How your business can go viral on social media

For a brief moment in time, circa 2015, businesses asked themselves: does my company need social media? Today, social media has transcended its life as a temporary trend and become an essential piece of your digital marketing strategy. The question is no longer ‘does my company need..’ and is now ‘how can my company utilize…’

Consider for a moment that there are 4.2 billion active social media users across the globe. If you aren’t taking advantage of this fast, relatively inexpensive, and effective way to reach users – you’re missing out.

Social media for your brand has boundless benefits;

  • Increasing brand awareness
  • Humanizing your brand
  • Establishing your brand as a thought leader
  • Staying top of mind
  • Increase web traffic
  • Generate leads
  • Promote sales or content
  • Source ideas
  • Customer and audience engagement
  • Reputation management
  • Crisis communication
  • Customer service and support
  • Targeted advertising
  • Demographic data
  • Chance of going viral

Each of these benefits can be expanded, but this post will specifically discuss what it means to go viral and how you can increase your chance of going viral on social media.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC)

KFC has famously claimed that their “original recipe” chicken is seasoned with eleven herbs and spices since the 1940s.

KFC’s Twitter account follows 11 accounts: the five members of the British pop group Spice Girls and six unrelated people named Herb (including Herb Alpert, the trumpeter and Herb Dean, the UFC referee).

When Twitter user @edgette22 noticed the joke and tweeted about it, his tweet went viral. It was retweeted over 269,000 times and favourited over 627,000 times.

KFC raced to squeeze more value out of this unexpected gift. Soon after the viral tweet, they sent @edgette22 a bizarre painting depicting Colonel Sanders giving him, @edgette22, a piggyback ride in a wilderness setting.

@edgette22’s subsequent tweet showing off the painting was less successful, garnering under 1,000 retweets.


Do you remember the 2013 BCS National Championship? Alabama routed Notre Dame, 42-14, in a heavily one-sided game that was boring from start to finish for most fans.

Alabama’s dominance in the game made the TV commentators desperate for entertaining content to fill airtime.

It was in this context that ESPN chose to repeatedly show Katherine Webb, former Miss Alabama, in the stands (Webb was dating Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron at the time. The two are now married).

ESPN’s 73-year-old colour commentator, Brent Musburger, began complimenting the 23-year-old Webb on her looks, referring to her as “beautiful” and “lovely.” Musburger advised young men watching the broadcast:

“If you’re a youngster in Alabama, start getting the football out and throw it around the backyard with Pop.”

Musburger’s comments were immediately controversial. Offended viewers labelled them “creepy,” “awkward,” “uncomfortable,” “extraordinarily inappropriate,” etc.

Webb maintained that she was not offended and thanked Musburger for the boost his comments gave to her modelling career. The coverage expanded her Twitter following from approximately 2,000 to over 175,000 in one day.

Adding to the spectacle, during the game Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett tweeted at Webb, offering to take her for a night out at Wingstop followed by King of Diamonds (a strip club in Miami).

Webb rejected Dockett’s offer. But he did get a reply from the Wingstop Twitter account:

#ThingsHappen Nevertheless you are more than welcome to pay us a visit Darnell!! Try our #BonelessWings :)

This reply cemented Wingstop - a franchise restaurant brand based in Garland, Texas - as part of the Musburger-Webb saga, one of the most-discussed pop culture events of the year. Dozens of articles related to the 2013 National Championship game mention Wingstop, generating an untold number of impressions for the brand.

The brand’s only cost for all of this publicity was whatever the staffer managing the account was paid for that night. We would be willing to bet this was a solid return on investment for Wingstop.

How to go viral on social media

Some of the best social media moments for brands come out of the clear blue sky, prompted by outside events that cannot be predicted or planned for ahead of time. Even in the case of KFC - who had laid the groundwork for the “herbs and spices” tweet - there is no rhyme or reason for why @edgette22’s tweet “went viral.” He was not the first person to tweet about the joke, nor did he have a large following.

The unpredictability of social media is further demonstrated by the tepid response to the painting KFC commissioned. Surely, the KFC marketing team hoped the “painting tweet” would see outperformance similar to the original tweet. It failed to get even 0.4% of that - “lightning don’t strike twice.”

But, there are two key reasons KFC and Wingstop were able to get millions of impressions at almost no cost to them, simply by using an app:

  1. They were on Twitter in the first place and deployed a successful strategy. Some executives may believe that they don’t “need” to be on social media, or they may think they don’t need a thoughtful and deliberate strategy. But not being on the platform is the only way to guarantee that you will never enjoy a runaway success like KFC’s or Wingstop’s.
  2. They hired people with a sense of humour to manage their accounts. Many accounts representing brands of all sizes put out dry, humourless content. That is fine if you are running the Buckingham Palace account - but for most brands it is another way to guarantee low performance. If a brand’s content reads like a dull press release from a government department, why would anyone share it with their networks, or talk about it with their friends?

Think about this from a high-level for a moment. KFC sells fried chicken. Wingstop sells chicken wings. Why on earth would anyone follow these accounts on social media? Because they position themselves as more than that. They hire smart people with a sense of humour to manage their accounts. They join public discourse and comment on worldwide events. They humanize their brand.

Only @edgette22 knows how many impressions his tweet received, but we can safely assume it is in the tens of millions. Every time somebody retweets a tweet, it appears in each of their followers' timelines. When a user favorites a tweet, that tweet is shown to some of their followers. Even with Facebook Ads, one of the highest-performing and most economical ad platforms, one million impressions will generally cost more than $10,000.


Social media is fickle. Posts will not always perform as well as you hope. Nobody can predict which posts will become extremely successful - in many cases, these posts are identical to earlier posts that went unnoticed.

But by being in the game every day, with an active presence and a team trying their best to develop an interesting and fun persona for your brand, you give yourself a chance to see outsized performance for a budget that, by traditional advertising standards, is tiny.

More reading

Other posts you may like

More Resources