The viral effect is the holy grail of social media campaigning and it’s what everyone is looking for. If we can make our content engaging, interesting and important enough, people will spread it widely and it will have a disproportionate impact. Every activist dreams of creating something online that captures the mood and becomes wildly popular. We all want our campaigns to “go viral”.

This is extremely difficult to achieve. For something to go viral, it needs to be catchy, interesting, creative and easy to share. It must also perfectly and succinctly capture a thought and idea that a lot of people are having, but haven’t been able to fully express.

Worrying too much about your campaign going viral is not helpful. It’s more important to be credible and consistent. You will not get your message across by spamming people.

It’s almost impossible to manufacture something that goes viral – luck plays a big role. But there are things you can do to improve your chances.

Here is an example of a USi campaign that went viral:

In February 2013, we were asked to promote a petition on water rights to the European Commission. We did, but it didn’t get much attention. We needed a hook. Then we found some outrageous footage of Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck saying that water isn’t a human right, and everything should be in the hands of corporations. The footage is actually from 2005, but almost no one has seen it because it’s in German.

We used this information to post a short article that took about 45 minutes to write: Nestle Chairman says water isn’t a human right. Tell him he’s wrong.

By midnight, we had almost 2,000 hits on the website. The article has now had tens of thousands of hits, and even months later it is a very active post.

It contains a link to the petition, as well as a button that sent a tweet to Nestlé.

Many people signed the petition, and hundreds of people tweeted at Nestlé. As activist Naomi Klein remarked:


Nestlé spent days replying to angry twitter users:


Nestle tweet



The successful structure of the post was as follows:

1. Provoked outrage. We reported what he said without comment

2. Provided context. Without writing a lot, we linked to serious research on what privatisation does, so that there’s intellectual backing for the conclusion we want people to draw

3. Reminded people of Nestlé’s previous crimes

4. Gave them a very simple release – have your say by signing the petition or sending a tweet.

A lot of people signed the petition or sent a tweet, so we successfully mobilised them.

If we made this into a formula, it would be: Hook > Engage > Release.

It’s worth bearing this in mind when you create activist content. You need a hook to get people interested (can be outrage, curiosity, anything), some quality engagement, and a release, something they can do – even if it is only to share the story.

This isn’t appropriate for everything you write. You need quality, in depth analysis to give you credibility too. If you can hook people through the activist stories, hopefully they will stay for the in depth pieces too.

What worked in this case was tying things together into an easy story.