Viral Content in Marketing – Case: the Neknomination craze

9th June



Written by Ella Peltovuori

Viral Content in Marketing – Case: the Neknomination craze

Was your Facebook feed filled with videos of your friends chugging a pint of beer? Did you perhaps even yourself get “neknominated” and necked a pint of beer on camera and shared the video on Facebook? What makes people get involved in and share content like this?

Academics and practitioners of marketing have been trying to find an answer to why some content goes viral, and have found some commonalities in the videos, blog posts, pictures and other content that have gone viral. In this blog article, I will review the literature on viral content and make a small case study of Neknomination to see if this latest viral craze follows the characteristics of viral content. In this blog article I will try to answer the question “what are the characteristics of content that goes viral, does Neknomination have these characteristics and how can marketers learn from the Neknomination trend?”. 

Neknomination, what is that? 

Neknomination, in case someone has missed out on the latest viral fad, is a social drinking game where a person has to drink a pint of beer (or other alcoholic beverages) on camera within 24 hours of getting “neknominated” and then nominate 2-3 friends to do the same within 24 hours or they will owe the nominator a case of beer. The phrase “neknominate” comes from the terms “neck” and “nominate” meaning to down a beer in one take and to nominate your friends to do it next. (, 2014)

This drinking game is believed to have started between college friends in Australia and then gone viral around the world in the early 2014. What started as daring people to drink one pint of beer, has evolved in many directions. Some people have started including crazy outfits or stunts to their videos, while some have changed beer to harder liquor or even animal blood (, 2014). The game has also taken some sad turns and gotten a lot of attention in the media as by February 14th four people have been reported to die due to the social drinking game (, 2014). However, others then have taken the nomination as an opportunity to do something good and have turned the Neknomination trend into “Raknomination” (Random Acts of Kindness) and used the nomination to for example donate lunch to a homeless person like Brent Lindeque in this video of Raknomination

What characteristics does viral content have according to research?

Word-of-mouth has long been known to be more effective than any marketing communication coming directly from the company (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1995; Rogers, 1995 in Henke, 2013). Today’s interactive Internet model where consumers are “simultaneously the initiators and recipients of information exchanges” (Hanna et al. 2010, p.271) and social media, the exponential possibilities of spreading word-of-mouth has gotten marketers go crazy trying to get their advertisements go viral. Today, one positive brand touchpoint, such as an advertisement or even a positive customer experience, can be shared to thousands of people with just the press of the Enter button. And then shared forward with just another click and shared again with only one click and so on, until it possibly goes viral and reaches millions and millions of people! Who wouldn’t want their advertisement reach millions of people without paying 4 million dollars for 30 seconds of a Super Bowl commercial break?

However, the coin has its flipside. Also the negative brand content might get a spark and spread like a virus online. Remember the United Breaks Guitars video? One bad customer experience and almost 14 million views on YouTube cost United Airlines a staggering 180 million dollars (The Economist, 2009). This kind of brand experiences and consumer-generated stories cannot be ignored anymore, due to the opportunities of mass-sharing opinions, stories and reviews that can affect the brand image strongly (Gensler et al. 2013).

Seeing the results of what modern day word-of-mouth can do to a brand, in positive and negative, it is not surprising that marketing practitioners and academics have been interested in what exactly makes a video, and advertisement or a drinking game go viral. There has been a lot of research in the subject and some commonalities and also controversies have been found. So, according to research, what are the characteristics of viral content?

1. Useful. According to Berger and Milkman’s (2013) research, content that is useful gets shared more often and more likely. People want to seem knowledgeable within their social network and thus share content that is useful or smart. Another reason for sharing useful content is helping others; some do it for pure altruism (Ho & Dempsey, 2010) and others hope to get useful knowledge back from their friends in return (Berger & Milkman, 2013).

2. Emotional. Emotional content makes people press the share button (Berger & Milkman, 2013; McNeal, 2012). Have you ever wondered how there can be so many kitten videos with millions of views on YouTube? That “Awwwwwww!” makes people want to share! However, this characteristic is not only limited to the cute videos, as other emotions such as anger, anxiety or awe also make people more likely to share content (Botha & Reyneke, 2013; Henke, 2013; Berger & Milkman, 2013).

3. Positive. Although all emotional content is more likely to be more shared, it can be still stated that positive content is more likely to go viral than negative (Berger & Milkman, 2012).

4. Physiologically arousing. If it makes you say “WOW” aloud, burst out laughing or make your hands sweaty, you’re doing it right. These kinds of physiological effects are correlated to the viral sharing of content online (Berger & Milkman, 2012 & 2013). According to Henke (2013, p.113), “the intensity of the experience is more important than the specific emotion elicited by the content, and whether the emotion is positive or negative”.

5. Surprising and unexpected. Imaginative, surprising and shocking are some clear characteristics of viral material (Woerdl et al. 2008; Allocca, 2012; Henke, 2013).

6. Allows creative re-makes and participation.  This characteristic was highlighted by the Trends Manager of Youtube, Kevin Allocca, in his Ted Talk about viral videos (Allocca, 2012). Most truly viral videos are engaging (Woerdl et al. 2008) and have left a trail of parodies and re-makes behind them.

7. Socially visible and approved. Although this might seem as paradoxical, you need to be shared and visible to get shared (Berger & Milkman, 2013; Liu-Thompkins, 2012). You might know the feeling of seeing a video pop up on Facebook for the fourth time in one day and you start feeling FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and just have to watch it and maybe even share it. Content being socially approved is also related to who the original sharer is and what their position in the social network is (Liu-Thompkins, 2012). People who are positioned high in social hierarchies and have influential power on others are called tastemakers and viral content most often have tastemakers sharing them (Allocco, 2012).

Characteristics of Neknomination - why did it go viral?

So, does Neknomination have all of these characteristics of viral content? Or some other specific characteristics that made it go viral?

Useful it is definitely not. However, it can be argued that Neknomination has all of the other characteristics presented in the list. Although some of the videos are so boring they would not be shared to anyone by themselves, some videos have truly viral characteristics. Some of the videos are emotional, being funny or scary or just plain silly. They are positive by nature; people are happily drinking beer or trying to be funnier than their friends. Some are even physically arousing being hilarious or stomach quenching with their crazy stunts. One of the main points of the trend is that it allows participation and remakes of the video. People try to be funnier, weirder and more creative than their friends and this sparked the interest in the creative communities to engage (see Allocca, 2012). This social drinking game surely was unexpected, since it essentially does not make any sense. And lastly, it became socially visible and approved to the extent that it was rare that people did not follow through with their nomination.

However, I would argue that there are other factors than these characteristics that influenced Neknomination going viral. According to Woerdl et al (2008) one of the critical factors in virality is the diffusion and that it is exponential, quick and reaches the right audience. The rules of Neknomination have definitely assisted in succeeding in this, as everybody nominates 2-3 chosen people to do it within 24 hours, thus the task spreads extremely fast and exponentially.

In addition, in my opinion, the power of challenge by a close friend and the fear of social shame (or having to buy a case of beer for the nominator!) if not completing the challenge are strong factors why this game has spread from Australia to all over the globe.

Lessons of viral content for marketers from Neknomination

The academic literature showed a framework for characteristics of viral content that can be used by companies in creating their viral marketing campaigns. In this article the spontaneous, consumer-generated trend, without any brand relations, Neknomination, was compared to the characteristics presented in the literature. A lot of commonalities were found between Neknomination and the general characteristics of viral content in used marketing. However, there are also some lessons to be learned from the Neknomination trend for marketing professionals and here they are:

Spark emotions and surprise. As the literature stated, surprising and physically arousing content will get shared the most. Some of the Neknomination videos were so hilarious or stomach quenching for their insane stunts they have gathered thousands and even hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube. So, make your audience laugh, squirm of anxiousness or yell of anger to ensure they will press that Share button.

You cannot control messages after they go viral. There are a lot of uncontrollable factors when talking about viral content (Liu-Thompkins, 2008) and especially when the content is consumer-generated. What both the sad turns and the acts of kindness of the Neknomination trend have proven is that it is hard to control viral content when the movement has started. “Thus, strategies to generate viral marketing must be carefully designed to ensure that communication is prolific and positive” (Henke, 2013, p.112).

Think of possible consequences beforehand (for your brand). Think of the consequences if this Neknomination would have been started by a brand as a part of their viral marketing campaign. Just stop for a minute to think what causing four deaths would have done to the brand. Even if the brand was, let’s say, a soda brand and the trend started off as innocently challenging people to drink a pint of soda on camera wearing silly clothes. For causing casualties, the brand would probably have to deal with a little bit worse consequences than United Airlines for mishandling a guitar (which cost them a mere 180 million dollars...).

Engage your audience. It can be argued that one of the main reasons Neknomination has spread so widely, even though it is only spread to 2-3 friends at a time, is exactly the fact that it is spread to 2-3 friends. It is hard to pass the challenge when it is your best friend challenging you, with a personalized nomination. So engage your audience, make them create content and share for you and challenge others to follow!

There are great opportunities in viral content! If a silly social drinking game, started by college kids can roar through the world, imagine what a well-planned viral marketing campaign could do for your brand! Imagine the effects this spin-off of nominating people to do Random Acts of Kindness could have done for a charity organization if they had started the trend that went viral… Interestingly enough, people do not avoid sharing branded content but actually the opposite; 40% of people are more likely to share branded content than non-branded content (Ferguson, 2008).

Thus, there are endless opportunities to reach bigger audiences than ever, by creating content that has the 7 characteristics of viral content and by learning a few lessons from the Neknomination trend!


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