How ‘Going Viral’ Can Be Detrimental To Your Small Business

While going viral — that is, having your products or store become briefly famous online and seen by millions of people — can be seen as the holy grail of small business, it can also stop your business in its tracks if not handled correctly. If you’re not prepared for a sudden influx in demand and customers, the effect of going viral could be detrimental to your business.

Many small businesses have gotten their wings after going viral, of course, and these are the stories many business owners think of while dreaming of going viral. The now-favourite snack of many savy city-dwellers — the Cronut — had its origins this way, while the makers of ‘The Dress’ (you know the one) saw a huge boost in sales after their accidental viral hit.

Closer to home, Canberra cafe Pâtissez knew they had a hit on their hands when Instagram and Facebook photos of their signature ‘Freakshakes’ led to almost 50,000 likes on Facebook and a similar number on Instagram, along with a host of imitators across the world. Researching their business for a story I was writing at the time turned up a downside to that sudden publicity, however.

Operating out of a single small premises with barely enough seating space for 30 patrons, the popularity of their cafe led to an unfortunate collection of one star reviews on TripAdvisor (and likely other review sites). These were almost all complaining about the obvious symptoms of a small establishment dealing with higher demand than it was designed for — crowding, lines, waits for food and drinks, slow service. My friends who were locals down in Canberra even advised me away from the place, mainly citing the inconveniences of crowds and lines. While the majority of reviews are still positive, research has shown that as few as seven negative tweets or Facebook posts could be enough to ruin your business.

Wile Pâtissez used the opportunity to expand into a second store and ease the pressure on the original location, it’s a prime example of how not being able to meet demand can be just as bad as lacking that demand in the first place. One of the major elements that defines viral content is the fact that it’s completely temporary — popular today, gone tomorrow. That means that if you do happen to go viral, it’s not just a free ride to success. In fact, you may have to work even harder to make sure that a core customer base will continue to spread the word about your business once the viral traffic has dried up.

While businesses usually have little say in whether they go truly viral or not, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared to work through that process if it does happen. Instead of actively seeking viral fame however, Sefton Media recommends aiming for something they’ve called ‘slow viral’ — where instead of trying to reach millions, you aim for smaller groups of around 100 people who are more likely to be actively passionate about your business. If you focus on retaining these 100 people as loyal customers who will in turn be your supporters and your referrers, spreading your message in the world, then you’ll be setting yourself up for greater long-term success than you would with a short-term viral hit.


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