The Complete Guide to Viral Marketing

Christy Walters


March 29, 2021 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

iphone on desktop with instagram open to show viral marketing

Have you ever found a funny meme or GIF on social media on a Monday and it shows up everywhere by the end of the week? And by that time, it’s not just the original image all over the internet. There are variations of it referencing pop culture or brands making it relevant to their own companies. This is one basic example of viral marketing. How does a simple idea spread so fast that everyone is talking about it within days? We’re discussing that phenomenon and how you can make it work for your marketing campaigns with topics like:

What Is Viral Marketing?

Viral marketing is any ad, post, or marketing material that spreads quickly across the internet and other digital channels. Viral campaigns don’t just reach your target audience, they capture the attention of the world. This type of marketing gets its name from the public health field. In the same way a viral illness spreads fast and easily from person to person, viral marketing does it too, spreading to channels and accounts on the internet. Unlike a pandemic or health crisis though, viral marketing isn’t always an accident.

While some brands create content they never expect to become so popular, some marketing teams create pieces intending to make them go viral. When done deliberately, this type of promotion relies on the audience to share and even generate the messaging about a product or service. Most users don’t even know they’re taking part in a viral marketing campaign because they think it’s their choice to share the content and be part of the crowd and stay relevant. In reality, these users are doing exactly what the marketer wants them to do.

Each viral marketing campaign is different, but many have a few variables in common that help them succeed. These include:

Organic Roots

Even if you plan to create a viral marketing campaign, you can’t force it to happen. Members of your team won’t be standing over your followers when they encounter your post, chanting, “share it! Share it!” Viral campaigns have to spread organically or they don’t work. Getting your content to spread this way typically comes from succeeding with the other common variables of viral marketing.


Trends, by nature, are fleeing. But content has a better chance of going viral if the timing and messaging of a campaign sync up with an already trending topic. If you want to increase your chances of a campaign going viral, you need a “right place, right time” mentality for your messaging. And that place and time are usually on the front end of a trend rather than in the middle.

Once a pop culture topic or meme is trending, the window of opportunity to capitalize on it is already closing. If you’re not first, you might as well be last. For this reason, it’s important to have a good strategy team that pays close attention to upcoming trends versus what’s already popular. Being a trendsetter will help your content go viral, while following the pack may get your content lost in the shuffle.

Audience Relevance

You also have to make sure whatever trend you’re setting or following is relevant to your audience. It’s possible for content to go viral without applying to your industry or niche, but those types of campaigns won’t get you any additional leads, conversations, or sales.The more relevant the campaign is to your audience, either touching on their personalities or pain point, the better chance it has of going viral and bringing your brand rewards.

Bold Messaging

Many campaigns go viral initially because they’re new, unconventional, or shocking. If your intent is to make a campaign go viral, sometimes that means taking a risk with your messaging, images, or release channels. The definition of “bold” depends on your audience, industry, and the current state of the world.

In the 1980s, using swear words, even censored ones, in an ad campaign would have grabbed everyone’s attention and gotten people talking. Today, a company that uses swear words in its campaign may not even get a second glance, much less go viral. Finding out what’s considered bold in your niche may come from doing a competitive analysis of your top rivals. See what they’re not doing or saying in their campaigns and include those gaps in your own.


What you say can increase the chances of a campaign going viral, but so can how you say or share those messages. This means considering the format of your content and the channels you share it on. While social media is one of the most common channels to make content go viral, your campaign might not start there.

For example, maybe your company invests in a space in your town and creates a piece of street artwork, as Steel City Clothing did in Pittsburgh on the side of its flagship store.

a street art mural painted on brick for steel city t-shirts as an example of offline viral marketing

As shoppers and visitors in town find the artwork, they take photos in front of it. Then, people share those photos on social media. That encourages their followers to find the artwork and take and share their own photos. As more people do this, brand recognition grows, and a viral campaign takes off.

High Shareability

When you start your campaigns online, make the shareability of each piece of content easy. That means including social share buttons in written and email content. It also means making every social media post public and available to share on and off the platforms. The easier you make it for people to share the content with their own friends and followers, the faster it can spread and become viral.

The Viral Marketing Formula

Brands that want to make their content go viral can actually rely on math and numerical data to predict the return on investment (ROI) from that campaign. Called the viral coefficient, the answer to a simple math problem tells you the number of new customers or clients your company can expect to gain from a viral campaign. The formula reads:

Viral Coefficient = C*S*CR/100

In this equation, “C” is the number of current clients or customers you have. The variable “S” stands for the average number of referrals your current clients send to people they know. Finally, “CR” stands for the average conversion rate from these referrals.

A Viral Marketing Formula Example

Let’s say you have 200 current clients and they’re likely to send your marketing materials t an average of four other people each. Out of those referrals, only two of the four converted. With this data, your formula would read:

Viral coefficient = 200*4*2/100

When you solve the first part of the equation, you’re left with:

Viral coefficient = 1,600/100

That means you could gain up to 1,600 customers with this campaign. After the division, you get your viral coefficient of 16. That means for every current customer you have, you could bring in 16 more each with this campaign. Marketing teams use the viral coefficient formula to determine which campaigns are worth putting time and resources into to get maximum results. Since “going viral” isn’t always a guarantee, even for a planned campaign, this data helps show stakeholders and C-suite-level managers the potential growth and benefits of certain campaigns.

This formula can also help you predict if you have the resources to scale up production or services if you get an influx of sales from the campaign. If you don’t, you may bring in a lot of initial customers, but you won’t be able to get them to stay. You’ll be unable to provide the service they expect. To fix that problem, either try another campaign with a lower viral coefficient or look into expanding your team and resources before launch.

Viral Marketing vs. Guerrilla Marketing

For those deep in the marketing game, viral campaigns may sound like another tactic in your toolbox: guerrilla marketing. Guerrilla marketing is an unconventional, low-cost technique that tries to get maximum exposure for a product, service, or campaign. This technique gets its name from guerrilla warfare, where the mentality is to win or succeed at any cost. Nothing is off-limits.

While viral marketing does use some unconventional techniques to get more attention for a campaign, it’s not cutthroat. The goal of viral marketing is to get your audience to want to participate in the trend and share your content. The goal of guerrilla marketing is to ambush the audience with repeated exposure to gain popularity.

Benefits of Viral Marketing

There are many advantages to getting one of your marketing campaigns to go viral. They include:

Increasing Brand Awareness

Most companies try to go viral to get brand awareness or recognition. When your company’s name is on everyone’s feed, people who aren’t aware of your brand may do research to find out what you’re all about. This strategy helps expand your target audience to people who don’t know your company exists but fall into the group you most want to market to.

Spending Less Money on Marketing

Viral campaigns typically don’t cost a lot of money to launch. Many take place on social media or other digital platforms that you already own or use for other marketing initiatives. Your users do much of the information spread for the campaign, so you don’t need to use paid advertising or boosting to get more attention for your posts. By spending less on viral campaigns, you can put more of your marketing budget to use for other ideas, or to expand your channels and offerings for future content.

Reaching a Larger Number of People

Did you know that as many as 92% of consumers trust recommendations from their friends when it comes to making a purchase? Viral campaigns can be an example of word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing. What started in the real world as giving tips and recommendations to people about a brand now has a foothold online: social media. The more people who share your content or mention your brand by name, the more people will see it. And because people trust recommendations from friends, they’ll be more apt to look into your brand than one they stumble upon on their own.

Avoiding Invasive Marketing Techniques

Unlike guerrilla marketing or even traditional paid ads or commercials, viral marketing isn’t invasive to the viewer. This comes from its organic nature and the shares from people your audience knows. When content goes viral, people see it online not because your brand boosts or promotes it, but because everyone they know is talking about it.

For these reasons, people don’t feel like your company is forcing them to look at an ad or a specific piece of content. Having the choice to view or click it without a salesy push may make them more inclined to interact with the content.

Drawbacks of Viral Marketing

As with anything, there are some cons to developing viral marketing campaigns. First, using too many viral campaigns may dilute your brand messaging. Your brand may come across as desperate, trying to hold on to the transient success by creating more and more viral-style campaigns. Remember, once something becomes commonplace, it’s no longer interesting to the internet crowd, and that lowers your chances of repeat viral success.

Another con of viral marketing is that it’s not a guarantee. You may follow all the suggestions and tips to make your campaign take off and it just doesn’t work. Human behavior is sometimes unpredictable, but there is a big human element in viral marketing. If you miscalculate the right timing for your message, your viral campaign could be a bust. Then you’ve wasted time and resources putting it together with no rewards. The tactic isn’t foolproof, so it’s important to try to account for anything that could go wrong with your campaign so you have a plan to adjust it in real time.

How Does Viral Marketing Work?

The process of viral marketing is pretty simple. Most campaigns follow a process like:

  1. Your brand creates a piece of content targeting your audience or a niche market.
  2. Your team publishes or reveals the content online or in the real world, and promotes it to your audience.
  3. The audience becomes interested and shares the content with their own followers, who share it with their followers until it spreads online quickly.

Viral marketing can happen unintentionally. For example, your brand may share a funny photo of a scrapped packaging design with a typo in the product name that spreads worldwide. More often, going viral is less about luck and more about marketers working long and hard to craft a strategy that replicated that “by chance” occurrence.

When Should You Try To Make a Campaign Go Viral?

There are certain instances where a viral marketing campaign may work better than others. Some times when a viral marketing campaign could be the right choice for your brand include:

When You Want Your Brand To Go Global

If you’re looking to grow your brand across the country or the globe, viral marketing may be your ticket to making it happen. Viral campaigns rarely have the same location-based barriers as some other forms of marketing, like TV or radio ads, or even email marketing. Spreading your message far and wide may help you get noticed in other states or countries and increase your coverage and sales areas.

When You Want To Reach a Younger Audience

Younger generations, Gen Z especially, love to jump on trends and challenges to be part of whatever the latest online craze is. It makes them feel included and like they’re a part of something when they can take part in viral trends. That’s why platforms like TikTok and features like collaborations or remixes on similar channels are so popular. Younger generations are always looking for the next viral trend to adopt and make their own. Targeting that demographic specifically with these campaigns could help you see results.

When Your Marketing Budget Is Low

If you’ve overspent on your marketing budget for the year but still need another campaign to get you through, a viral one could help. Most viral campaigns are inexpensive because they take place online and don’t require new channels or paid ad placement to take off. Consider adding in a viral campaign strategy when you need to stretch your monetary resources.

When You Want To Increase Brand Awareness or Credibility

Brand awareness and credibility typically work together to help you get more leads and clients. The more people hear about your brand, the more likely they are to think it’s high quality or that your team is knowledgeable. Sometimes, this is a false correlation, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. If you want people to put more trust in your brand and rely on it as a quality resource, going viral could help.

When You Want a Fast Revenue Boost

Viral campaigns may not provide you with a long list of lasting, repeat clients or customers. But this technique can help you with a quick burst of audience and revenue growth to meet company goals. Viral campaigns often lead to instant but short-term popularity which can keep your company busy for a while but may fall off after the trend has passed. If you’re looking for quick gains, be sure you have the resources to scale production to meet the demand. Otherwise, you’ll create problems for your company rather than solve them.

Types of Viral Marketing Messages

There are certain types of marketing messaging that are more likely to go viral than others. If you’re looking to attract a broad audience, you may use these marketing message frameworks in your campaign:


Buzzworthy content typically starts or follows a cultural trend. If people are talking about a certain topic, or a significant national or global event that happened recently, these are all potential topics around which you can frame a viral marketing message. Social media has made everyone think they have to be “part of the conversation.” The mentality is that everyone with an account has to make their voice heard on the topic. If they’re not talking about what everyone else is talking about, they feel like they’re missing out.

But your average social media users aren’t content creators or marketers. They don’t always have a way to create content or messages to access these topics and keep themselves relevant. That’s where your viral campaigns come in. If you provide people with the tools they need to share content that relates to a buzzworthy topic, then they’re about to join the conversation. With additional exposure, your brand reaps the rewards of the viral campaign.


Messages that elicit emotions from the viewer may have a better chance of going viral than others. The emotion itself isn’t important. If you can make the audience feel happy, sad, fearful, or nostalgic, you can get them to share your message with others. Emotions and stories create bonds among people. Good viral content gets your audience and their friends and followers saying, “me too.” When you can capture that emotion, you have a better chance of spreading your message.


Incentives give people an extra reason to share your content aside from following a trend. It appeals to people’s sense of “what’s in this for me?” Because viral marketing is supposed to be organic, the incentive for sharing doesn’t have to be anything wild or crazy. Enticing people to share a social media post for a discount coupon or the chance to win a prize may be enough. If you can convince the audience that they get something out of spreading your message, they’ll be more likely to do it.


There’s a reason so many TV shows end episodes and seasons with cliffhangers: people love a little mystery. You can use that same tactic with your viral marketing campaigns to get people to share your content. Using teasing language and incremental reveal strategies for a new product doesn’t just get people talking. Doing this also gets them sharing. Your armchair sleuths get together in comment sections or threads to discuss the possibilities of what you could reveal at the end of the campaign. The more they talk, the more viral your campaign will be.

3 Tips To Make Content Go Viral

If you’re looking for other ways to make your viral campaign successful beyond traditional messaging, here are a few tips you can use to increase the chances of starting a buzz around the internet:

1. Reach the Right Audience on the Right Channels

Your viral campaign won’t work if you’re not tuned into the right audience and where they spend their time. Every viral campaign may not target your entire audience, but a specific segment. Knowing who you’re speaking to with each message and what channels are most popular with that group increases your chances of developing a successful campaign.

2. Rely on Video Content

While any type of content can go viral, from a photo to an article, using videos or dynamic content seems to speed up the process. It’s easier to go viral on TikTok and now Instagram because both platforms cater to short video clips that are easy to watch and even easier to share. Sometimes, convenience plays a big role in whether a campaign goes viral. Engaging with the content and sharing it with others is almost an automatic response for many social media users. If they have to think too hard about it, it decreases the chances of them hitting the share button.

3. Boost Your Social Outreach

The better your social media network and presence, the higher your chances of creating viral content. We often think of networking in terms of job seeking and career building, but it’s equally important for marketing. The more engaged your audience is on social media, the better chances you have of them sharing your content with others. Before you set up a viral marketing campaign, work on developing an active social community. Get your audience involved with prompts, polls, and contests. Once you’ve got them used to engaging with your brand and with each other, then you can release the viral campaign.

Related: 10 Social Media Engagement Tactics For Growing Your Audience

What Happens After Content Goes Viral?

The first thing to remember after you’ve had a bit of campaign success is that viral content doesn’t last forever. It often spreads like wildfire for a few days, weeks, or months, and then it dies out. It’s important to know this before you launch the campaign and let the trend die naturally. Trying to force continued success from a viral campaign looks gimmicky or inauthentic. Doing that may hurt your brand rather than help it.

It’s also important to remember that the success you do see happens fast. Is your team prepared? Do you have enough customer service and sales representatives to handle an increase in calls and queries? Can you scale up production to meet demand? These are the things you need to plan out before you create a viral campaign. If you don’t think about them until after, it’ll be too late. Then you’ll be stuck with high demand and not enough resources to handle it.

Finally, while all the new leads and clients you bring in might not stick around forever, it’s important to try to cater to them while you have their attention. Consider creating secondary campaigns that aren’t meant to go viral, but keep the interest of your new audience members. Getting them hooked was easy, but getting them to stay and turn into repeat customers may be more difficult.

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Author Image - Christy Walters
Christy Walters

CopyPress writer

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