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“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller 

These days, nothing moves faster than internet fads, and nothing makes you feel older than finally catching onto a joke that all the cool kids stopped laughing at last week. As the internet reaches increasingly larger audiences and the turnover rate for viral content accelerates, it can be tricky to keep up with popular trends and even tricker to use them to your advantage in your marketing. 

What does viral content look like in 2021?

After its launch in 2005, Youtube became the perfect hotbed for the first viral videos. Clips like “Charlie Bit My Finger” and Will Farrell and Adam McKay’s “The Landlord” generated millions of views and had a universality and longevity that seems rare by today’s standards. Everyone could enjoy these videos and everyone did… for quite some time!

What constitutes viral content has evolved a lot since then. As of January 2021, there are 4.66 billion active internet users, which is up fourfold from 1.1 billion in 2005. More internet users mean more potential for visibility, but it also means an increase in digital content, and in turn, competition for user attention.

In 2020, humans created 2.5 quintillion databytes of content a DAY. Understanding the magnitude of a quintillion is challenging, but ultimately, what this means is that content can be generated today at a much quicker rate than ever before. So, as swiftly as an internet meme or viral video enters the zeitgeist, a new one can sweep in and take its place.

How does viral content relate to advertising?

A recent Coors commercial capitalized on a popular TikTok “Silhouette Challenge” trend. As the beat drops in a remix of Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on My Shoulder”, an ordinary can of Coors Seltzer suddenly becomes… sexier? 

It’s clear that internet meme culture dominates social media and permeates the ad world, too, but with trends evolving as quickly as they do, we have to wonder if this is always an effective marketing tactic.

Trends can change dramatically in the time it takes to develop and produce an advertisement. When a joke created and perpetuated by young people is suddenly adopted by professionals in a boardroom, it can easily lose its flare and venture into cringe territory. In a way this breaks the fourth wall, reminding consumers that someone’s copywriter uncle probably had to Google “popular memes” to create this targeted ad.

an old man dressed as a teenage skateboarder

How can viral content be effectively used as a marketing tool?

In a 2017 TedTalk, Buzzfeed Publisher Dao Nguyen breaks down a categorization framework called “cultural cartography” used by Buzzfeed to examine why content goes viral. Nguyen explains that it’s less about the subject matter and more about “the job that your content is doing for the reader or the viewer”. Buzzfeed essentially categorizes content based on humour, self-awareness, societal awareness, education and wholesomeness.

By asking what viral content does for your audience, you can tailor your own marketing to achieve a similar goal. Say, for example, you’re trying to appeal to a young demographic. If a new TikTok dance features a feel-good hip-hop song, try using similar hip hop in your advertising. Or, if a new meme contains punny humour, try incorporating a couple of good puns into your copy.

It can be tempting to use viral content as a template for your marketing, but the cons outweigh the pros when you run the risk of looking outdated or generic. What’s most important is that the voice in your advertising is consistent across the board with your brand. Create authentic and creative copy now so that you don’t end up on a list of awkward meme ads in the future.