Social Strategy in the Age of Viral Content

If you’ve ever read a controversial article, skimmed a news update, or, for that matter, watched an utterly non-polarizing video on youtube, you may have noticed how nasty comment sections can get. Internet trolls seem to be everywhere, and they raise our blood pressures and make us question the future of humanity.


But where there are cons, there are always pros:  a lot of nice things have been happening on the internet lately, and those are the stories that tend to go viral. With this, we’re seeing a colossal shift in the meaning of PR as businesses step beyond the boundaries of paid, planned advertising. The internet responds to kindness, and it’s bringing out the best in businesses all over.

One of the best, most widely publicized, examples of how companies are taking part in this happened a few years ago, but it’s still being talked about today (many of you will have heard of it, which is precisely the point). A man about to board a flight home after a long day of meetings tweeted to Morton’s, a steakhouse he frequently visited, jokingly asking them to meet him at the airport with a steak. The flight was under three hours long and the nearest Morton’s was about thirty minutes away from the airport, but what did Morton’s do? Sent a guy in a tuxedo with a steak to the airport, of course! [full story here]


Naturally, it went viral. I first heard about it on the radio one morning while driving to work. The striking thing about this, though, was the fact that I heard it not during a commercial, which certainly would have prompted me to change the station, but during the actual morning talk show. The hosts were talking about it like an interest piece. The day after I heard about it on the radio, the story came up in a conversation with friends. Suddenly, Morton’s was getting priceless widespread attention—all for the price of a steak dinner.

This kind of attention is much more valuable than anything a paid advertisement could warrant. We know advertising works and is a key part of business in our culture, but don’t we also use some degree of skepticism when we see or hear an ad? We all know that a commercial is the business personally telling us what they want us to know about themselves—a biased source, assuredly. That’s why the organic “advertising” Morton’s earned is so significant. Instead of hearing about the steakhouse from Morton’s themselves, people were hearing about it from friends and entertainment personalities, on social media and even news sites. All of these are far more credible sources than the business itself.

Unfortunately, not all businesses have products like steaks that people crave and that you can easily give away. Morton’s was lucky. Not only did the opportunity arise, but it came from a twitter user who happened to have over 167,000 followers. Most small businesses don’t have direct access to that many people on social media. As a result, it’s probably unrealistic to expect your business’ good deed to go viral in that magnitude. But that’s okay. You can still reach potential customers in the same organic way Morton’s did. Here’s how:

  1. Be Nice. Think about what prompted people to share the Morton’s story. It’s the same thing that propelled Batkid and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge into the spotlight: we like seeing people do good things for others. That’s why companies who give back are so popular. Consumers care about the values and ethical responsibility of the brands they support, so why not extend that beyond the realm of premeditated charity work? Doing something nice for a customer or even a non-customer in your community allows your business to live out its values in a more casual, spontaneous manner. If your business is a deli, get that frequent customer’s sandwich ready and in a bag with her name on it as soon as you see her pull into the parking lot. It may not go viral on social media, or it may not go on social media at all, but you can bet she will tell someone about it. Instead of spending all of your time trying to spread the word about your business’ services, dedicate some time and effort to showing customers you actually care about them. It’s the best way to get them talking about your business, and it’s usually a lot cheaper than a paid ad.
  1. Engage. Companies have been “making the front page” for sponsoring events and cleaning up outdoor areas for a very long time. The problem with this today is that it doesn’t engage people outside the company well enough. PR is no longer just a write-up about something notable your business did. It is constant engagement with your customers. You should be responding to them on all channels, especially social media, whether it’s something as drastic as live, in-person wish-fulfillment or as simple as replying to a post or tweet. A humorous or characteristic response to a customer will often get passed around and shared on social media, since it adds personality to a brand. When you do want to orchestrate that community clean-up, you should reach out and ask your customers and connections to join you, making it a group effort. That will always create more awareness than simply posting a picture of your employees picking up trash by themselves. Involve your customers and the community around you, and your brand will grow.

Remember, the best PR is what other people say about you. With the internet and social media at your fingertips, you’ve never had a better opportunity to engage with your customers in a positive way and leave a lasting and sharable impression.



One Comment

  1. […] live tweeting during a televised fashion show. Get creative and utilize popular TV shows or even one-off incidents that have gone viral. Be sure to search for associated hashtags that may be trending when you take advantage of these. […]