rather than just a few weeks, and be adjusted for maximum results as time goes on.

The benefits companies reap from social media campaigns go well-beyond the possible acquisition of links and buzz that viral campaigns generate and are also easier to track in the long run. With social media, you can actually see the engagement, measure it against goals, and tweak your engagement strategy. With anything that’s viral, there’s no do-over – you set it free and hope for the best with each viral campaign launched.

Viral marketing and social media marketing definitely go hand-in-hand. You need the social channels to launch and promote your viral campaigns. In order for the promotion in social channels to work, you need to have built up solid relationships so that your audience can propel the viral content to their own networks. Understanding that each is a different type of medium or opportunity for marketing can help you better-align your strategies and make them much more successful.

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