The Data Behind Viral Marketing Events

3 lessons from a benchmarking analysis of some of the decade’s biggest viral brand wins

The worst day in the career of many CMOs is when they walk into work to find a scandal in their lap. Next quarter’s plan? Toss it out the window. It’s all hands on deck until this crisis passes.

The best day in many a CMO’s career is when they happen upon a fortuitous opportunity. Next quarter’s programs? Forget about them. It’s time to capitalize on the opportunity that just knocked on your office door.

In the last post, we used real-world data to help brands understand the best ways to identify, respond to and move on from scandals. In this post, we’ll look at the other, equally rare but much more appealing, side of the coin: moments of serendipity.

The folks at PACIFIC used Crimson Hexagon to analyze the social media response to 19 of the most memorable viral marketing moments in recent history, including #NuggsForCarter, Rick and Morty’s Szechuan Sauce, Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark,” and more. In doing so, they have created an invaluable resource for marketers: a data-backed, three-step framework for understanding those elusive, mysterious viral moments.

But first, the data.

The data behind the biggest viral moments

The 19 viral events analyzed as part of this study led to a whopping 9.5 million posts with 32 billion potential impressions. This volume easily dwarfs the conversation volumes we saw for campaigns and scandals; in fact, these 19 viral moments generated more online discussion than campaigns and scandals combined.

Of course, it’s not just about the volume. Unsurprisingly, sentiment for the conversation surrounding viral moments was incredibly positive — there was a 12:1 ratio of positive to negative sentiment in these conversations. Consumers love talking about viral moments!

The halo created by viral moments is not eternal; in fact viral events fade more quickly than scandals. The average lifespan of the social conversation surrounding a viral moment lasts for just under 5 months, but that time is dense with consumer conversation.

All told, viral events are some of the most valuable resources a brand can happen upon. But by their very nature, moments of virality are almost impossible to plan for and easy to miss.

Luckily, PACIFIC’s analysis revealed some interesting lessons for brands hoping to capture lightning in a bottle.

1. Be prepared

Fortune may favor the bold, but it also favors the prepared. And to capitalize on a viral marketing opportunity, you need to be both. But it’s especially important not to discount the importance of preparation.

You’re probably thinking “The whole point of viral events is that you can’t prepare for them, you just have to take advantage of them when they rear their heads.” There is some truth to this, but it misses an important part of the equation: There are steps brands can take to give them the best chance of converting a moment of serendipity into a viral event.

Within a minute, Wendy’s responded with a number — 18 million — and set off a much-discussed race for virality. Carter eventually got his nuggs (despite topping out at “just” 3.5 million retweets) but Wendy’s got something much more valuable: a huge shot of free publicity and a moment that will go down in viral marketing textbooks for years to come.

A less-prepared, less-adventurous marketing team would likely have missed this opportunity, but Wendy’s, a brand dedicated to “moment marketing” was able to not only identify the opportunity but nurture it into the one of the most viral marketing moments in the last 10 years.

But even Wendy’s #NuggsForCarter success pales in comparison to another example of “moment marketing” that exhibits another tenet of viral marketing: Identify the opportunity.

2. Create a process, and trust it

Wendy’s social team gets thousands of mentions a day, so for them, viral marketing is essentially a volume game — cultivate customer interactions and use social media to jockey for free publicity.

But sometimes it’s not about the number of at bats you take, it’s about nailing the one perfect pitch you get.

No viral event shows this better than Oreo’s 2013 Super Bowl triumph. During the halftime show of that game, the power went out for over a half an hour. Social media was abuzz, naturally, as people shared theories, jokes and commentary.

But only Oreo was able to convert that unplanned event into some serious brand prestige. The brand acted fast, threw together a quick social image with the tagline “You can still dunk in the dark” and watched the mentions roll in.

In hindsight, this might seem like a straightforward move, but it actually reveals a lot about Oreo’s marketing practice and prowess. They were able to identify a real-time viral marketing opportunity, on one of the world’s biggest stages, marshall the resources (and approvals) necessary to jump in, and then executed the whole thing with aplomb.

Most brands would have missed this opportunity. Either they wouldn’t have recognized it in the first place, or they wouldn’t have been nimble enough to execute it in real time. Oreo managed both, and created one of the most memorable viral marketing moments of the 21st century.

The conversation around Oreo’s stunt was relatively short-lived — one of the two briefest in the study — but it was dense with brand awareness. Today, Oreo’s bold, well-timed move is considered a prime example of how a brand can significantly bolster its reputation and relevance with a single social post. Much of this success was due to Oreo’s timeliness, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of another quality they exhibited: boldness.

Be ready to go all in, fast

Speed is essential for the viral moment, but so is commitment. There are no half measures when it comes to viral marketing; you’re either in or out. Wendy’s and Oreo showed the virtues of this approach with their quick-thinking social media posts – but it’s even more illuminating to look an example of a brand missing the boat.

In 2017, McDonald’s found its brand mentioned in even more social media conversations than normal. One of the driving forces was a storyline in the Cartoon Network’s popular cartoon, Rick and Morty, where there was a frantic search for McDonald’s short-lived and long-defunct Szechuan Sauce, which the brand made for a Mulan promotion.

This organic opportunity should have been like liquid gold for McDonald’s, but the burger chain didn’t get as much out of it as it could have.

The main problem wasn’t necessarily McDonald’s failure to identify an opportunity, or to act quickly enough to capitalize on it — rather it came down to McDonald’s failure to commit to the bit.

The brand didn’t enter the conversation instantly, and when it did, it didn’t immediately realize the scale of the conversation. Eventually the brand recognized that the social media mob wasn’t going away, so the chain agreed to launch another limited run of the savory sauce. Unfortunately, McDonald’s still underestimated the scale of the conversation, and fell drastically short with its production run.

What was the result? The Szechuan spectacle led to a ton of conversation about the restaurant; in fact, it generated the longest conversation of all the viral moments analyzed in the study. But it also had by far the most negative conversation, driven largely by fans’ displeasure at the company’s too-little-too-late response.


Viral moments are hard to predict and plan for, but they may just be the most important aspect of the modern marketing team’s strategy. Social conversation can generate huge gains in brand awareness and perception, and companies need to be able to identify, then leverage these opportunities.

The viral events analyzed as part of this study reveal patterns in how brands can use moments of serendipity to their advantage. Many marketers assume that capitalizing on a viral opportunity comes down to being open to inspiration on a moment’s notice. This is certainly part of it, but to paraphrase Thomas Edison, viral moments are 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Brands that put in the work to build a viral playbook, train their teams to identify opportunities, and create a process to capitalize quickly will be in a much better position to leverage those mysterious, industry-defining events we call viral moments.

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