Designing a â€˜viral’ ad isn’t easy.Â While there are plenty of guides, blogs and articles online that promise the secrets of going viral, don’t count on their wisdom.Â
Sure, there may be certain tactics that can help.Opens a new window Â But predicting what will strike a chord with the majority of users on social media and the wider web, and getting the tone, topic and style right, is anything but an exact science.
Indeed, it’s more a question of having the right plans in place, combined with the implementation of those pro-viral strategies, that allow marketers to capitalize on any situation where their digital content or advertising is getting far-reaching online shares.
Ultimately, though, ads can go viral for reasons we can’t predict â€” many of them negative.
Just look atÂ the nightmareOpens a new window Â for ice cream-maker Blue Bell Creameries. A video showing a teenager licking ice cream from a Blue Bell tub before placing it back in a supermarket freezer has received a lot of play on social media.
A rash of copycats have been imitating â€œThe Blue Bell Ice Cream Lickerâ€ since then video went viral.
Although the original and ensuing clips have been met with overwhelming disgust and backlash from online audiences, this â€˜negative virality’ poses a significant problem for Blue Bell,Opens a new window Â now facing an unanticipated crisis in consumer confidence.
This ordeal highlights an interesting marketing conundrum: What do you do if your service or product, and ultimately your brand, are on the receiving end of widespread negative social media attention?
Going viral for the wrong reasons
It could be due to events completely out of a company’s control, as it was for Blue Bell.
On the other hand, it’s more likely a brand will be the center of negative social media focus as a result of a mistake. This blunder could be on a corporate level, like Build-A-Bear’s disastrous global â€œPay your ageâ€ campaign last year that had customersÂ suffering â€œmile-longâ€ lines and seven-hour waits.
Or it could be situational, as with the now famous viral videoOpens a new window of a United Airlines passenger being forcefully and aggressively removed from a flight, which was met with vehement anger especially on social media.
Then there are scenarios where an ad meant to go viral (for the right reasons) is messed up in the delivery and message, instead rubbing people the wrong way and resulting in generally negative reactions. That was the case, for example, for Pepsi when it released an ad in 2017 featuring Kylie Jenner that had to be pulled due to public outcry that the commercial was trivializing social causes such as Black Lives Matter, appropriating them to sell soda.
Negative virality, as I’m calling it, can happen for any number of reasons, so what can marketers do to mitigate scandals that land them on the wrong side of the viral spectrum?
Brands must be proactive
Navigating the age of social media, marketers must ensure they respond the best way possible to negative press that goes viral. But beware: Engaging social media audiences effectively can prove challenging. One inauthentic misstep could make matters a lot worse. So its imperative to be decisive yet thoughtful in your response â€” a brand’s reaction can mean the difference between a classy recovery and fanning the unwelcome flames.
Plan and prepare
This a key first step many marketers miss when facing a PR crisis. They shouldn’t.
As soon as you realize your brand is going viral for the wrong reasons, commission real-time social research to uncover the hotspots of heated criticism. That will help you both to respond appropriately and to design an appropriate PR crisis planOpens a new window .
Don’t hesitate. A real, honest apologyOpens a new window must be issued quickly. Don’t wait to see if things die down â€” because they probably won’t.
Companies can’t expect their reputation to be built on product quality alone and trying to hide issues won’t look good.
Apologizing can even help in situations where your brand has done nothing wrong (see: Blue Bell). Saying â€œsorryâ€ to your customers for the situation and promising you are doing everything you can to make things right will boost brand image in these situations.
But don’t panic and merely blurt a mea culpa.
Social media users, particularly younger generations, increasingly expect transparency and accountabilityOpens a new window from the brands they engage with and buy from online. An open, genuine apology is a necessary first step in rebuilding trust and proving your brand is prepared to take responsibility.
If possible, attach a high-ranking senior employee to that apology to humanize your company in the public’s eye and to show that the situation is being taken seriously.
The efforts you make to publicly correct the issue must match the situation at hand.
In some cases, providing staff with relevant extra training may be the right move, while in others it may be necessary to hold a single employee accountable for their actions. Meanwhile, in some cases, companies may find that donating to a relevant cause is the right way to rebuild brand image.
What matters most is that the action taken is measured in its response to whatever triggers the negative attention.
When Papa John’s founder and ex-CEO John Schnatter was busted for using a racial slur during a conference call, the pizza giant went for the trifectaOpens a new window : The company forced Schnatter to resign, rolled out comprehensive diversity training across the organization and donated half a million dollars to an all-female, predominantly black college in North Carolina.
Finally, it can be beneficial to get a respected personality or leader in your industry to publicly vouch for your company. This move, as Brielle Yang writes, â€œcan send the message that while the situation is unfortunate, it does not reflect the true character of the company.â€