The COVID Age Is No Place For Viral Campaigns

Lessons from Twitter, Burger King and Ultravox

A sleepy Sunday viewing of Britain’s Favourite 80s Songs left an indelible message in my head. While discussing the new wave discography of 1981, radio DJ Paul Gambaccini made a passing comment:

Under normal circumstances, it would have been a runaway #1. But occasionally, a record for the ages will run into a record for the moment.

 The record in question? Ultravox’s Vienna. Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t scream, “it means nothing to meeee!” with operatic vigour when somebody mentions that song. In the UK, the ballad never made it to #1. It was pipped for the top spot by John Lennon’s Woman, and later, somewhat embarrassingly, Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face.

 So what have we learnt here? As a content creator, I venture to say three things:

  1. Quality stands the test of time. Case in point: Vienna charted again in 1993 and even landed in the hands of Millennial songsters in 2010 when it appeared on the Xbox 360’s Lips.
  2. You might think your idea belongs in the bin, only for it to become “content for the ages”. Even Midge Ure hated it, proclaiming it did, indeed, mean nothing to him.
  3. Timing isn’t always on your side with campaigns. Lennon’s Woman was no doubt a hit in its own right, but it was released within weeks of his untimely death.


Full of beans after your Weetabix?

Moving on to the 21st Century, we’re now living in an age in which ‘going viral’ is over-glamourised. Everybody wants to be the next YouTube star, or come up with the next baked-beans-on-Weetabix campaign.

And to some degree, we can see why. In February, just a week after the controversial breakfast combo launch, Weetabix reported sales increases of 15 per cent. Likewise, the campaign earned 1 billion views worldwide. Not bad for something a drunk student might cook up.

But will the effects last forever? I can’t give you Weetabix’s forecasted sales, but I can tell you what Google Trends says. Between February 7 and 13, the term “Weetabix” peaked in Google’s UK Trends index at a value of 100. A week later, this value dropped to 47. At the time of writing, it’s at 21 – 25 per cent lower than this time last year.

Mouldy burgers can’t revive bad sales

When it comes to creating content, we have to weigh up the value of helping our customers long-term against pure publicity stunts. We turn to another foody example.

Burger King’s 2020 ‘mouldy Whopper’ campaign divided opinion, with one creative lead claiming it was “made for award shows, not to sell”. Ouch.

Sadly for Burger King, she was right. In February 2021, the fast-food giant reported a 7.9 per cent decline in same-store sales compared to a projected 4.5. We cannot attribute this to the pandemic alone: McDonald’s reported a 5.5 per cent increase in sales, while drive-thrus “performed well” throughout. This demands a fundamental service overhaul – not a fancy rebrand.

When is publicity bad publicity?

They say there is no such thing as bad publicity and yet, the King strikes again. On International Women’s Day, some clever clogs in the marketing department thought it would be a good idea for Burger King to tweet that “women belonged in the kitchen”.

Sadly, the Tweet’s attempt to promote the chain’s female head chef initiative was an astronomical misfire. It may have sparked more than 200,000 comments, but the Tweet left a bitter taste in viewers’ mouths, and has since been deleted.

The winners of evergreen content

But enough of the negativity. While there is a dark side to virality, it can be a force for good. The Reddit community proves not all heroes wear capes, and proceeds from the famed GameStop scandal have now gone towards saving wildlife.

Then we have the argument for ‘evergreen’ content. Valuable content. Non-sexy stuff that might not crash Twitter, but keeps working for you in the long term.

During a recent podcast appearance with Mike Winnet (cynical chap – you may know him), I discussed the benefits of said “non-sexy” posts. I cited an example of what was essentially a rant about social media. This 2019 journal entry has struck a chord with 120,000 people, and continues to generate new enquiries to this day. Like Midge Ure, I wasn’t that taken with it.

Mike likens good content to “real estate” and says that his best-performing videos are years old, bringing in leads from all over. “A good idea is a good idea forever.” – David Brent, 2001.

Stop worrying about expiry dates

But seriously. Fellow creative Stephen Kenwright raised some vital points at SearchLeeds in 2019.  Specifically, he talked about “content shelf life”. Black Friday promos are likely to drop off a cliff in December – but content need not be dead and buried once it’s out there.

Have you seen ‘expiry date’ infographics like this? Forget them. One of my most successful posts of 2020 was based on a transient Google update. We did the numbers.

Instead, make content work for you. This might be, as Stephen says, a simple case of updating it for present-day readers. Or you could try other methods:

  • Creating supporting media, such as an infographic illustrating the salient points of a blog post
  • Posting your work in social media discussions. “Great points, Lisa! We wrote about this in X blog.”
  • Signposting evergreen content on your homepage as guides or FAQs.

Employing all four of these methods will help you to stay consistent and foster trust with your brand. That’s not to say we should repeat the same message over and over – we should adapt it, trial it with new audiences and consider new angles.

A truly valuable piece of content requires research, collaboration, editing and promotion. Don’t be deterred by the idea of your star fading. Going viral is fun, for sure – but the real results come from the long-term investment.

ultravox viral
Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
19th March 2021