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Stop trying to "go viral," connect with users
'Virality' and social shares are great, but only if they lead to outcomes. Going viral 1 time could end up in a nothingbuger (and in all likelihood, it will)
Something I’m asked frequently at conferences and from marketers is what metrics they should be striving for from their social media marketing. At the same time I have a lot of friends who end up with a “viral Tweet” and from it get millions of impressions and essentially 0 new followers. This is to be expected. We’ve known it for well over a decade!
Lots of people are still looking for a prescriptive formula, and expecting being able to post a copypasta or a meme in order to to blow up top of funnel KPIs like re-shares and impressions, expecting that to fix all their marketing problems. And while virality doesn’t hurt you and there are some common metrics B2B and B2C marketers strive for, I think the question and ongoing quest for vanity metrics highlights a larger issue which should be addressed first: virality isn’t a strategy, and social is just one channel/doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Your goals from social efforts should be aligned with and contribute to your larger marketing objectives. So, in short if you read no further: social isn’t some alien place outside of your marketing that isn’t held to the same business metrics of your other channels. No one grows a huge business just by having lots of website visitors of indeterminate quality. Which is exactly why “going viral” is a dumb strategy. By itself it means nothing. It’s possible (and likely!) if that was all you did, you would make $0 from it (possible exceptions include some low-cost DtC product people can click and order immediately, think funny t-shirts, a new fidget spinner, etc - so won’t work with selling SaaS software, building a major brand or service, etc - probably won’t even get you YouTube or Substack subscribers).
Despite social media no longer being new, our industry and the world at large still have an unhealthy culture of chasing shares and engagement (virality) instead of actual outcomes that will affect their business. That’s not to say more shares and engagement aren’t a good thing. They speak to your success creating ideas and experiences that resonate with people. That’s one of the magical parts about social: instant feedback. You know almost immediately if what you did resonated or fell flat.
But, shares and engagement are key performance indicators (KPIs) of success, not the goal in and of itself, but an indicator metric. I doubt most businesses participate in social with the explicit objective of generating more shares, but instead are hoping to use social to improve customer service, raise awareness and impact their bottom line. If that’s not the case at your brand, you’re in trouble.
Look, unless you are one of the rare people who actually work for a social media platform, this is not your reason for being. Yet what I’ve seen in my experiences is that marketers start with a legitimate business goal, but along the line they get addicted to engagement – more KPIs, more followers, more shares, and lose sight of the whole reason for being involved. Chasing the engagement dragon to feel good in meetings and performance review is an easy and short term fix, instead of working on the hard things that might frequently go unseen but legitimately improve the bottom line. It’s partially the fault that attribution is difficult (frequently impossible). But this is still not an excuse…
So what is an outcome metric of social? Not shares, but instead a real world objective that is your desired return. It could be more organic inquiries, clients, speaking opportunities, advertising revenue, PR, etc (pending on your business), but it is a tangible outcome you want your efforts to result in. It’s something that should be understood by your CEO in addition to your marketing team. There shouldn’t have to be any detailed education to explain why this is good. Also as a note, social of course is not direct marketing, the ways you achieve hard outcomes are very different than traditional advertising and require a thoughtful strategy and approach. It also requires you to create a “good enough” attribution models everyone agrees on and is educated to understand.
But let’s talk about how to figure out the KPIs. The best way to get actionable KPIs is first starting with the end objective in mind and then back out what metrics will best help accomplish those goals and feed those outcomes. For social: think trust, not influence (goes counter to what almost everyone does, so it’s extraordinarily powerful and perhaps easier, as it’s so rare). Then, make sure your tactical mix actually aligns directly with improving the metrics that matter. KPIs are always directional indicators (things are getting better or worse, dig into why). If you’ve determined that opt-ins to your communications outside of social are important (such as building an email list, which I highly recommend) make sure your execution has some sort of path here (that isn’t spam). And make sure what you’re doing is compounding trust, not just attention. So measurement here is going to be all about quality, not quantity. Might break some people’s brains, but that’s okay. A brand or person with 1,000 people who actually care will run circles around someone with millions of subs barely paying attention. It’s why my dog can return 100x for Purple (obviously I helped too, my dog can’t type, and smart brands doing things like this use UGC in wider advertising like display - integrated strategies are where work really starts to shine). I’ve written on this before.
One caveat to end this post. Again, I don’t want to downplay social shares and engagement. They act as a signal of social proof and can play a significant role in making your brand successful. But they are an organic byproduct of doing everything else right, not the goal.
So don’t stress too much about “going viral.” Work instead to improve your marketing and communications strategies to fit the modern marketing mix, and I bet if you do things right social KPIs take care of themselves.