Want to become an overnight brand star? Just cook-up an outrageous story – one with the “ooh” factor – and sprinkle on some untruths. Well – don’t actually lie but don’t be completely honest either. Forget about strategy; just do it! Or – just do something completely ridiculous. Before you know it, you’ll have millions of views and news outlets reporting on it. But be warned, if you take this approach, you’ll be completing a formula for brand endangerment. And whether a brand initiates a viral campaign or some dude does it with an iPhone, a strategy is essential to avoid the painful consequences.

Earlier this year, a viral video featured a Taco Bell employee licking a bunch of taco shells. So, if your Crunchy Taco Supreme is soggy, demand a re-order. Actually, a McFlurry of fast food viral images have created havoc for brands like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and others. A photo of a Wendy’s worker eating ice cream directly out of a dispenser is just another example of how viral images can shake up a brand’s image.

But, unlike the viral images that come from senseless acts of public attention, there are some brands that truly believe that their viral marketing strategies are effective. Take Kmart’s latest holiday viral video which leaves little to the imagination. In the video, several men wearing boxers shake their “money makers” to the tune of jingle bells – a scene that many describe as tasteless. And while Kmart’s brilliant “Ship My Pants” spring campaign was innocent and humorous, this latest attempt reeks of Chippendales. Ick.

Melissa Bachman, the star of the Pursuit Channel’s Winchester’s Deadly Passion, made a deadly viral mistake last month by posting a photo of her posing near a dead lion she claims she shot and killed. The image infuriated Change.org petitioners, who demanded her to be banned from South Africa. And while she hunts and kills animals for a living, it was the viral image of a harsh reality that got the public’s attention. But what’s really hard to get your paws around is the poor dead animal alongside a rifle and a happy smile.

Not all viral images are shameful. In fact, the most impactful viral images strike an emotional cord. They’re quite difficult to manufacture, although it is possible to.  Take Pope Francis, who recently paused to pray and lay his hands on a man with a disfiguring disease. This image sparked positive conversation worldwide about humanity. It also served as a platform to educate about the disease known as Neurofibromatosis.

One of the most memorable viral videos this year was Marina Shifrin, who quit her job by performing an interpretive dance for her boss set to Kanye West’s “Gone”. The video won her instant fame – and it even landed her a job on The Queen Latifah Show.

What can brands learn from all of this? There is clearly an element of passion that can be delivered through visual content that cannot be created through written content alone. And if they both align in the perfect marketing mix, you have the makings of a powerful viral campaign. To be effective, you need three important elements:

The “ooh” factor.

This headline will grab someone’s attention quickly. It should be powerful enough to cause someone to reach out and disseminate to their networks immediately.

A captivating image or video.

The old saying “I’ve gotta see it to believe it,” couldn’t ring more true than with viral campaigns. And dissecting the visual element is a huge part of the public appeal. But, connecting to human emotions through serious or humorous imagery goes a long way in solidifying that appeal.

Research, research, and more research.

Every image, video, written statement, and perceived intention matters when it comes to viral content. It is critical to research every possible outcome. Who will you offend? What alternate message could be unintentionally delivered?

According to the New York Times article headlined If a story is viral, truth may be taking a beating, truth has never been an essential ingredient of viral content on the Internet. Yet still, consumers crave it and help spread it like gospel – even long after the hype has slowed down. And while there have been plenty of successful viral campaigns, many have fallen flat – not because of the “ooh” factor or captivating imagery – but because they simply failed to do their homework.

Article by Bryan Evans, Vice President of Outreach at Scribewise