Walking the line of pop culture PR

January 01, 1970

Engaging with pop culture in an intelligent way can be an irresistible PR tactic. It's only natural to want to position a brand alongside people and events that are drawing huge amounts of coverage to try and reap some of that excitement and buzz. With the rapid evolution of these hot topics, how do brands walk the fine line between success and failure?

When youth clothing brand American Apparel announced its 36-hour 'Hurricane Sandy sale' while news of the storm was trending on social media, it thought it was making a shrewd marketing decision.  Instead of drawing in customers and boosting sales, the brand experienced a backlash online.  The campaign made people feel angry and as a consequence, became viral for the wrong reasons.

Why do people share content?

Why do some urban legends catch on while others are laughed off? What motivates people to spread gossip?  These are some of the questions asked by Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger – author of 'Contagious: How Things Catch On' – and Katherine L. Milkman, Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management in a recent study looking at viral content.

'What Makes Online Content Viral?', looked for the fundamental properties of viral content.  What makes a person share an article or post online?  Can content be created specifically to go viral?

The study looked at the 'virality' of around 7,000 articles published online by the New York Times and showed that viral content has a number of predictable qualities.  Content that is seen as positive is more widely shared than negative, and viral content tends to provoke an emotional reaction. If a post makes peoples' hearts beat faster, it is more likely to go viral.  While this means funny or exciting content is more likely to be shared, it also means content that makes people feel angry is too.

Viral content: an art or a science?

Marketers can use this information when producing content, ensuring it has qualities that make it more likely to be shared.  Viral content often increases brand recognition across a range of different media types and channels.  It also increases a brands reach, often into locations, markets and audience segments not targeted by traditional marketing activities.

Producing viral content from scratch is still something of an art.  Engaging with content that is already viral on social media can be just as effective for brand awareness, often gaining it hundreds of thousands of views in a short space of time.  When a brand is seen to be trying too hard, the content can go viral for the wrong reasons and have a negative effect on brand perception.

What's hot and what's not

Brands, marketers and agencies need to have a sharp eye for trending topics, as well as a clear overview of peoples' reaction to their own engagement.  Real-time dashboards give content producers visibility over a range of media – from print to social– and can be customised to focus on one particular element of a conversation.  This gives visibility over all the angles in real-time, while the event or conversation is still relevant and current.

A 'current' trend could be over in a day or hour, rather than week or month.  Brands can move ahead of the competition by employing tools that help it engage effectively across multiple channels, and then feedback insight into the effectiveness of communications in real-time.

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