How Not to Go Viral: 4 Viral Marketing Fails
by Jayson DeMers
Viral marketing has the potential to make a huge splash online, but as with any marketing strategy, there’s risk involved. Poor planning, offensive material, and a lack of brand transparency are all major contributors to failed campaigns. With so much potential for failure, how can your company launch a successful viral marketing campaign?
Let’s start by looking at what not to do. Here are four of the biggest viral marketing fails of all time.
Samsung: Memes Without Context
A 2013 ad campaign from Samsung had the right idea – capitalize on popular memes to produce relevant content – but failed in its execution. The meme, known as the Overly Attached Girlfriend, followed from a video parody of Justin Bieber’s song “Boyfriend” by vlogger Laina Morris. The video featured clingy, stalker-like lyrics and a creepy wide-eyed stare – and became an overnight viral sensation.
Memes can be a great content marketing tool, but they require brands to use them intelligently – or risk coming off as cheesy. Samsung used the meme in an ad for a new product, the SSD 84O Drive – but barely mentioned the product or the brand name in its ad. The portions that did feature the brand and product name were brief and difficult to read.
As a result, no one knew Samsung created the ad, nor did they know what product the campaign intended to advertise. Samsung would have done better to tie the content logically to the product.
Adult Swim: Creating a Real-World Bomb Scare
One of the most famous PR disasters of all time was Adult Swim’s 2007 guerilla marketing campaign, created to advertise their show Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Adult Swim’s marketers secretly installed a number of LED displays depicting characters from the show in multiple different cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston.
When Boston authorities came across the LED lights, they immediately became suspicious. They shut down the city’s major roads and waterways to investigate the purported bomb threat, at which point the broadcasting network finally admitted to placing the displays and formally apologized.
Apple: Forcing Content on Consumers
Few viral campaigns will be more memorably annoying than Apple’s 2014 decision to add U2’s latest album to every single user’s iTunes library. Because Apple devices are automatically set to sync with the user’s iTunes account, iPhone users suddenly found that a surprise album had been forced onto their devices.
Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker explained that forcing the content onto consumers ultimately hindered the album’s popularity more than it helped. But Apple was also complicit in the overwhelming negative response from consumers. The event made users feel like they didn’t have control over their otherwise highly personal devices. Apple subsequently followed up by building a tool for removing the album.
Walmart: Blatantly Lying
An oldie but a goodie, a blog called “Wal-Marting Across America” launched in 2006 and caused a huge media stir. It featured the journey of all-American couple Jim and Laura as they road-tripped from Las Vegas to Georgia in an RV, staying in Walmart store parking lots overnight along the way.
Readers became suspicious, however, when Jim and Laura began posting interviews with Walmart employees at each location where they stayed – and every single interviewee loved their job. The blog was eventually exposed as a media campaign created by Walmart’s PR firm, Working Families for Walmart, in response to criticism from labor unions about Walmart’s treatment of employees.
It was soon revealed that Working Families for Walmart had paid for Jim and Laura’s entire road trip – including their flight to Las Vegas, where the RV was parked and ready to go. With Walmart’s secret out in the open, the story went viral – for all the wrong reasons. Walmart ended up facing serious media criticism.
How Your Campaign Can Do Better
Every brand wants to know how to create viral content, but it’s important to remember that not all PR is good PR. Viral marketing expert Neetzan Zimmerman explained on HubSpot that his process isn’t easy or fast; it requires posting a lot of content, all with well-researched viral potential. Zimmerman posts 10 to 15 items a day, and most don’t go viral.
The ones that do go viral inspire genuine emotion in an audience. They’re heartwarming, funny, or sad. They also require a lot of data analysis, including well-executed keyword research and other SEO best practices.
Ultimately, going viral is easier than you might think. You’ll have to anticipate consumer responses to your campaign; if you end up creating something offensive, disingenuous, or void of context, you’ll risk a lot of media exposure for all the wrong reasons.
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