For most brands, the real success of a Twitter campaign will depend on cold, hard clicks, and ultimately conversions. But it's likes and retweets that help broaden the reach of a campaign, and magnify its effectiveness.
Many of the most shared tweets of all time originate from world-famous individuals with followers in the millions and a sphere of influence that far transcends social media. We can't all be Barack Obama, Ellen DeGeneres or One Direction. But celebrity isn't a prerequisite for viral Twitter success: the top spot, after all, is just a guy who loves chicken nuggets.
Sometimes retweets are explicitly asked for as part of the original post. But trying that approach without something shareable that capture's people's imagination will surely backfire. If a brand asks for retweets without some substance behind it, it simply looks desperate.
So what can we take from all this? Read on to discover six lessons to be learned from the world's most-retweeted images...
01. Support the underdog
HELP ME PLEASE. A MAN NEEDS HIS NUGGS pic.twitter.com/4SrfHmEMo3April 6, 2017
In a sea of selfie-taking celebs and global brands, a guy from Nevada called Carter Wilkerson stands alone as the man behind the most-tweeted image of all time. When he tweeted the notoriously snarky @Wendys asking how many retweets would win him free chicken nuggets for a year, Wendy's took the bait: 18 million.
Impossible, surely? Wilkerson wasn't discouraged. Accompanied by a screenshot of his reply from Wendy's, his simple plea 'HELP ME PLEASE. A MAN NEEDS HIS NUGGS' captured the imagination of the world, and eventually the endorsement of global multinationals like Microsoft, Amazon and Google.
The hashtag #NuggsForCarter absolutely flew, and it took just 34 days for his tweet to sail into the number-one spot, overtaking global celebrities, music superstars and even the President. He got his nuggs, too, despite ending some way short of 18 million. What can we learn from this? Simply that everyone loves an underdog, and savvy brands should never shrug them off.
02. Give behind-the-scenes access
If only Bradley's arm was longer. Best photo ever. #oscars pic.twitter.com/C9U5NOtGapMarch 3, 2014
Before Carter Wilkerson swooped in to claim his bucketloads of nuggs, the number-one most-retweeted spot was held by one of the most start-studded selfies of all time: Ellen DeGeneres was definitely in the right place at the right time at the 86th Academy Awards.
Packing in Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Kevin Spacey, Julia Roberts, Channing Tatum, Meryl Streep, Lupita Nyong'o and more, the tweet sailed past the previous top spot, held by none other than Barack Obama, in just over half an hour.
Clearly, having a roomful of superstar celebs to pull together in a huddle isn't an asset most brands have at their fingertips – and even if you have the budget to hire them in, that's not necessarily enough to command hundreds of thousands of re-tweets. People will see through it.
The lesson here is about giving people candid, behind-the-scenes access – the snap by DeGeneres feels immediate, natural and relatable, despite its star-studded credentials, and gives people a totally fresh view of the Oscars.
03. Show some genuine humanity
Four more years. pic.twitter.com/bAJE6VomNovember 7, 2012
Barack Obama's thoughtful, reasoned, appropriately statesmanlike tweets may seem like a long, long time ago in the inflammatory, reactive age of @realDonaldTrump, but his most popular offering is still one of the most retweeted of all time, much to his successor's chagrin no doubt.
Following his second election victory in 2012, the beautifully human image of Obama embracing the First Lady with the simple caption 'Four more years' caused a Twitter storm. It evoked joy, relief and passion – it wasn't boastful, reactive or arrogant.
Perhaps the current President can learn a thing or two from that – as can brands the world over. As long it comes from the right place and isn't forced or manufactured, showing some humanity can truly engage people.
04. Support a good cause
For every retweet this gets, Pedigree will donate one bowl of dog food to dogs in need! 😊 #tweetforbowls http://t.co/z4rmc2HsGTFebruary 15, 2015
When Pedigree pledged to donate one bowl of dog food to needy animals for every retweet in its #tweetforbowls campaign, 210,000 hungry dogs got fed. The lesson here is simple: if a simple retweet leads directly to a brand putting its money where its mouth is and supporting a good cause, people will get involved.
Bizarrely, the tweet that broke the bank wasn't from Pedigree's branded account – it was from political columnist Andrew Malcolm, who received over 800,000 retweets alone. If your campaign has a good cause at heart, influential figures are more likely to endorse it, and magnify its reach.
05. Engage with the big issues
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion..." pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAmAugust 13, 2017
Another offering from Barack Obama next, and it's the first in a three-part quote from the late, great Nelson Mandela: "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion [...] People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love [...] For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
The other two parts received retweets in the hundreds of thousands, but this first one – accompanied by a touching photo of Obama smiling at a group of children through a window – is currently on a staggering 1.7 million.
Tweeting quotes by luminaries such as Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King won't make your brand a beacon of anti-racism. If you do it clumsily or disingenuously, the backlash will be swift. But make it relevant – and more importantly, back it with action – and you will surely engage your audience. Just look at Nike.
06. Sometimes, fakery works
Please help, man needs his boat! 🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/19f2yO7x7bApril 3, 2018
So after a lot of talk about humanity, integrity, meaningful engagement and, er, chicken nuggets, we're ending with a rather more lighthearted example. No doubt inspired by Wilkerson's nugg bounty from Wendy's, Dean Baer from Iowa fancied some of the action – but upped the ante a touch by shooting for a cruise liner.
Five minutes in Photoshop gave him the 'evidence' he needed for the challenge: two million retweets and the Oasis of the Seas was his. Despite Royal Caribbean patiently wading into thread several times to assure eager retweeters that it was clearly fake, Baer still secured almost 700,000 retweets. And may have inadvertently tempted a few of those to book a Royal Caribbean cruise in the process.
The lesson? Everyone loves to share something that seems unbelievable. We don't recommend Photoshopping 'evidence' though.