Going viral is the dream of anyone trying to spread a message.  It means people are listening and willing to participate in whatever meme is making the rounds.   For those in the business of social change, there is enormous potential to raise awareness, money, and inspire people to take action with some of the most successful social change campaigns like #beatcancer going viral.

We could have had another great social change meme on Thursday if it wasn’t such an epic fail.

On Thursday many women got the following message on Facebook:

“Some fun is going on….just write the colour of your bra in your status..just the colour, nothing else, and send this on to ONLY girls no men… it will be neat to see if this will spread the wings of cancer awareness. It will be fun to see how long it takes before the men will wonder why all the girls have a color in their status…thanks ladies!”

I waited two days to write this post because I thought there had to be more.

Why did this message go viral?

I’m inclined to believe it is because of the ease of engagement (posting a word),  the game aspect of it (see what the men say) and innocent sexual content (bra color).  And the breast cancer bit allows the meme to go beyond being seen as immature and frivolous to garnering support for an important cause.

Why did it fail?

This is the drive by social change attempts that reminds me of the iParticipate campaign back in October, where nonprofits were featured in TV shows.  In an episode of Parks and Recreation, for example, KaBoom! was featured as a fake organization, with a cast member at the end of the show making a PSA that KaBoom was real and that you should check out their website.  Really?  And I didnt hear anything about this campaign until after the shows aired.

Well it’s no surprise that the campaign wasn’t successful.

We have a similar situation here.  Cloaked in a joke with no information or call to action we’re left with campaign that confused more than it inspired.  The message was changed throughout the day with some people being told to examine their breasts (yet no instructions as to how) and others being told to share the color of their panties with no mention of cancer at all.  And the vagueness of meme leaves it open to way too much interpretation for it to be taken seriously.

What can we learn?

On a positive note, support for a cause does not need to come from an organization.  An individual can create a viral message for an important issue from an organic interest in that issue.  This is the best kind of engagement as it doesn’t need prodding or the watchful marketing eye of an organization to have impact.  “Viral” is really the desire of people to share information they like without any outside encouragement.

Yet that’s where I think the positives end.  The lack of information (who started this?  To support whom?  Why is this important?  Is there a website/twitter handle/facebook page?) and direction (How should I check my breasts? NOTE: A breast exam requires more than just looking at yourself!   How do I respond to questions about my status?)  sparked more confusion than awareness and at the end of the day it was dismissed.   More information would’ve allowed people who didn’t want to participate in the meme to still join the conversation and encourage people to move beyond the meme itself.

But I’m still waiting for the next viral social change campaign.  There is no formula to going viral but we can learn from other’s mistakes and push forward.