Dead Dogfish caught in a net on Brighton beach with beach huts in the background

How to go viral: Social Media Agency Case Study

I’ve worked in one social media agency or another since the early days, when Facebook and Twitter had just come to the UK, and “How To Go Viral” was in every client brief. It was a time when PR and ad agencies were offering ‘the social media’ as a bolt on to their services.

I went against the advice of my course leader at university to pursue a dissertation about all things social and it paid off with a job at social media agency, We Are Social – thanks to Leila Thabet, Robin and Nathan (cheers guys!) who believed in me.

Since then, I’ve been completely fascinated by all elements of social networks – from what we all think of as social media – the online networks –  to offline social relationships. What intrigues me is the nature and function of being sociable, social groups, social situations, relationships and psychology of communities.

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So, when my post on Facebook went viral two years ago I went into analytical mode. I found myself in a rabbit hole of questioning, interpreting and asking myself why precisely this post went viral around the world. And not even from a brand page or a group – but just from my lowly, un-influential personal Facebook profile too.

62,000 Shares
23,000 Likes
4,700 Comments
1,500 Friend Requests
7 People calling me a C**T 🙂

Screenshot of a facebook post that went viral from YesMore social media agency co-founder, Tom Harvey's Facebook profile

I posted this just before Christmas, Tuesday 12th December 2017 about 5pm. I didn’t set out for it to go viral, but in retrospect it definitely includes certain techniques I’ve picked up over years working in social media agency after agency.

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First off, I’ll give you a (very) rough idea of how the numbers developed over the week: 

Table of results from post that went viral

…and how that looked in terms of % growth each day (blue bars) and total cumulative shares over time (black line)…

Graph of results from social media agency expert, Tom Harvey, showing growth in shares on a facebook post that went viral

Things of note:

  • On Day 3, a Thursday in mid Dec, shares grew from 45 (my personal friendship network) to over 200 (my friends of friends)
  • Day 5 is where things really took off, with a 600% increase in shares from the day before – and there was a noticeable shift in likes, comments and shares from strangers I did not know
  • Day 6 tripled the number of shares from the previous day. This is when the trolls really ventured out from under their bridges and I was called a C**T about 7 times. Got to love the internet.
  • Day 10 & 11, the last two days of work before Christmas – is when things slowed dramatically. It’s likely when many will have switched off from caring about the world and switched over to holiday mode. Or they’re hungover from Christmas parties.
  • Day 13, 14 & 15 – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day – shares dropped off a cliff here, quite possibly because the thought of sharing something so ‘do good’ related, whilst you’re over indulging and over-consuming plastic and paper wrapping, might feel a bit hypocrytical.

Graph of detailed results from social media agency expert, Tom Harvey, showing growth in shares on a facebook post that went viral

I kept my phone on airplane mode most of the week to save battery for work (and because I got notified for each 1,500 friend requests, the 4,700 comments and so on) but you’ll notice I’ve got more detail for some of the results than others. I also haven’t been forensic with this – so – please take a large pinch of salt with the details and use this to find interesting, not rigorous fact.

Along with my wife, Yaz (also a marketing expert), and the other partner in my life, Dan (co-founder of YesMore Social Media Agency), we analysed both the quantitative results and also the qualitative details of the comments and messages throughout the week. Here’s why we believe this post went viral…

How To Go Viral (Or try, at least)

1. USE EMOTION

Most good social media agency teams know that triggering emotions in your audience can trigger action. The shot of what I now know is a Spotted Dogfish, not a baby Leopard Shark (thanks trolls!) with the net effectively choking it and the Insta-perfect beach huts in the background make a pretty poignant combination. There were actually three of these poor things wrapped up in the net but I knew the shot would be more impactful with the fancy beach huts in the background, sowas on my hands and knees taking this one to get them in shot. So in terms of emotion, this post played on people’s 1) sadness, 2) anger, 3) guilt (posh beach huts juxtaposed with suffering creatures)and 4) helplessness.

2. HAVE A CLEAR CALL TO ACTION

The copy is all geared around offering a solution for relieving all that sadness, anger, guilt and helplessness – well at least a little bit. The idea of picking up three measly pieces of plastic each time you visit a beach, and making this process habitual and ritualistic, is a simple one. Is that really all it takes to alleviate our guilt? Well, no, not really, but in that one moment scrolling through your feed it offers a ‘’good enough’ solutions for you to impulsively hit ‘like’, or even share it so you look conscientious in front of your friends. 

3. INVITE PARTICIPATION

As mentioned the ‘call to action’ – to pick up three pieces of plastic – was simple. So simple in fact that many of the people that saw the post felt enough  sadness, anger, guilt and helplessness, to get involved themselves. I can’t claim that the 23k likes on the post constitute participation, but the act of commenting (4.7k) or sharing a post (62k) is a form of participation, and these interactions help to go viral. But that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg… take a look through the comments in that post (and the screenshots I’ve placed below) and you’ll see thousands of people posting pictures of themselves on the beach, in the park, down their road – each with three or more pieces of plastic in their hands. Each ‘paying’ their beach tax to enjoy our local environment. 

 

 

4. WORK ON THE TIMING – OR BE QUICK OFF THE MARK

So much of the reason why this post went viral was down to timing. It’s much, much harder for a brand to capitalise on great timing because of the multiple layers of sign off and the time needed to plan, prepare and execute a plan. In this case;  Planet Earth II had just finished a couple of days earlier, with the big man David Attenborough ending the series on a heartfelt note about plastics in our oceans as a whale chowed down on a plastic bucket. Also Greenpeace were at the time driving an international campaign against the likes of Coca-Cola and other corporates producing too much plastic that was ending up in our oceans, rivers, parks etc. Additionally, at the time there was Sky’s Ocean Rescue initiative and a bunch of others around the world. It was, and now continues to be two years later, a hot topic.

5. BE HUMAN

Despite working in a social media agency I co-founded my grammar was bad, spelling wasn’t great (both things I professionally pride myself on) and my profile pic was of me on my stag do dressed as Ariel the Little Mermaid. But none of this really mattered -in fact, all these things likely helped. The post was human, written for other humans to take note of – and it connected on a genuinely real and authentic level. Just think about meme content – it looks awful but it connects with humans. It also didn’t help that I naively and wrongly thought it was a baby Leopard Shark – and the trolls really didn’t let me forget it! But even with that mistake, the resonance wasn’t lost. If anything it probably helped, people care more emotionally about baby sharks than fully grown fish. This is the thing that brands struggle so very hard to get right. In so many cases, the sign off process kills authenticity and human connection in marketing. Posts are over-planned, over-produced, over-thought and far too many versions and revisions are made to get the ‘perfect’ post – which then falls flat with a lack of humanity. In essence take note of these points but don’t think TOO hard about how to go viral!

Ok so there you have it. You can’t just “make a viral post” (as I’ve, seriously, seen requested in social media agency briefs before) – but factoring in these five points will at least help you try and figure out how to go viral. There’s no secret formula or perfect equation to make it work – but with a good idea, and these five points on your side, you might just make it happen. If you want to troll me yourself, feel free to do so on the original post here.

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