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As contagious as it sounds – By Elliott Williams

As Contagious As It Sounds

In an age where social media has allowed people to reach others across the globe, many are using the power of the Internet to spread their message around the world. Viral campaigns have become a tool for doing just that. Successful movements seem to be one in a million, so what does it take to separate one from all of the others?

The main goal of viral campaigns is to draw attention to a cause with a certain goal in mind: to raise awareness for diseases, perceived social injustice, or to raise money through social campaigns designed to reach as many people as fast as possible. With programs like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, users are able to reach up to millions of people with a single message. Raising awareness, support and attention for something has never been easier, and people are taking advantage of it. Chris Clemens, a digital culture professor at Humber College, says that the speed and reach of social media is the key to viral marketing.

“Virality is defined by social media. It lets all this happen so much faster. Instead of going to your friends individually, you can mass post with very little effort. So the way that things spread is a bit faster,” says Clemens. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is an example of such a phenomenon, as the tweet gained support almost overnight following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, and has expanded into a full grown movement. According to blacklivesmatter.com, the movement is “a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”
“Virality is defined by social media it lets all this happen so much faster. Instead of going to your friends individually, you can mass post with very little effort. So the way that things spread is a bit faster.” - Chris Clemens
Movements to raise awareness for disease research have been some of the most successful campaigns. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which started in summer of 2014, is one such campaign. Clemens says that while the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raised a lot of money, but people who participated had other motives behind their actions.

“A lot of people just used it as an excuse to go to an exotic locale and dump an ice bucket on their head in a way almost of self-promotion and I’d say that most of those people never donated any actual resources to the cause,” he says. However, the challenge did raise over $100 million.

Jake Ryle, an entertainer and producer with thousands of views on YouTube says that people are more likely to join a campaign if they are able broadcast themselves in some way, and that people who have that opportunity are more likely to try to one up each other in the challenge.

“I think people that do more than expected in these videos are more likely to succeed. If people do more in these videos, they’re more likely to get attention.”
Some campaigns attempt to reach out internationally, hoping to inspire change across the globe. With the Internet, the world is smaller than ever. A prominent example was the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that was aimed at getting international intervention in the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamist militants.

The campaign’s reach was so wide that United States First Lady Michelle Obama even participated in trying to raise awareness. Despite the worldwide outrage, however, many of the girls remained missing and scattered throughout the continent. Boko Haram militants even uploaded a video making fun of the hashtag. The campaign was unable to draw much action from powerful countries, even though the call to arms was sweeping.
Dr. Herbert Pimlott, a communications professor at Wilfred Laurier University, says that when it comes to campaigns that deal with emotional and cultural issues, it’s hard to determine what the end result will be.

“I think what we have to look at with #BringBackOurGirls and KONY2012, campaigns that are started for various reasons with an end goal just can’t say they’re gonna be successful at them, you can replicate everything exactly, but as in the case of advertising or marketing generally you can have a brilliant campaign, but it just falls flat," - Dr. Herbert Pimlott

“I think what we have to look at with #BringBackOurGirls and KONY2012, campaigns that are started for various reasons with an end goal just can’t say they’re gonna be successful at them, you can replicate everything exactly, but as in the case of advertising or marketing generally you can have a brilliant campaign, but it just falls flat,” says Pimlott. Pimlott also says there are other factors that determine whether a campaign is successful or not, such as what other issues are trending online at the time. One of the biggest reasons viral campaigning is so popular is the lack of work required from its participants. Slacktivism – the act of participating in a cause by clicking a link on your computer, and little to nothing else – is an easy way for people to feel good about themselves and make them think that they’re making a difference in the world. Pimlott says he doesn’t think slacktivism will overtake regular methods of protest, though.

“I think part of it is what has happened with slacktivism and digital campaigns is that the threshold for recording or expectations has increased,” Pimlott says.
“For example when I worked journalism in the ’80s and ’90s if you got one phone call on the radio station or you got snail mail letters you took that seriously, or 100 people signing a petition. Now in 2015 perhaps for an online petition you need 10,000 signatures instead of 100 on a print petition that would then be handed in to an MP’s office or into the local media in the coverage in an issue.”

Pimlott says social media allows for greater participation by the population, and that having people on the ground is important for a campaign to be successful.
“People on the ground were forced off air by the dictatorship. But it was because people were on the ground that social media enabled them to protest,” Pimlott says.
“Look at Occupy Wall Street, in some ways it would’ve been a small protest and therefore not seen as important, social media picked it up and re-iterated the images of women being pepper sprayed, that went viral, the 700 protesters that were arrested on Brooklyn Bridge went viral and suddenly mainstream media began covering the protest.”
An online campaign, however, needs more than the re-tweeting of a hashtag to be noteworthy. The Stop, Drop, Selfie for MS campaign for example had a fun novelty going on alongside the fundraising and raised awareness for the disease.

Randall Craig, President of Digital Strategy of Firm 108 Ideaspace says that for a movement to succeed people have to be interested in the campaign, regardless of the quality.
“There’s got to be something that people look at and say ‘That’s different, that’s interesting,’ there’s got to be an emotional connection,” says Craig.
Craig also says that the metadata (the information surrounding viral videos such as tags, the categories it’s under, etc.) is crucial for a viral video to gain popularity.
“So if people are looking for something they can find it. The metadata has got to be high quality, fully filled out and relevant.”

There is a lot that goes into a social movement. False information on a popular campaign will often be called out, and the resulting scrutiny will undermine the campaigns original goal. According to Clemens, though, if the campaign is marketed well enough, it’s not going to matter whether or not the information is accurate.
“Most people don’t get any extra psychological pleasure out of knowing an issue better. You can still feel good about yourself for doing a mindless two minute repost. You can think that you are helping even as you effectively do nothing through slacktivism,” he says.

Ryle says that people like seeing uncommon things, and that it’s the key to going viral.
“For example people go to the movies to witness things that they would normally not see, and basically they get an experience that’s not in reality,” Ryle says, “I think to bring something out of a movie or bring something that’s very unusual out into the real world I think has mass appeal, it’s something people want to see. People are tired of seeing regular things all the time and I think bringing something out that’s unique is the key to getting success in terms of going viral,” says Ryle.

An online movement must appeal to the vast majority of people for it to have a chance of gaining momentum. Viral campaigning can be a driving force that paves the way for greater social change in the future, but the line between a successful campaign and one that flops is thin.

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