Citizen Thinks January 19, 2016

The Power and Perils of Going Viral

The Power and Perils of Going Viral

The desire to “go viral” can be overwhelming as businesses work to hold the attention of increasingly savvy, often cynical, consumers. Gaining popularity online through rapid person-to-person exchange offers brands direct contact with a diverse and engaged audience, while allowing nimbleness that is hard to replicate offline. But the internet remains a murky space that continues to evolve at breakneck speed and virality is a mixed blessing. As businesses attempt to embrace the power of the internet, they may find themselves the unwilling subjects of its criticism. If they wish to be seen as partners and benefactors, these businesses must attempt to understand the system of engagement that drives the digital order. Advancing the goals of the global, online citizenry is the most efficient way for businesses to exploit the internet’s influence.

In a New Yorker article summarizing “The five most important business stories of 2015,” James Surowiecki comments on the rise of Amazon, noting that the retailer “now controls more than a quarter of all e-commerce sales and four per cent of all U.S. retail sales.” Surowiecki attributes this phenomenal success both to exceptional business operations and to “the superior economics of the Internet.” In an increasingly restless world, the company that invested early in understanding and anticipating the needs of online consumers has undoubtedly been crowned king.

Surowiecki observes that Amazon’s efforts to harness the internet’s potential do not yield exclusively (or necessarily) positive results. After all, in the words of Ben Parker (or was it Voltaire?): with great power comes great responsibility. Amazon’s critics are as many and vocal as its supporters, and the business faced a series of PR struggles last year as a result. From its widely condemned #PrimeDayFail to a damning exposé in the New York Times dissecting its corporate culture, Amazon was placed under a microscope as the cyberpublic demanded insights into its growing dominance in and apparent command of the digital marketplace.

As a business that exists almost exclusively in the online world, Amazon is arguably more susceptible to what Hua Hsu (also in the New Yorker) calls “the logic of virality.” In Hsu’s view, the internet is fundamentally a community that unites, with the consequence that it provides “a sense of common struggle, as well as the means to escalate…grievances with relative ease.” Though the impact of this logic may be greater for a company like Amazon, any business that enters into the digital order is vulnerable to its effects. As a platform that encourages individuals to engage with brands directly, the internet allows consumers to hold institutions, leaders and businesses “accountable in ways both impossibly big and manageably small.”

For Hsu, the power to both require and assign responsibility has “intensif[ied] the desire to see injustices in one’s immediate surroundings as part of larger struggles that once might have seemed distant and abstract.” In other words, as consumers look to engage with seemingly petty or minor wrongdoings online, dissecting business practices and demanding greater transparency and accountability, they may be signalling a wider desire to affect more systemic change.

For many brands, this growing consumer consciousness presents a unique opportunity to embrace, to borrow Susan Krashinsky’s words, “messages of broader consequence.” By acknowledging and harnessing the logic of virality, offering consumers a positive means for direct action or protest, businesses can position themselves as allies in the common struggle. These alliances can have an extremely positive impact on consumer engagement and general brand perceptions. Last year, for example, the Government of Ontario’s #WhoWillYouHelp campaign offered citizens a concrete way to make an impact by simply pointing out the injustices they observed. The program video was viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube, making it one of the top ten most-watched ads in the country last year – an impressive feat considering the serious and somewhat taboo subject matter. Another, Citizen-lead, campaign for Cheerios encouraged Canadians to embrace “A World Without Dieting.” This program lead nearly 1,200 consumers to take an oath to help protect young women from unhealthy diet messages and positioned Cheerios as a brand invested in the health and wellbeing of the Canadian public. These kinds of initiatives help facilitate the type of social engagement that rules the internet, uniting consumers and brands in the ongoing effort to join in and make an impact.

As the online world continues to grow and change, brands must grow and change with it. It is essential that businesses look for patterns in consumer engagement, in order to understand the needs and objectives of those who both construct and participate in the digital order. The internet is a tool which has enormous power to influence consumers, create communities and drive conversation – as long as it is treated with respect. Harnessing this power requires a careful dance on the tip of a double-edged sword.

Hilary Sloan is a Senior Account Executive at Citizen Relations.

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