Todd Barrish
Todd Barrish

For many people, Anthony Bourdain’s shocking June suicide was one of those instances in which the workaday routine came to a halt as we went online to share our thoughts and memories of the man.

Even the President took a moment to offer some kind words about the acerbic Bourdain.

That instance was notable because so few events manage to have a lasting impact these days. Think back to some of the big news stories of this year — the brief government shut-down, the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics — and it’s all a blur.

It’s no wonder in this environment that “viral” videos can’t get the traction and staying power they once did. Do any of the most viral ads of 2017 stick in your mind the way that Roller Babies or Old Spice do?

It’s time to admit that virality almost never happens anymore. When it does, it hits so quickly that it doesn’t have a lasting impact. That’s good news for the PR industry. For too long, marketers and clients have assumed there was a formula for virality. Now that virality itself is in question, we can admit the issue has been a distraction and instead focus on reaching the right targets with the right messages.

The media no longer supports a viral infrastructure

There’s no mass media, even on the Internet. In the first few years, everyone on the Internet passed around the same things. Now it’s too big and we’re too split into our little communities. It’s sort of like what happened to TV over 50 years, but in this case, it took five.

Things now go “viral” in different niches. Do you know what a Prequel Meme is? It’s hard to go a week without a meme based on the Star Wars prequels hitting the front page of Reddit. But Prequel Memes haven’t caught on the way that the Success Kid or Grumpy Cat or Rickrolling did.

The Balkanization of digital media is one reason. Another is that things move too fast these days. Remember that Yanny vs. Laurel thing from May? That lasted three weeks before heading into oblivion, according to Google Trends. The Dress’s run was about twice as long in 2015.

Things don’t last as long because the public and the media don’t savor anything. There’s always a new controversial tweet or fresh batch of memes on Reddit to choose from.

In praise of category virality

While the tendency of the public to move on quickly has troubling implications, from a PR standpoint, the message is that nothing really goes viral anymore. This should be liberating since trying to make something go viral was always a crapshoot. You could argue in the early days that people like BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti had a feel for what could go viral, but now there are no experts anymore.

But going viral was always a pointless exercise from a branding point of view. For instance, after the huge success of the Roller Babies video in 2009, Evian’s sales fell 25 percent. That’s not always the case, of course. Dollar Shave Club pretty much built a $1 billion brand around a viral video. But the link between virality and brand performance isn’t always clear.

That’s why a smarter way to approach the virality issue is to aim for going viral within a certain group. Social media affiliations and our occupations and interest mean that we are very interested in things that affect our groups but couldn’t care less about digital mass media. That’s why it’s better to aim for a category-virality than the traditional kind. Virality is dead. Long live virality.


By Todd Barrish is president of Indicate Media Digital Public Relations.