After a period of disappointing sales, profits are up at the Olive Garden. Is this because Marilyn Hagerty’s viral column in the Grand Forks Herald raised the brand’s profile? Maybe. Maybe not. No one can be sure. Viral doesn’t lead to revenues, says Matt Creamer in an AdAge column about virality. In Creamer’s view, viral content is just that – content, and there isn’t a guaranteed way to monetize it. In the case of Marilyn Hagerty, the 85 year-old columnist quickly became a sensation for her Olive Garden review. Snooty restaurant critics have a tendency to shun chain restaurants that have been around awhile. But there she was giving Olive Garden a glowing review, mentioning the décor and breadsticks, which are commonplace enough to go unnoticed in big city dining scenes. Suddenly, people were reading, commenting and clicking. Her personal profile soared. But the Grand Forks Herald didn’t have a way to capitalize on it. What does this mean for any given brand? Could going viral be a bad thing?
On the other side of this argument are numerous social media strategists who love the idea of virality. In their view, breaking through the clutter is a good and profitable thing. When brands go viral, they are discussed and they stick in people’s memories, and eventually these are the brands that get bought. In the “Mad Men” era, the fate of brands was left solely in the hands of experts. The message could be tightly controlled. Media outlets were large or small, and brand messages could be directed at one or the other. But now, social media has changed the landscape and any content, whether from a large or small outlet, has the ability to go viral. Maybe there isn’t always a clear path from viral to monetizing but given the choice, most brands would rather go viral than not.