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Viral Campaigns: Are They Part of Your Social Media Content Strategy? 7 Factors That Will Help Make Impact

Although more and more nonprofits are beginning to realize that social media is not just about broadcasting, there’s still much frustration around the notion of “going viral,” as if that is the Holy Grail of social media success. And who are we kidding; it is. What nonprofit doesn’t want their message to have that level of impact?

When we think about “social media” we immediately think channels: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Foursquare and all the others that fight for rank in your prioritization schema. Ultimately, yes, you may measure success based on the metrics generated on these platforms (although there are arguments to be made about how those metrics provide a false ROI and that’s for another article), but your social media strategy needs to come from a different place entirely.

Consider this definition: social media is the act of creating memorable brand experiences that people are compelled to share. So it’s more about the experience and less about the channel. That’s really the key to the whole “viral” thing, too: Something only goes viral because someone is moved enough to the point of wanting to share it with someone else who then shares it with someone else and someone else, and so on. The channel is just the vehicle for sharing. So how, then, does one begin to craft a social media strategy based on this line of thinking?

First, you’ll need to get passed the idea that things that go viral were simply unplanned, circumstantial occurrences that just happened to be newsworthy and/or shareworthy. Yes, in some cases that is for sure true. But smart companies and smart marketers know how to orchestrate these things. The WestJet Christmas Miracle campaign is a perfect example ( if you aren’t familiar with the campaign).

The takeaway is that your content plan (which should include a healthy mix of curated, user generated, and original content) needs to also include planned “campaigns” or “generators of shareable content” as I like to call them. Because just like with the WestJet example, which was certainly planned with social media in mind, it did not occur on a traditional social media platform. It was an event, an experience, an interaction with the brand that prompted people to start talking (and sharing). Said differently, the best social media campaign may not even be executed on a “social media” site. It may be offline entirely!

For every 1,000 email subscribers, nonprofits have 199 Facebook fans, and 110 Twitter followers with annual growth on those numbers at 37% and 46% respectfully*. If you aren’t quite there yet, a successful viral campaign will generate a surge in your numbers.

With the desire to create shareable experience (on or offline) and the pressure of those statistics in mind, let’s examine the key factors that play into successful “viral” campaigns so that you can make the most of your resources for social media:

1 – Viral campaigns start movements

They provoke attention. They are out-of-the-ordinary stunts or events that catch people off guard and cause them to want to follow the “story” to find out what happens.

2 – Viral Campaigns produce stories

They prompt participants to tell stories and stories are the currency of social media (and of the nonprofit organization too, by the way). Participants become so engaged or moved that they need to tell someone about their experience. They become influencers.

3 – Viral campaigns encourage user generated content

They invite participation. It can be just by relying on participants to share their own stories through their own networks, but typically you would have some kind of mechanism in place for collecting those stories on your network too whether via a photo-contest, video capture, a social wall, a voting system, or by inviting comments on Facebook and leveraging Twitter hash tags as examples – and depending on the size of the campaign it could be all of those things.

4 – Viral campaigns tap into behaviour

They challenge or surprise participants in the midst of their normal routines. They stem from an understanding of who your audience truly is and how best they may be moved or touched. Beyond technology it’s really about human experience and getting participants to become invested in the emotional outcome.

5 – Viral campaigns leverage technology

They use the channels in intelligent ways and leverage the functions of each platform to allow for increased amplification. For example a campaign aimed at collecting donations may have a built-in social feature which allows participants to spread the word to their friend network, ultimately building awareness and driving more donations.

6 – Viral campaigns are on brand

Successful viral campaigns are linked back to your brand vision/strategy. The experience you create should be reflective of the values of your organization. You want the stories that the experience yields to further the impact that your organization makes. Plan it so that the possible outcomes are likely to be strategically aligned.

7 – Viral campaigns are smart

Let’s face it, these campaigns stem from great ideas. Knowing precisely what you want the campaign to do, the audience you want to move, and the result you expect will allow the ideation process to yield many great options. Of course, you’re probably thinking there is no way we can afford these types of campaigns: 73% of nonprofit organizations allocate half of one full time employee to managing social networking activities. 43% of organizations budget $0 (yes, that’s nothing!) for their social networking activities. Yet, it costs an average of $3.50 to acquire a Facebook fan, and $2.05 per new Twitter follower**. But, you also know that simple, clever ideas produced with little to no budget can have tremendous impact.

While these campaigns trigger upsurges in social media activity and encourage new followers, it’s important to recognize these communities require post-campaign engagement to continue the momentum and keep the followers you worked so hard to engage in the first place. This is where the underlying content plan comes into play!



[*] M&R 2014 Benchmarks Study

[**] Blackbaud and Common Knowledge – 2012 report on how nonprofits handle social media internally