Viral Campaigns Have An Infectious Nature That Must Be Incubated

December 30, 2014       Patrick Sullivan      

If you were breathing this past summer, you could not miss hearing about the Ice Bucket Challenge. You couldn’t avoid it even if you tried. What you might not realize is that the ALS Association, the beneficiary organization, did not create the campaign. The organization was able to seize the moment and capitalize on good luck and good will.

The ALS Association, based in Washington, D.C., harnessed the momentum of the Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon, created by the families of three ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease) patients. The organization’s leaders put out daily press releases with the total amount raised and shared some of the best ice bucket videos on its social media platforms. ALS Association President and CEO Barbara Newhouse did a satellite media tour at the height of the phenomenon. The organization gained $115 million and nearly 3 million new donors.

“A viral campaign is a moment in time. It’s something like fire. You have to have a lot of dry tinder around for it to catch,” said Catherine LaCour, vice president of corporate marketing for software firm Blackbaud in Charleston, S.C.

It takes trust and empowerment of your employees, having a nimble infrastructure and being ready creatively to capitalize on a moment, said Madeline Stanionis, principal and creative director at M+R Strategic Services in Washington, D.C. “This is a big deal. It’s really hard. How do you get ready for your 15 minutes of fame?,” she asked rhetorically.

It starts with internal culture, said Stanionis, and that’s not something you can manufacture on the fly. Leaders at organizations where employees are empowered let them know, “When something happens, you notice something’s trending on Twitter, you have the ability and authority to react: set up a donation page, put press in place, send emails,” she said.

If your staff is able and permitted to jump on a hot topic, you’ll need a library of social media creative with which to jump in. “When we have a moment, we want to aggressively tweet and get others to do the same, produce shareable images on Facebook, have an email and get it out quickly, do some advertising and get landing pages up, ready and easy to find for people suddenly hearing about you,” said Stanionis.

Third, you’ll have to be comfortable with relinquishing some control. Something viral will often morph beyond a single organization. That last point is something for which the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in Washington, D.C., was ready. HRC launched a campaign when the Supreme Court of the United States was getting ready to rule on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. By the time the decisions came down (both struck down as unconstitutional), more than 10 million people had changed their social media profile pictures to a modified version of HRC’s equal sign logo.

“We didn’t see this coming,” said HRC Director of Marketing Anastasia Khoo, of the response. “We knew we’d built a solid plan and done everything we could to ensure the possibility of going viral. We hoped for it, but it exceeded our wildest expectations.”

Khoo said the social media component — asking people to change their profile pictures to a red version of HRC’s logo — was just one part of a larger campaign planned almost a month out. Unlike many viral campaigns, HRC’s was heavily planned and scripted. The marketing team created a “war room” dedicated to the cases and the campaign and had daily meetings to update progress and the roles and responsibilities of each staff member involved.

While a 600 percent surge in traffic caused HRC’s website to crash and the organization gained 300,000 new Facebook followers in two days, Khoo said she believes the campaign grew beyond the organization. People changing their profile pictures didn’t necessarily know they were changing it to an LGBT-rights organization’s logo, and that was okay.

“While it was intrinsically our logo (in people’s profile pictures), we didn’t put any branding on it. There was nothing to say, ‘Visit hrc.org for more information,’” Khoo said. “We made it about the movement and the people. It’s a double-edged sword. There was a huge increase in visibility but there’s still some work to do, and we continue to do that work.”

A campaign going viral becomes “something you’re not controlling,” said LaCour. You can’t control people’s reactions to or uses of your moment, but you can control and reinforce your brand. “Controlling brand is about consistency,” said LaCour.

She used the example of Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area in San Francisco. An event generated national coverage when the organization in November 2013 granted the wish of a leukemia stricken 5-year-old to be Batkid. “People remember Batkid, but not Make-A-Wish,” said LaCour. “But Make-A-Wish uses Batkid in every marketing piece to associate that moment and give it more shelf life.”

Brian Frederick, a spokesman for the ALS Association, acknowledged that the Ice Bucket Challenge was bigger than the organization. “Many people did it because of the desire to be a part of something bigger, engage with friends and families and be part of a social phenomenon,” he said. “We recognize that for many people who did the challenge, the cause was secondary. We think that inherent in the phenomenon itself was the desire to do good for a cause, and that happened to be us.”

Part of being prepared for the moment involves having a backup plan. What happens if the campaign takes off and the resulting traffic takes out your website? HRC was able to redirect people to its Tumblr blog. It all goes back to having the organizational ecosystem in place. “It was a stroke of luck and a stroke of genius,” said Khoo. “It helped us to continue our communications cycle as the cases were heard.”

Some campaigns are exceedingly dependent on the moment, as in the case of HRC and the Supreme Court. For others, such as the Ice Bucket Challenge and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s Tap Project from this past March, it’s the experience itself that goes viral.

The Tap Project challenged participants to put their phones down. For every 10 minutes a phone with the Tap Project app activated spent on a flat surface, the U.S. Fund would convert a sponsor donation in an amount equal to the cost of clean water for a child for a day. The project was meant to show people that being constantly connected to their phones is not a necessity, but clean water is lifesaving.

About 2.6 million people participated, with $1.02 million in donations unlocked from sponsors. The New York City-based U.S. Fund was also able to convert about 17,000 participants into volunteers. “We had social sharing, but in the end the experience itself was so compelling that people shared it, people forwarded the link,” said Rajesh Anandan, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and UNICEF Ventures for the U.S. Fund.

Anandan said he wasn’t worried about basing a campaign around a mobile-first experience about putting down your mobile device. He said it was more “a fun way to connect the two notions, that you think you need your phone but you don’t, but people need clean water.”

The U.S. Fund needed the dexterity that Stanionis talked about when the organization saw how quickly the campaign was growing: about 50,000 people participated on the first day and 150,000 on the second. The monetization metric was supposed to be a donation for every minute, but Anandan said he quickly changed it to every 10 minutes.

“We had a projection of how much sponsor funding we had pledged already and how much more was coming,” said Anandan. He didn’t want to chew through the sponsor donations too soon, so he “had to make that decision quickly.”

A viral campaign’s bump in awareness won’t last forever. Like the Tap Project, some have an end date built in. Anandan’s team stopped “monetizing the minutes” at the end of March 2013. The issue gets resolved for other cases, such as in the case of the Supreme Court striking down DOMA and Prop 8. Sometimes the moment just passes and the campaign peters out.

“You have to figure out how to convert those moment supporters to long-term,” said Stanionis. The U.S. Fund signed up about 17,000 of those supporters as volunteers, first around clean water initiatives and then expanded into to the organization’s other programs. The ALS Association is currently deciding on a strategy to engage their new supporters. “We have millions of people — donors and participants — who don’t have an immediate connection to the disease and probably don’t know that much about the disease,” said Frederick. “We’re working on a larger strategy to keep them engaged, based on what we know about how they came to us.”

Figuring out the next best interaction is a tricky thing, said LaCour. “Engagement is about controlling the customer experience,” she said. “Look at the customer life cycle and think about how to spark interaction across that cycle.” She said it’s important not to let your base of loyal supporters get lost in the shuffle of newcomers.

“Stewardship needs to happen, but not at the expense of your base,” she said. “The focus is how to leverage the campaign to continue to inspire your base. How do you keep your base talking about your cause and your organization while keeping the organization relevant? They should be the focus.”

One thing the Ice Bucket Challenge, the HRC’s Supreme Court campaign and the Tap Project have in common with one another and all other campaigns that go viral: luck.

“It’s 99 percent luck,” said Stanionis. “When you try to manufacture those moments, nine times out of 10 it won’t work.”

She said the 1 percent that isn’t luck is “creative alchemy and good strategy.” You need to know what people are responding to today, right now. According to Stanionis, many nonprofit marketers are “trying to be relevant in pop culture, but because organizations go so slowly, they’ll launch something that was popular six months ago.” Stanionis would rather see money spent on getting systems in place. The key to viral content, she said, isn’t big production budgets; the best ones are produced quickly, on the cheap, to rapidly respond to something unfolding.

Luck might be being in the right place at the right time, but if your organization can maneuver there and then, that’s just good business. LaCour called it “feeding” luck. “Being ready, that’s not luck. That’s great organizational planning and structure and systems and being ready to respond,” said Stanionis. NPT