Viral Marketing Initiatives


When you’re promoting your own work, as many fine artists must do, you dream of finding a way to draw the attention of thousands of prospective customers for your art as well as your classes, workshops, instructional books, and DVDs. Especially when you see major corporations producing social media ad campaigns for brand-name products that go viral—the kind that inspire millions of views, likes, and tweets—you start to wonder if it’s possible to achieve just a fraction of that success. Although you may not have the massive bankrolls those big organizations typically invest in viral campaigns (Smith), there are steps you can take to maximize your social media efforts by focusing on video.

Image1. Choose YouTube for easy sharing. For fine artists, the method of choice is a YouTube video. Even the most noted artists have relatively small followings on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and blogs, and their impressions just never seem to gain any traction. Furthermore, Vimeo still runs a distant second to YouTube’s dominance in video sharing. On YouTube, however, total unknowns have been able to reach hundreds of thousands, even millions, of viewers because they are easily shared on a variety of platforms with widgets. Making it easy for viewers to share your content is one of the most significant keys to success (Wilson).

2. Get people talking. In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Wharton School marketing professor Jonah Berger explains that one of the most important drivers of a viral phenomenon is people’s desire to appear to be on the cutting edge in front of their peers. Most of us thoroughly enjoy being the first to find something fascinating and strange on the Internet and sharing it with our friends through social media because it’s a form of social currency (Berger). For example, a video of a Chinese artist who paints with liquefied sugar caught the attention of more than 2 million viewers because most of us have never seen anything like it.

Spray-Painting-Art3. Evoke positive emotions. Researchers Kelsey Libert and Kristin Tynski have performed extensive studies on social media assets that have gone viral, looking closely at the emotions involved that drive people to share them. What they found is that most viral videos evoke positive emotional responses like amazement, awe, and astonishment, which create a deep curiosity within viewers (Libert). For artists, that’s actually not that hard to do because most people love to see the magic of someone creating art. This might explain why a video of a young, Roman spray-painting artist has been viewed nearly 1.3 million times. Her ability to create complex paintings of space using nothing more than spray paint and a few simple tools—all at warp speed—is truly astonishing and delightful.

4. Keep it lighthearted. Another demo video—this one created by artist Ivan Vesely, in which he uses nothing but a toothbrush to create an amazing portrait of a woman—provides us with a fourth key to going viral. Against the backdrop of fun and funky music by Empire of the Sun, Vesely hams it up in front of the camera while creating his work of art. Social media marketing expert Ekaterina Walter notes that using humor in your style and delivery can be somewhat risky (Walter), but Vesely’s carefree, fun approach has garnered nearly 2 million views.

images5. Give people something they can use. Jonah Berger’s research has also revealed that people will share whatever they feel has practical value (Berger), and for fine artists, videos that teach us how to paint are very useful and worthy of sharing with our fellow artists. These demo videos from Brandon McConnell, Peter Owen Goodale, Skye Taylor, and Patti Brady have been viewed anywhere from 80,000 to 500,000 times simply because artists are always hungry for more information.

If you’ve tried your hand at creating a video and posting it online, I’d really love to hear about your experience. Was it the success you hoped, or do you feel you might have done better, perhaps by following some of these five tips? And what golden rules do you have for getting videos to go viral? Let’s talk about it!


Berger, Jonah (2013). Contagious: Why things catch on, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, p 29-178.

Libert, Kelsey, and Tynski, Kristin (October 24, 2013). Research: The emotions that make marketing campaigns go viral, Harvard Business Review, retrieved from

Smith, Brad (October 1, 2013). Why you can’t “go viral,” and what to do instead, Social Media Today, retrieved from

Walter, Ekaterina (October 7, 2013). To go viral, here’s what content has to make you feel, Social Media Today, retrieved from

Wilson, Ralph F. (May 10, 2012). The six simple principles of viral marketing, Web Marketing Today, retrieved from



Photos of museum events like this one should be part of CAM's social media efforts.

Photos of museum events like this one should be part of CAM’s social media efforts.

Art lovers living in and near Cincinnati are lucky to have a number of impressive art museums to visit. Two of the most popular are the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center, both of which use social media extensively in their marketing campaigns. However, neither museum is reaping the full benefit of having a social media presence, and both could improve their use of the various social media platforms.

The Cincinnati Art Museum is typically thought of as a more traditional art museum featuring a wide range of artwork made over the last several centuries and around the globe. It’s a family-friendly institution with a lot of activities aimed at attracting families with children. CAM’s website links out to the museum’s Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube entries, and Instagram.

The Contemporary Arts Center, as the name suggests, features predominantly new works by living artists, which actually gives them a little bit of an edge in terms of content they can include in their social media efforts. This art institution is often able to get or create video and photography of the artists themselves, discussing their work and sometimes even interacting with museum visitors. The CAC’s website links out to a slightly different mix of social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Vimeo, and YouTube.

Even a quick overview of the two nonprofits’ social media efforts reveals that members of their marketing teams are actively contributing, making daily impressions on Facebook and Twitter. CAC’s Tumblr blog is also updated frequently, although neither organization posts on YouTube and Vimeo very often. Despite all this activity, it is all centered on meeting just one organizational objective: public relations. The vast majority of posts are reminders of upcoming events, with a few photos/videos from the actual events sprinkled in.

As Olivier Blanchard notes, a nonprofit can use social media for a number of different objectives, such as providing member support, increasing member loyalty, and achieving other desired outcomes (Blanchard). Both CAM and the CAC could improve in these aspects of their social media campaigns. For example, both could do more to promote the idea of membership, perhaps through giving members more of a voice on social media (as in post-event commentary written by members, not staff) and drawing attention to the perks of membership.

Behind-the-scenes looks at the CAC are interesting but don't do much to engage viewers in social communication.

Behind-the-scenes looks at the CAC are interesting but don’t do much to engage viewers in dialogue.

Another area for improvement for both brands is better engagement with visitors. Very few of the posts ever generate any kind of response, so both organizations might try to focus on who they’re trying to reach and do more to listen to and engage them in two-way conversation through social media (Baruch). For example, CAM posted a reminder on October 4 that it was holding a children’s craft activity on Saturday, October 5. Yet there is no follow-up, no photos of children engaged in the activity. It would have been great to have asked some of the parents who were there, who undoubtedly had their cell phones handy, to post some of their pictures, using Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Because so much of the social media effort for both institutions is basic PR, it also lacks any kind of character or flavor, which is another best practice recommended by social media marketers like Trish Forant (Forant). Developing a stronger “voice” or tone to the social media messaging might also help to clarify the target audience and make the campaigns more engaging. And in both cases, blog or other posts written by the museums’ directors or curators would probably attract a lot of attention from followers.

It appears that the social media efforts for both the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Contemporary Art Center are still in their infancy. While both organizations are using social media effectively for public relations, neither is utilizing these platforms to their full potential.

Baruch, Yolanda (n.d.). Module two: Translating business objectives into social media initiatives, SNHU website, retrieved from

Blanchard, Olivier. Social Media ROI, Indianapolis, Indiana: Que/Pearson Education, Inc., 2011, p. 24-27.

Forant, Trish (July 10, 2013). 10 social media best practices for brand engagement, Salesforce Blog, retrieved from