Viral marketing. It’s the ultimate goal: something you create “goes viral.” As marketers, we watch things gain popularity quickly — seemingly overnight — and dream of anything we do having that same level of success.
What is it that makes an ice bucket challenge so enticing? Or makes a certain water bottle wildly popular? Or becomes a phrase that everyone begins saying? Whatever it is can’t be forced — but there are some things we know have to fall into place for the climate to be right.
I once watched a giraffe not give birth for several months.
April is the name of a giraffe at a private zoo in Harpursville, NY. (Open to the public, but for-profit, and not government funded.) Back in 2017, when April became big news, she had been pregnant a LONG time. And people all over the world had been tuning into her YouTube live stream to watch her not give birth. Well, watching the live stream in the hopes of actually seeing her give birth. But without a real idea of her gestation there was no real way to know how long it might take.
And yet thousands watched around the clock in the hope that they wouldn’t miss it.
So how is watching a giraffe not give birth a lesson in marketing?
I first discovered the #ApriltheGiraffe phenomenon while scrolling through Facebook. It was toward the end of February 2017, and the headline I saw was something like “Giraffe About to Give Birth on Live Feed.” I took the bait.
I clicked and ended up watching a giraffe walk around her stall, eat and toss hay, lay down, sleep, and stare off into space. Taking the article at face value, I expected to see a baby giraffe (called a calf) drop from its mother at any moment. Instead, I was watching every giraffe twitch, every giraffe step, and every owner interview. I was bound and determined that even though this was one of the most boring things to be glued to — I was not going to miss this miracle of giraffe birth.
And the longer I watched (days stretched into weeks, stretched into months) I was more determined not to miss that birth. I had committed so much time that I didn’t want to walk away. I had to see my time investment pay off by seeing this giraffe birth live.
I checked in on April the Giraffe at least 10 times a day, had the live stream going on my phone while I worked, contributed to the hashtag on Twitter, read others’ tweets, and read many articles and websites devoted to giraffe fact and conservation. I learned a tremendous amount of information about giraffes. I also learned a lot about people.
- Those things on their heads are called ossicones. They aren’t antennae. They aren’t ears. They are cartilage, and may have something to do with temperature regulation.
- Giraffes eat A LOT of food. In addition to giraffe chow (yep, that’s a real thing), they eat hay, carrots and romaine lettuce. In the wild they eat the leaves of the Acacia tree.
- Male giraffes care about eating and procreating. And that’s all. After a female is pregnant, they really want nothing more to do with her.
- Female giraffes birth their calves while standing, and until you see hooves emerge, you might not even know they are in labor.
- Calves, at birth, fall about six feet to the ground. The fall and subsequent landing breaks the umbilical cord and shocks them into their first breaths.
- Calves are usually up and walking around within 30-60 minutes, and nursing shortly thereafter.
- People will rally around a giraffe — cheering her on — without being able to actually be near her, participate in her wellbeing, or even ever visit her in person.
- People will tell others about all the giraffe facts they have learned.
- (They will bore others with those same facts.)
- Humans develop a sense of community around an event like this.
- We will bond over the common experience.
- We will donate money to the giraffe and it’s zoo even though it is not tax-deductible.
- Some people will create art around the experience.
- We will argue online with others who threaten that community through criticism.
- We will defend the giraffe.
- We will defend each other.
- We will continue to watch the giraffe not give birth for over a month.
April the Giraffe, and her owners, were featured in print media, on news programming, and across social media.
April went viral.
Viral Marketing. So what do we learn from these experiences?
Timing is everything. And although we can’t always predict what will work and when, we can at least pay attention to what we think might work best.
For example, an ice bucket challenge in cold winter months would fail. But the challenge was a viral success in the summer (July/August) of 2014. Because it caught on so well, the ice bucket challenge raised over $220M that year for the ALS association.
Influencers make a difference. When the ice bucket challenge reached celebrities it really began to take off. Celebrities from Patrick Stewart to Bill Gates to Justin Bieber participated. It reached celebrities and influencers across generations and interests. These celebrities made a difference in the success of this campaign.
Younger generations have incredible influence. Whether asking a parent to dump ice water over their heads, buy the latest trendy shoe, or tune in to an online event, children, teens, and young adults influence not only each other, but generations older than them. Don’t underestimate the power that youth holds.
It’s about the shared experience. Back in the 1980’s we had the Pepsi Challenge. People hired by Pepsico set up kiosks in malls across the United States. They had a box on a counter behind which they would pour Pepsi and Coca-Cola into two small paper cups. People in the mall would line up to taste test and tell the company which they actually preferred.
This helped Pepsi in a few ways:
- People wanted to give their opinions. They stood in long lines for a small cup half filled with cola to tell the recorder which they preferred. Droves of people participated.
- As a result, many people continued this at home with family and friends, buying cola and asking their “test subjects” which they preferred. Sales were made.
- National news outlets began talking about the Pepsi Challenge, as long lines of people with a shared experience is newsworthy.
- Pepsi only had word-of-mouth, television and radio commercials, and any news media to help spread the word. (Cell phones and home internet wasn’t a thing yet.)
Today, if you ask people over the age of 40 about the Pepsi Challenge, they will be able to tell you all about it.
Watching a giraffe, pouring ice water over your head, wearing trending shoes, and drinking out of the same water bottle others have creates shared experiences.
Social media can make a difference. In 2020 we were all locked down, working from home, and finding things to do to pass time — since so much of the world was shut down.
I, like many others, discovered TikTok at this time. TikTok, consumed in 1 to 3-minute videos, became all of the above: a shared experience, used and promoted by influencers, championed by young people, and emerging into greater audiences with perfect timing.
TikTok became a venue for sharing tiny windows into our and others’ lives. It was connection to the greater world. It was shared experience around a global event that was scary. It was connection.
At the same time, marketers were taking note. Specifically, marketers for The Coldest Waterbottle. Suddenly every influencer on the TikTok app had the bright blue, vacuum-sealed, steel water bottle somewhere in frame while talking to, performing for, or even berating their audiences. Viral marketing achieved.
I wanted that bottle. So did millions of others. I’m convinced that without the TikTok social platform — at that time — sales for the (in my opinion) overpriced bottle would not have been where they were. (No, I didn’t get one.)
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
While we can do everything “right” to create a viral effect, it’s simply unpredictable what will work, and what won’t.
And no matter how high the wave of sales/adopters/followers may swell, it will, eventually, come down.
Some viral trends end abruptly:
- The ice bucket challenge fizzled quickly once school was back in session and the heat of summer cooled.
- Watching a giraffe give birth ends after the giraffe gives birth.
- Trendy water bottles only last until the next great thing comes along.
Some viral trends cool over time:
- TikTok is still prominent, but with the world opening up, the platform has changed, and is not as all-consuming as it once was.
- Segway vehicles were hyped well in advance of anyone knowing what they were. They made a big splash that died down quickly…but they are still used in cities everywhere for tourism.
Ride the Wave
If you’re fortunate enough to create something even modestly viral, then much congratulations to you! Celebrate the wins. (And tell us about what it was!) Ride that wave as long as you can. But put infrastructure in place to support the influx of users, continue to use traditional marketing, and reinvest some of the windfall back into your company for your next great thing.
Oh, and I did manage to see April give birth. Yes, it was worth the wait.