Marketers Beware Terrifying Pitfalls of the Viral Meme

Viral content has gone viral.

Several people, including many of my Facebook friends, have referenced or forwarded the King of Clickbait article by Andrew Marantz in the New Yorker. It's taking off like wild fire. Yes, it's gone viral.

Readers here may have noticed I'm obsessed with clickbait and have written about how it is denigrating the value of media and advertising. But people love the story. They read about these young viral geniuses working in their underwear making millions of dollars, and they think, "I want in!"

Be careful. There's a lot of hype, but mostly the people making money off this are the viral hype artists, not the marketers or even the readers. One problem is the disconnect between viral content and real audience engagement. Viral content is low engagement content. The other big problem is whether or not viral content even aligns with your marketing goals. Chances are, if you are a B2B marketer or industry executive, viral content does not apply to you.

Do You Really Want the LCD?

I think of the traffic generated by a viral storm as the trailer trash of web traffic. Viral content is good at one thing and one thing only: Generating lots and lots of low-quality, low engagement traffic. If you are looking to reach the Least Common Denominator (LCD) audience -- requiring millions of views to generate a few conversions -- this may be your vehicle. The people reading this stuff have the attention span of cockroaches.

Most of us are in a different business, whether it be a business audience or a niche industry, where LCD doesn't really apply. We want more specific people. Frankly, the business audience tends to hover at a slightly higher spectrum than the type of audience drawn to viral content (at least we like to think so).

Let me give you an example. I run a B2B blog site on technology trends called the Rayno Report that usually gets about 500 to 1,000 pageviews per day. I recently had a viral hit -- an article took off and got more than 2,000 page views in a couple of hours. That may not sound huge but it's big for a niche site like mine. Most of my articles have a few thousand views over the course of months. This article got 2,500 pageviews in one day.

Like most viral content, the whole thing was a mystery. And like any good online marketing person, I analyzed what happened with the traffic that day. It came from a link that was posted on Reddit more than a year ago. It was a piece of economic analysis I did that wasn't tied to my typical technology "beat." The article was more than 12 months old but was suddenly rediscovered by somebody trolling Reddit. This is common thing I've seen in many viral pieces I've experienced -- they tend to be recycled or old. In fact, that is a topic covered in the "King of Clickbait."

The next step: What did I gain from the viral hit? Absolutely nothing. Analyzing what I could about the few people that came it, I determined that they had almost nothing to do with my business. Mysteriously, many of them came from the Deep South of the United States. They had very little interest in technology -- I converted exactly zero whitepaper downloads, zero premium research leads and zero registrations during this viral storm.

Now, how to explain the fact that a viral Internet hit delivered me two to three times the normal daily traffic for my site and I got zero conversions? The answer is simple: It's what we call in the business "drive-by traffic" -- lots and lots of people that have little value to my business.

It's Harder than it Looks

People seem to think that the viral content farm is some sort of magic bullet that can solve your traffic and marketing problems with a few interns churning out reams of golden content. It doesn't work like that.

Judging by the profile of Emerson Spartz, the "Virologist" portrayed in the New Yorker article, he's an intelligent, hard-working genius. He's dedicated virtually all his life to the science of virology and he employs many people. He's founded, sold or folded many websites. My own experiences trying to create something viral mean simply one thing: You must create a ton more content to see what works. The hits are lottery tickets.

BuzzFeed, another oft-cited temple of virology, is the Google of viral content. BuzzFeed Founder Jonah Peretti is a viral veteran who crafted his trade at Huffington Post, which was an earlier pioneer in the methodology of ripping off other people's content and getting it to go viral. BuzzFeed wasn't created overnight in a garage -- it was engineered by people with a ton of experience in building and harvesting viral content.

These two people, Spartz and Peretti, are the best of the best. They did not come up with their formula by accident. There was much experimentation and failure along the way. It's survivorship bias at work. Spartz mentions that many websites he started that failed because the viral formula did not catch.

In the end, virality is a skilled science requiring much experimentation and production. It's a lot of work and requires a lot of resources and manhours. Don't put all your chips on the viral card unless you're ready to pony up for some sophisticated data scientists and some of the world's best content artists -- and you're ready to spend a lot of marketing dollars to sell a lot of TVs or panty hose.

Beware the Impact on Your Brand

Do you really want to be known as the site for "Top 10 Body Paintings of Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders!"?Again, cheap tricks generate cheap traffic. In building a content pipeline for your brand or website, it's more important to focus on quality. This will build your brand in the long run. It will allow you to charge more money for your products, because the buyer will perceive higher quality. Perception is reality.

You need to think about what kind of content is going to be the vehicle for a premium brand. Your audience is going to have a lot of more respect for you if you do something more original and targeted at their needs.

Don't get me wrong, I'm jealous of the viral geniuses too. I don't like the idea of them stuffing their pajamas with millions of dollars. But after being in the online content business for almost twenty years, I've come to realize it's a particular skill targeted for a very specific purpose. And until somebody gives me $20M to create the next Fluffington Post, I'm not equipped to do that.

If you are a B2B marketer, this may not matter at all. There are other ways to build a high-quality audience.

Title image from the Fluffington Post.