Make Something Go Viral? No Problem

John Haydon is a fundraising consultant and blogger who, simply put, knows his stuff. His recent post – The Secret Behind Viral Content – is chock full of good tips for producing engaging content. Go read it, then come back and finish reading this post…

Viral social media

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Back? Cool. John suggests in his post, as many social media specialists do, that the viral spread of content is like catching lightning in a bottle. To some extent, depending on your definition of “viral,” that is true. If you have an alumni base of 300,000 living individuals, then aspirations of having your alumni association YouTube video about the homecoming tailgate reach 15 million views is probably out of the question. (click here to read about why that shouldn’t concern you) But, if you have a video that’s smart, funny, and tells the story of your organization, there’s no reason that video can’t pull in 10,000, 50,000, or even 100,000+ views. This happens when a few of your supporters share that video with a few of their friends, who then share it with a few of their friends, who then share it with a few of their friends, and so on – also known as the viral spread of content. Which is precisely what a well-developed online ambassador program should bring about.

Online ambassador programs are built around a core group of online and social media users who are enthusiastic leaders of online communities — communities that are full of people who matter to your organization. When these ambassadors post something, several members of their online communities are likely to see it, “like” it, comment on it, and hopefully share it. Which, of course, is that exponential exposure that leads to something “going viral.” Ambassador programs have been successful in awareness building and fundraising (see Florida State’s Great Give and Columbia’s Giving Day campaigns). Which is why I disagree with the assertion that no one really knows how to make something go viral. It’s as simple as using your ambassadors. Well, sort of…

Going Viral Part 1: Utilizing your ambassadors

After you’ve identified your first core group of ambassadors, connected with those ambassadors, and provided them with a brief orientation program, you’re now ready to put these enthusiastic supporters to work spreading your nonprofit’s mission and message. But don’t take their allegiance for granted. Part of the ambassador process should be an ongoing effort on your organization’s part to learn about the type and formats of content that your ambassadors like to share. As a group and as individuals, what are the content profiles of your ambassadors? Do they more often share videos or photos (or infographics)? Do they like hearing donor stories? How about messages from your organization’s leadership? Produce and curate content that your ambassadors will want to share based on what you observe them sharing – this includes content that’s not related to your mission. Knowing the content profiles of you ambassadors and those in their networks will help you produce content they’re more likely to share, because it’s similar to what they’re already sharing. (For a great piece on how the Obama team used Facebook both to identify supporters and learn about their content profiles, click here).

Going Viral Part 2: Fit your content into the Zeitgeist

John offers some fantastic tips for content creation in his post. His “Science Behind Viral Content” and “Viral Content Checklist” sections in that post are loaded with tips to help your org produce better, more engaging, more shareable content. As stated above, you might have 5,000 enthusiastic supporters of your cause, but if you give them bland content that doesn’t fit their content profiles, they’re not likely to share it. In addition to knowing what an ambassador wants, another technique for creating shareable content is connecting it to the news of the day. What movies are popular? Which hit dance song is topping the charts? Which sports season is heating up? Are the Oscars right around the corner?

At the University of Minnesota, I was part of a team that created two videos that I believe fit the definition of viral. Both were more the result of a strategic plan than they were luck. Each video connected to the pop culture zeitgeist.

The first, The Science of Watchmen, was released just a few days before the highly-anticipated film “Watchmen” hit theaters. The purpose of the project was to promote the University of Minnesota’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Knowing full well there would be scores of “Watchmen” fans scouring the Internet for anything related to the movie — and knowing that there would be plenty of potential students and science fans (our core audience) in that group of “Watchmen” fans — we produced a short video that looked at whether there was any plausible science behind the science fiction in the film. In the first few days after we posted the video it received 250,000+ views and sits near 1.8 million views today.

A year later, we tried a similar approach with another video meant to promote the Department of Physics. This time, we connected the science to another popular topic, football. In the video below, Professor Dan Dahlberg does the math to determine just how many Gs wide receiver Eric Decker withstood thanks to a vicious hit he took during a recent Gopher football game. The video was released the week before Thanksgiving at the height of both the college and pro football seasons. It didn’t have the same success as the Science of Watchmen, but it currently sits at 115,000+ views …not bad by most mortal standards.

One person’s idea of “viral” is likely different from the next. But if your goal is to increase exposure by having your content spread out through the vast networks of current and potential online supporters, it can be planned for and accomplished through a strong online ambassador program and corresponding content strategy.

Justin Ware is a fundraising consultant who specializes in online and social media engagement at Bentz Whaley Flessner. To contact Justin, click here.


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