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Why Trying to "Go Viral" is a Ridiculous Waste of Time

Marcella Vitulli

As it becomes a bigger part of the marketing lexicon, "going viral" has become everyone’s holy grail, but does that approach to nonprofit campaigns make sense for your organization?

Some of the most successful digital campaigns we’ve seen in recent years were the result of innovative ideas and well-thought out and executed strategies around them. The incredible levels of engagement and reach of these campaigns once they’ve gone “viral” is an unforeseen consequence of their good planning, rather than the goal.

So why do we talk so much about the importance of “going viral?” To be fair, there are some organizations that have seen some pretty thrilling outcomes as a result of a viral campaign. It follows, then, that more and more nonprofits see propelling their message to the top of the Twitter trending list as the ultimate goal for campaigns with a digital element.

Instead of focusing so much on something that’s the exception, and not the rule, in nonprofit marketing, your organization is better off spending time and resources on creating campaigns that make a big splash in a small pond.

To understand this, let’s dive deeper into what going viral really means (and whether or not it’s even a good thing.)




Viral vs Sharable

What kinds of content goes viral? Marketing experts offer lots of (often conflicting) insight on the subject, but none can positively predict a viral campaign because the factors are so nebulous and outside their control.

An obvious, yet often overlooked clarification to make is that going viral is not a choice; it’s not a strategy to consider while planning your campaign and certainly shouldn’t influence goal-making. You might as well put your whole campaign budget on black at the roulette table.

Instead, most nonprofits should really focus on creating highly sharable content that their audiences will love - content worth sharing with friends, family, and the rest of the internet. Create content that says "this is what I believe in!"

Once you begin looking at it that way, it starts to make sense that a viral cat video might not meet those criteria, no matter how incredible it is how many views it has on YouTube.


Why “viral” shouldn’t be your goal

We’ve talked at length about how nonprofits should be telling their stories, and an essential element of this is crafting the right messages for the right audience.

That being said, millions of people across the world is not the most appropriate audience for you to try to reach. 

At best, you will fail miserably (because not all of us can be Karl Lagerfeld's cat.) More likely, your highly-diluted messaging will discourage potential supporters from engaging in your campaign because it won’t be able to rise above the noise online and in their inboxes.

You could even end up alienating your current supporter base by no longer representing their (and ultimately your) ideals.


Tips on how to get “viral” right

Instead of trying to launch a campaign into the internet stratosphere, your nonprofit should focus on reaching a happy medium: creating attractive, share-worthy content that represents your work and the passion of your supporters.

From there, a smart outreach strategy that harnesses the power of your donors' networks, the influence of significant individuals in your space, and the lightening speed with which we share information online can catapult your campaign to new heights.

Here are some tips to get you started:


1. Stop trying to be something to everyone

Forget the idea that your audience is the general public and rewrite your nonprofit digital strategy to target the group(s) you're actually trying to reach. Your campaign will be better received and your analytics reporting will begin painting a clearer, more accurate picture of how your actual audience engages with your organization.


2. Create content that your audience will love to share

It's not an exaggeration to say that the look and feel of your content matters just as much to readers as the actual substance. The days of using bad stock photography are gone and internet users are responding to the shift toward beautiful web design. Make sure your organization is keeping up!


3. Tell an epic story

Nonprofits often make the mistake of losing their identities when trying to create interesting content when, in fact, their stories can be the most powerful drivers of action that they have. Stick to what makes your organization unique and talk about how the passion of your donors, staff, and volunteers is making an impact IRL - you'd be surprised how popular that can be online!


4. Make action as easy as possible

How many times have you found an interesting piece of content online, wanted to share it with people you know, but given up because the process was, well, a process? Whether it means optimizing for mobile, improving your donation page, or sending better emails, make sure that it's never hard for someone to share your content. 


5. Leverage the power of influencers

A retweet from a popular blogger can mean hundreds of more social media impressions, shares, clicks, and contacts. It's really a no-brainer that your nonprofit should identify these folks and introduce them to your work in the hopes that they will carry your proverbial bucket.


6. Maintain the momentum throughout campaign and beyond

Build a strong strategy around your campaign to ensure that nothing gets lost in the shuffle. With so many intricacies and moving parts, a campaign needs clearly defined goals, metrics for success, timelines, and a plan for sustained engagement.


In the next few weeks, we'll be taking a look at how nonprofits can run better campaigns. Make sure to subscribe to our blog so you don't miss out!

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Topics: nonprofit campaigns, campaigns