What to Do if You Go Viral?

If there is a phrase to sum up popularity in the digital age, it has to be “going viral”. Indeed, the way certain content spreads like wildfire on the internet, reaches all different kinds of people, morphs in meaning, and takes on new dimensions is as unpredictable as it is stunning.
Generally it is very difficult to predict what will go viral. Mega brands with big advertising budgets can try to find a winning formula to produce a viral ad or video, but it rarely works the way they want it to. As was the case with that now-notorious Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner, what goes viral when a big brand is involved usually do so in ways that are harmful, rather than helpful, to a brand’s image.
While mega corporations like Pepsi have a huge PR and crisis management budget to respond to virality, smaller companies often don’t. But that doesn’t mean smaller company or startups’ content can’t go viral just as easily. That’s the thing with this phenomenon—no one is immune or safe from its effects. It can take your business or idea into the mainstream literally overnight; equally, it can be a massive crisis or scandal that’s played out in an embarrassingly public manner. As a small company operating online, it’s crucial to have a contingency plan for both. The goal is to have mechanisms and a plan of action in place so you can either minimize or amplify any positive or negative press you get from the experience.
A good example is the ALS Ice Bucket challenge. Before it was a campaign that had raised $220 million for ALS organizations and earned itself the fifth most popular Google search term place for all of 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge was just one charity’s inventive way of raising awareness about a relatively unknown disease. It would’ve been impossible for them to predict the campaign becoming so popular and reaching so many people. Because the charity was prepared for the attention, though, this was a win for them. Their website didn’t crash, they had their corporate communication of the matter to-the-point and easy to communicate, and media interest was dealt with in a timely and helpful manner. Once the challenge gained steam organically, these factors took it the next level and helped it stay viral in a positive light.
So what can you do to make sure that campaign or idea your brand or startup launches stays a positively viewed if it goes viral? The first is to have a PR and crisis management plan in place from the start. Who will be your dedicated spokesperson? How quickly will you respond to requests for comment? Will you take down or alter the potentially offending content, or hold firm? Talking through these contingency plans ahead of time—even if they end up changing due to the specific circumstances—will prevent rash decisions when you’re under pressure.
If your unexpected virality is happening for good reasons, and is driving lots of traffic to your site, then you want to make sure your website can handle it. Make sure your developer team has a contingency plan for a massive and unexpected spike in traffic, including who might deal with this if it happens out of office hours or during a holiday. Virality does not happen on any schedule, and you don’t want to waste an opportunity for massive brand visibility by having a website that is down at a crucial moment.
In summary, you don’t need to fear going viral, but you should craft every campaign—be it marketing, content, or social—as if it might. Being thoughtful and forward-planning in case of the worst can prevent a well-intended campaign from sinking your brand.