Viral, Trending, and The "Too Soon" Marketing

The Ice Bucket Challenge, Robin Williams, Ferguson, Gangnam Style, The Harlem Shake. Every few months or so, a topic makes the headlines, gets the attention of virtually everybody and spreads like wildfire. For marketers (and anyone out there who wants attention), these topics are a gold mine. Here's the chance to capitalise on a major story, to newsjack and piggyback on the success of something that's already going viral. I call this the "too-soon" marketing.

Most comedians often wonder about how to quantify when jokes about a touchy subject start working and when they become so worn out. When, exactly, is the joke funny? Here's a handy diagram:

According to the Benign Violation Theory, humor emerges when we perceive something that is wrong (a violation), while also seeing that it is okay (benign). Having some distance from a tragedy helps to create a benign violation, which facilitates comedy. But when you become too distant from a mild violation, it's just not funny anymore. A joke made when the touchy subject is still too raw or too worn out is often a risky bet.


The too-soon marketing works quite similarly: the early adopters get the highest chance of succeeding. BUT, here's the catch: you should get in early, but not too early. Here's a simple diagram on how effective your take on a viral craze would be:

With any trending topic, you have 4 groups of marketers that release content related to said topic:

GROUP A: The "way-too-soon" attention seekers. They don't waste a single minute to put their stamp on it. Example: Less than 24 hours since the news about Robin Williams broke, this came out:


and also, this charming memo that keeps us all proud. This group is likely to attract a lot of site hits; but just like a too-soon joke, it's likely to meet with mixed results. The effectiveness here is very low, as you are trading the quality of content for speed. Marketers and brands in group A typically have little to say but are determined to shoehorn their way in. Additionally, Group A often does not succeed because at this time the topic is still in the early stage of going viral.

GROUP B: The early-adopters. Brands in this group have sat on the topic for long enough to release a shareworthy piece of content that has high production value and/or a creative spin on it. The timing is just right; as the topic is picking up speed and early adopters get more exposure. 

GROUP C: The bandwagon-jumpers aka almost everyone else. They are late to the party, they are not quite sure what to say, but they HAVE to say something to not miss out on this amazing opportunity. 

GROUP D: The laggards. Sorry, we have had enough at this point. I'm sure your Ice Bucket video is totally rad, but I've seen 1,000 of those in the last week. Blame your socmed manager.



How to maximise the chance of gaining popularity for your branded content:

  1. TIMELINESS: The timing is right - best to sit in Group B (or C, if you can spin it);

  2. SOCIAL PROOF: Lots of other people like it and share it, and perhaps a Grade-A influencer did too;

  3. RELEVANCE: It has some relevance to an interest area of your audience (e.g. people are more likely to share a LinkedIn article that makes them appear knowledgeable in their field).


BONUS: A Foolproof Formula to Craft Your Popular Too-soon Piece of Branded Content

  • Number + [Industry-specific Term] + Lessons / Tips + [Viral Topic] + Taught Us

e.g. "7 Branding Lessons That The VMAs Taught Us"