Behind the viral reel: 5 lessons I learned from online "success"
Once upon a time (in June this year), in the vast digital landscape of social media (specifically: Instagram), a content creator (me) embarked on a journey that would forever change their perspective on "going viral."
The allure of going viral is undeniable. As communication professionals, we often see messages that emphasize the importance of virality (or reach, impressions, and other similar metrics) as the ultimate measure of success. It's easy to think of virality as a 'golden ticket' to increased visibility, brand recognition, and even career advancement for those of us posting. But... my recent experience with going viral showed me that it's really not all it's cracked up to be.
It all began when I posted a collaborative reel with another content creator on Unlock Norway, a passion project of mine. The video was a short, 8-second, scripted skit highlighting the high degree of trust people have in public safety in Norway.
But 1.4 million views later, I'm more convinced than ever that "virality" should not be a goal that anyone should strive for—especially in the social impact world.
So... what happened?
Lesson 1: Going viral exposes you to diverse perspectives, including criticism and arguments.
People had a lot of opinions about the video, and felt the need to swiftly share them. At first, my thought was: great, people are interacting an engaging! But many individuals disagreed, sharing times that their personal items were stolen, or similar stories. The video was even called "propaganda" by someone—though I'm not exactly sure what or whose agenda my video was playing into...
Tips for the future: Before seeking such a large amount of exposure, make sure that your content is well thought-out and consider potential counterarguments. Of course, we can't be in control of all responses, so it's not worth stressing over, but being prepared for differing opinions can help you respond constructively to feedback and engage with your audience effectively.
Lesson 2: Even as a professional, dealing with negative comments can be emotionally challenging
The quick influx of comments disagreeing with the video left me shaken in the first few hours and days. On a rational level, I knew the backlash wasn't personal, but it was hard to separate those comments from something with my face on it. I had to mute notifications, but the reactions were still top-of-mind.
Tips for the future: Especially in the social impact sector, we expose ourselves daily to trolls who want to negate our efforts. Having a supportive network of colleagues, friends, and family can become really important for those of us who face this type of backlash often. It's important to speak to people who understand.
Lesson 3: Virality can attract harmful comments, requiring a plan for handling hate and offensive comments
People unleashed their most offensive opinions, writing terrible things in the comments section. Stereotypes about theft and hateful comments about migrants were prevalent, leading to heated arguments and insults being exchanged.
I suddenly found myself spending a significant amount of time sorting through, deleting, and reporting absolutely hateful comments.
I had to create filters that automatically block comments with certain words, and had to regularly update those filters to include new insults which I hadn't imagined people would comment on an account dedicated to improving the international experience in Norway.
Tips for the future: If your viral content attracts hurtful comments, are you going to let yourself be a platform for these hateful comments, or will you delete them at the risk of "censoring" people? That's your decision to make on platforms like Instagram, where you can moderate the comment section. Plan your strategy ahead of time for dealing with negative comments and hate.
Lesson 4: Going viral may not align with your target audience, raising questions about the value of that much publicity!
Surprise, surprise: the video did not reach the intended audience.
It might be cool to think that the video reached people from all around the world, but this was far from my intended audience. It converted a few into new followers for my account, but attracted a whole different part of the internet that actually contradicted the values of the account that posted.
Tips for the future: Going viral means extending your reach beyond your target audience to a new group of people who aren't familiar with your content and values. Ask yourself: is it worth it? If this is part of your content strategy to attract massive amounts of views from various audiences, have a plan in place on how you will convert those people into actual followers.
Lesson 5: Prioritize authenticity and connection over the pursuit of virality
There were some positive aspects of going viral, such as increased profile views and more engagement with other reels. I definitely did get an influx of new followers, though I can't be sure if they are really part of my target audience just yet, or how they'll respond to future videos.
But all things considered, I know now I would much rather continue creating content within my niche that resonates with my target audience, consistently growing without dealing with the consequences of virality. Moving forward, I am determined to keep authenticity centered in my content and hope that it translates into building connections and fostering a sense of community.
Tips for the future: Embracing the journey, rather than chasing the elusive dream of going viral, is the key to long-term success and fulfillment as a content creator. Achieving your goals is going to be more important than a bunch of likes, comments, and impressions that don't work for you.
I recommend to all fellow content creators to focus on the process and enjoy the opportunities for genuine connection you have with your audience, rather than chasing "viral".