The Downside of Going Viral


Whether we like to admit it or not, when we post anything to the online world, whether it is a blog post, a picture, or a video, we have this unspoken question that haunts us. “Will this go viral?” Predicting what will be popular online is notoriously difficult. Often posts that I come close to deleting are the ones that get a lot of comments, and the posts that I pour my heart and soul into end up flatter than Wile E. Coyote after falling off a cliff. Still, there’s always that chance for glory.

As an NPO, it’s hard to imagine anything bad about some of your content going viral. The exposure you could get for your cause, raising the awareness of new potential donors, and more all makes the idea seem pretty darned amazing. But there can definitely be downsides to going viral.

Going Viral Can Mean Losing Control

Last week, ironically, a story about going viral on Reddit ended up getting shared a lot across the interwebs. The story was about some of the downsides of a great photograph that got about 6,000 upvotes on Reddit. At first all of the attention seemed great as you might imagine. Shortly after the photo went viral though, the photographer noticed that the photo was starting to appear on other sites with no credit to him and no links back to his websites. People figured out shortcuts around Flickr security and started posting unlicensed hi-resolution versions of the photo for people to use.

If your organization’s content goes viral the same thing could happen to you. Other dangers include alterations to your content. If all of those shares fail to mention your organization’s name and don’t link back to your website, it’s not going to do you a lot of good, and you have also lost control of some of your own intellectual property.

Going viral can distract you from what really matters

As the article mentioned above details, once the photo went viral on Reddit, the photographer had to spend time trying to track down where the photo was being used, dealing with trolls on Reddit who questioned the credibility of the photographer, and sending out “cease and desist” messages to the online world. As an NPO, these kinds of tasks probably don’t make your top 100 in priorities overall, but dealing with viral content in the online world can really cause you to take your eye off the ball.

Going viral does not guarantee that your contributions will increase

Finally, and probably most importantly, seeing your content go viral does not ensure that contributions to your cause will increase. In fact, as the photographer noticed, viral content doesn’t even promise that your website will get more traffic. One of the most common mistakes I see from both NPOs and for-profit organizations is the creation of content that may or may not directly relate to their mission. Memes may not name the organization. Videos may not link back to the website. A blog post may not include any links to the organization’s website. While it’s true that your content can be altered to delete these kinds of branding efforts, you have a leg up if you include them in the first place. Make sure your video has opening and closing slides with your contact information. Make sure your memes are branded somehow. It did not appear that the photographer’s viral image had a watermark or anything tying the image to his brand, and that was where the problems began.

Hoping your content will go viral is not a crime by any means, but if you are working towards that kind of goal, even loosely, make sure that if you succeed your organization has a good chance of benefitting from the exposure, and have a plan ready in case that exposure leads to some negative responses. Prepare for viral, hope for the best.