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Complete Guide to Viral Marketing


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

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Think of the way a virus spreads from one person to another. When it really catches on, it can spread fast. While that’s not what anyone wants in a public health context, in viral marketing, that’s exactly what the overall goal is. 

Viral marketing is a business strategy that promotes a product or service. The idea comes to fruition when an ad is circulated online through email, on YouTube, or via another social media account and passed along from one person to another. The term “going viral” is relatively new, but it’s what every advertiser wants to hear about their ads. The more people an ad reaches, the more likely it is to find its way in front of the ideal audience and result in sales.

What Is Viral Marketing?

Viral marketing is any ad, post, or campaign that generates enough interest to be shared widely across the internet and spark interest in a brand, organization, or product. Often, this interest leads to an influx of sales and customers. The term viral refers to the fact that the content is shared from person to person, much like the way a virus spreads.

Viral advertising is often a stealth form of marketing. Viral campaigns can reach people without them even realizing they are being sold on a product or service. They enjoy the message, the video, the article, the photo, or something else relating to the ad, and so they share with others. As those people pass it on to others, the viral campaign continues to grow.

It’s possible that you have used the term viral in your everyday life without really thinking about what it means and what is behind it. Something goes viral on a daily basis, whether it’s a video of a singer falling off the stage or an ad that really hits home during a pandemic. Do viral campaigns come about by luck? It is random? Maybe sometimes, but there are well-designed viral strategies behind many of the things that actually go viral.

Viral marketing used to be a hard, pain-staking thing to do, but today, with social networks in full swing, it’s simple for people to share things that resonate with them. You can find funny and unique videos and other content all over YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other such channels. And while viral marketing might be easier to obtain than ever before, there is also so much content out there competing for attention, it is getting harder for marketers to grab what they want.

Viral ad campaigns can also be risky. While they might feel simple to carry out, they can be misinterpreted. If that happens, the viral activity around the campaign could come back to haunt the company. However, successful viral marketing campaigns can work miracles for a brand and give huge results.

The History of Viral Marketing

Image via  Flickr  by Petr Sejba

One of the first viral strategies was used in 1995, before digital marketing took off, to launch the very first PlayStation. Sony noticed that people often reject things that seek them out but want things that elude them. Chiat/Day advertising in LA created a stealth advertising campaign to appeal to opinion leaders and influencers. The company even used street teams to add intrigue. Insiders picked up on the marketing and word of mouth started to spread. The PlayStation debuted at number one in its category and went down as Sony’s most successful launch in their history to that point.

There is some debate as to where the viral marketing term came from. Some attribute it to a Harvard Business School graduate by the name of Tim Draper and a faculty member, Jeffrey Rayport. Rayport went on to make the term popular through his article “The Virus of Marketing,” which was published in 1996 by Fast Company.

Media critic Doug Rushkoff was also among the first to write about viral marketing. One of his assertions about viral advertising was that the ad would reach susceptible users who would then become “infected” as they accepted the idea. Those users would share the idea with others, thereby infecting them. As long as each user shares with one other person, the infection continues and grows on an impressive curve.

Bob Gerstley took the idea a step further and began to write about algorithms designed to identify people with high social networking potential. He came up with the term Alpha user to refer to people whose influence could be used to kick off viral campaigns.

In 2013, Las Vegas held the first-ever Viral Summit in order to identify trends in viral marketing for various media outlets, and the ideas have steamrolled since then.

Calculating Virality

Companies don’t want to invest in marketing that’s built on guesswork. It’s important to have numbers behind everything in the market today. Fortunately, there is a way to calculate the potential return on investment (ROI) of a viral ad.

The viral coefficient is the number of new customers a company can expect to get from a campaign through referrals and the overall marketing strategy. There is a formula to get a basic number idea of what that might look like.

The formula for virality looks a lot like a complicated math problem. When trying to figure out how far and how fast a campaign will go and move, calculating the viral coefficient can help marketers plan ahead and prepare their clients. The main formula looks like this:

Viral coefficient = C x R x CR/100

C equals the number of customers, while R is the average number of referrals each customer will give. CR is the average conversion rate for those referrals. Calculating virality is as simple as taking the formula above and inputting the right numbers, then doing a little math.

  1. Start with the number of customers you currently have, or the number of people you know will see your ad. As an example, we’ll assume that number is 100.
  2. Multiply that baseline by the number of average referrals you think each customer will give you. How many friends will they send the ad to when they receive it? If each of the 100 people sends it to 5 others, you would get 500 views.
  3. Take the conversion rate into account. Not everyone who is referred to your company will take action. For instance, the conversion rate would be 40% if only two of those five referrals actually become customers.

Once you have those basic numbers in place, you do the math. If you have 100 customers, and they each give you 5 referrals, you have 500 new potential customers. Even if only 40% of those people take action, that’s still 200 new customers — making the viral campaign well worth your time and effort.

How Does Viral Marketing Work?

In theory, viral marketing campaigns are simple to carry out. The marketer creates a video, a picture, or some type of content designed to appeal to a certain target audience. Then the marketer publishes the content on the internet and promotes it to current customers. At that point, the fuse is lit, and it’s just a matter of waiting for users to share the content and for it to spread.

There are times when virality happens as more of an accident. A private user might upload a video of themselves singing in the bathroom that suddenly becomes popular and circulates across the internet. For marketers, however, accidents are not as common. Effective marketing employs well-designed strategies to ensure that what they put out is appealing to their target audience.

There are two main strategies for dispersing videos for companies and brands: shown and concealed. In a shown video, the users is aware right away that they are viewing content about a certain brand or company. In a concealed video, the viewer doesn’t know the brand is behind the video until later on in the ad. Both can work, but marketing techniques show that using a concealed strategy must be done with care so the user doesn’t feel cheated or deceived in any way.

Either way, it’s important for the video or content never to feel or become spammy. It shouldn’t repeat the same message over and over again. For a video to spark enough interest to be shared, the message from the advertised company must be well worded and perfectly timed.

Advantages of Viral Marketing

An effective viral marketing campaign offers several benefits to a company:

  • Low Cost: Viral campaigns can be great for companies that don’t have a large marketing budget, because the users and viewers do much of the work in getting the word out about your products and services. The advertising company can spend less money on buying airtime for commercials or promoting their ad on social media.
  • High Potential Reach: Even without a large investment, viral content has the ability to reach a huge audience. Companies can reach a lot more people in this way than they might with their paid advertising or other traditional strategies. Even small companies or private individuals can create content that goes viral.
  • Non-Invasive: Viral ads aren’t in your face. They don’t interrupt your TV show or pop up on your screen when you visit a website. They are something that someone you know has deemed worth sharing with you. They come across as more important because they come from someone you know. Because of this, viral ads often spark significantly more interactions than classic forms of advertising.
  • Helpful for Building a Brand: When you get something creative enough to go viral, it can really build your brand and help people connect with your company, products, values, or mission. It is a hugely powerful tool in raising awareness of your products and services

How Does the Virality Formula Apply to Viral Marketing?

The virality formula is a way for marketers to predict the success of a certain campaign. Companies that have ads go viral need to be prepared for the possible influx of customers they might have. The formula can help companies estimate how many new customers or sales they can expect if the ad is successful in the way the marketer intends. This allows companies to beef up their output and prepare products for those who are going to want them.

One way to turn a viral campaign into a failure is to not be able to serve the customers that come to the company because of the ad they saw. Their view on the company can sour, and they may leave, never to return.

Keep in mind that this formula is something that marketers will hone and adjust over time. They may not know exactly how many target users are going to share the content at first. After the campaign ends, they can fine-tune future estimates based on the results so that next time, they have a better idea of how the information will be shared and how many new customers will come from it.

Types of Viral Marketing

There are several kinds of messages that people feel are worthwhile enough for them to share. Marketers could target one of these types in order to attract an audience and improve their brand image.


Viral campaigns that inspire strong emotions are difficult for users to ignore. With that in mind, a viral ad could target joy, nostalgia, pride, or even anger, if your goal is to spur people to join a cause. Laughter or tears can be a sign that people are connecting with your ad emotionally. That emotional connection can lead viewers to share your content with other people who might appreciate it. While humor, excitement, amusement, and other positive emotions cause sharing, so do some negative emotions, like guilt, anger, or sadness.


An incentive campaign offers a reward to people who share your content with friends. For instance, many companies use refer-a-friend programs that give the original customer a kickback when they bring in a new customer. You might offer existing customers a $20 credit for each friend who becomes a customer. As an extra incentive, you can offer the new customer a discount when they use their friend’s referral link to make a purchase.


Many viral marketing campaigns have elaborate strategies and months of careful planning behind them. While there are some sensations that occur without that type of investment, the number is low. Generally, the campaigns with the greatest impact have been specifically engineered to go viral.


While viral marketing usually has a lot of planning behind it, there is an element of luck or chance as well. Sometimes, things unfold in a way that marketers can’t predict. An ad might resonate with an audience you didn’t expect, or it may draw renewed interest due to some circumstance you couldn’t have predicted. Although all advertising is meant to reach as many people as possible, some ads go viral without that being the primary goal.


Viral ads of this nature need to create a buzz to grab consumer attention. Those messages are passed on and become a hot topic among the people who have seen them. Even people who have not seen the ad themselves may have at least heard about it from others due to the buzz around the campaign.

Examples of Viral Marketing

Since viral marketing can work like magic for brands and companies, it makes sense for marketers who want to create a viral campaign to study past results and take ideas from what has worked before. It takes creativity and perhaps a little inspiration to get a new campaign running. Fortunately, there are plenty of successful campaigns to look at as examples.

Oreo’s Dunk in the Dark

The Super Bowl is always a good time to display a new viral campaign, as it guarantees you millions of viewers expecting big things from both the game and the ads between plays. Spots cost millions of dollars, but Oreo didn’t have to buy one of those spots to make the most of their marketing efforts.

In 2013, the Superdome experienced a power outage for over half an hour. Oreo was quick to pick up on that issue and tweeted out a message that read “you can still dunk in the dark” with a picture of a black background and their Oreo cookie.

The quick thinking and fast action in that marketing department could make this campaign go down as a top example of viral marketing. The tweet was shared millions of times as everyone commiserated over what happened at the game and how good Oreos are, in the dark or otherwise.

Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich

Sometimes, viral marketing might mean taking on a competitor, which is just what Popeye’s did in 2019. Earlier in the year, they introduced their chicken sandwich, which went on to break the internet, so to speak. Naturally, people tended to compare Popeye’s and their chicken sandwich to the legendary chicken sandwiches at Chick-Fil-A. Chick-Fil-A targeted Popeye’s in positioning themselves as the inventor of the original chicken sandwiches.

Popeye’s replied to Chick-fil-A’s tweets along with sassy responses. The outcome was millions of people rushing to buy Popeye’s chicken sandwiches so they could compare the two. Things got so crazy that the chain’s newly debuted sandwiches were completely out of stock for two months.

One thing Popeye’s proved was that it’s possible to generate excitement over the same product more than once. The first wave came when the sandwich was first introduced. Later, the rivalry between Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A created a second wave of interest as more people wanted to weigh in on which chain had the better chicken sandwich.

Dove Real Beauty Sketches

Not every viral campaign has to be witty or even shocking. Dove put out a viral video that was downright powerful as part of their Real Beauty Sketches campaign. The video was moving and showcased the internal struggle that many women face. It underlined the brand’s message of confidence and became a guide for viral marketers. The video had over 163 million views around the globe, which resulted in 4.6 billion impressions. Now that’s a successful viral video!

One of the lessons learned from this campaign is the power of emotion and connection. When your marketing is able to touch someone in a special way, it’s going to get shared.

Wendy’s Chicken Nugget Retweet Challenge

In 2017, this campaign started off innocently enough. Carter Wilkerson tweeted while he was at Wendy’s, eating nuggets, and asked how many retweets he would need to get a year of chicken nuggets free. The chain restaurant took the bait and answered, “18 million.” Carter then asked for people to help him meet his goal, and the internet delivered in a strong way. While Wilkerson didn’t reach his 18-million retweet goal, he did get into the millions, and the restaurant rewarded him by granting his wish. Plus, at the time, his short post about Wendy’s nuggets was the most retweeted tweet of all time.

What was in it for Wendy’s? Well, they got positive attention from unlikely sources. They didn’t plan the event, but they did embrace it and make the most out of the limelight they got from it.

Viral Marketing Techniques

Wanting to run a viral marketing campaign as a marketer is one thing. Learning the techniques that allow you to do it properly is quite another thing. Using the following techniques, marketers can have the success they want from campaigns.

Technique 1: Target the Right Audience on the Right Channels

The very first step to a successful campaign is to figure out who the target audience is and where they spend their time online. Your campaign won’t go viral on its own. It’s up to the marketer to figure out how to reach the right people with the right message, in the right place. If you market to the right people but on the wrong channel, the campaign fails. If you market on the right channel but to the wrong people, it fails. Making sure the medium aligns with your audience is the key to success.

Technique 2: Create Videos

One of the greatest ways to go viral is to make a video. Visuals are going to engage viewers with an experience that they can then link to your product. Once the video is created, you have to find a way to share it. Platforms like YouTube make it easy for viewers to embed the video on their own websites and blogs.

Technique 3: Offer Valuable Things for Free

Everyone likes free things, and offering something of value can help your marketing go viral. Free is a word that grabs the attention of viewers, driving them to learn more. It’s always nice to get something for free, right? The free item could be a surprise gift with their purchase, a complimentary download, or even free shipping. You can even put stipulations on it, requiring customers to sign up for your email list or like and share a post. Whatever the specifics, the word itself will draw attention.

Technique 4: Create Emotional Appeal

Viral marketing always has a bigger impact if it has emotional appeal. Take some time to consider what you want viewers to feel when they see your ad. What emotion will be the most compelling? The answer may depend on what you want them to do or buy. Whatever you decide, know that inciting emotion in the viewer makes it more likely that they will share and remember the campaign.

Technique 5: Do Something Unusual

People get tired of seeing and hearing the same things all of the time. To make your campaign something that will stand out and get noticed, you need to do something unusual or unpredictable. If it’s something people have seen before, why should they share it? They want to see or even learn new things. Making something look cool is something everyone does. Promoting a product or service is also something everyone does. You have to do more to make your brand stand out.

Technique 6: Social Outreach

You can reach more people when you invest in social media promotion. Some marketers reach out to influencers to have them share or talk about the content. Another option is to let it happen in more of an organic matter by sharing it yourself with key target audiences and then allowing them to pass it along from there. Just remember that in order for that to happen, content has to be unique and beneficial.

Technique 7: Reinforcing the Campaign

Once you have a successful viral campaign, you’re off to a great start. But your work shouldn’t end there. Unfortunately, building on your success can be harder to repeat than you might think. You have to find another way to grab attention in a way that people will remember. Having a series of campaigns with the same character or a certain theme might help you to reinforce the first viral message with others.

When to Apply Viral Marketing Techniques

There are many different marketing tactics, and not every technique is right for every occasion. If you want to try a viral marketing campaign, it’s best to wait for the right timing. Here are a few examples of times when viral marketing may be most effective:

When You Want to Reach Young People

Viral marketing often works the best among younger generations — the people who are using social media and the internet as a whole to do their product research. Some older generations don’t have devices at all, and those that do may not be as active on social media. The younger generations are more likely to see and share your viral marketing efforts.

When You Want a Global Audience

If you run a local painting company, going viral isn’t going to do you all that much good. You want a local audience that needs your products and services. But if you have a company that you want to operate on a global scale, using viral marketing can spread the word wide (and fast) to help you reach your goals.

When Your Marketing Budget Is Low

You can create viral marketing campaigns with low or high budgets, but when you don’t have a lot to spend on ad placement, running a viral ad can help you spread the word about your business and its products without having to spend a lot of money. That’s every marketer’s dream, really.

When Your Brand Needs Credibility

If you have started a new company, or if you are trying to create a brand that is competing with products that are already well known, you need credibility in order for people to choose your company over the other options on the market. Having a video go viral will give your brand the credibility it needs to compete against more established brands. People will remember your brand and be more likely to choose it the next time they need the products or services you offer.

When You Want Fast Growth

Smaller companies often want to grow in incremental ways because that’s all they can handle. They wouldn’t be able to keep up with a sudden increase in demand. However, if your company or brand has sufficient products and services available and you want your growth to happen fast, viral marketing is a good technique to employ in order to get those results.

When You Don’t Want to Invade the Home

Many people see ads as an invasion today. They mute their TVs when the commercials come on. They flip past the ads in magazines, and they push the skip button whenever they can online. Ads are a nuisance that can get old very fast to those who just want the content they are looking to find, like the TV show they wanted to watch.

If you want your campaign to be something that feels more organic and doesn’t invade people’s homes and lives, viral marketing is the way to go. Viral ads are the kind of thing that people you know share with you, or that you go looking for after hearing about them. They aren’t things that pop up, uninvited.

Where Viral Marketing Techniques Are Useful

Viral marketing techniques are useful in many different areas of marketing. Here are a few factors to consider as you fashion your next viral campaign:

The Overall Message

Not every message you want to send to customers is going to have viral content. For viral content, choose messages that are unique, engaging, and highly shareable. Viral marketing techniques are going to be useful in choosing the right message and placing it in the right locations in order to get the results you want.

The Environment of the Times

The environment is going to be a crucial component of any viral marketing campaign. Viral marketing can be a huge success if you keep things like timing, trends, and current events in mind. For instance, issues such as racial injustice and the ongoing pandemic are at the top of a lot of people’s minds. You need to keep this context in mind when crafting your campaign.

The Chosen Messenger or Medium

You have several messenger and mediums to choose from in the marketing world. One of the best that your company can tap into is social hubs. Everyone has a social hub, which includes their friends, their family members, and people on their social media feeds. If your messenger can be someone they already know and trust, that will mean a lot more than a random salesperson who is trying to get their attention. Viral marketing techniques can be very useful in getting into those key social hubs and spreading your message around.

Basic Viral Marketing Principles

No two viral marketing campaigns should ever be identical, but they are going to include similar elements when they succeed. Understanding what makes content go viral can help you figure out which direction to take with your ad. Here are a few angles to consider:

  • Urgency
  • Unique and distinct content
  • Wonderful planning
  • Inspirational content
  • Exclusive options
  • Never-before-seen messages
  • Incentives
  • Humor
  • Satires
  • Controversial materials
  • Worthy causes
  • Warnings
  • Optional celebrity involvement

Not every viral campaign is going to include all of these elements, but incorporating as many as possible will give the viral ad more viability in the market. An ad that is urgent, for instance, is something that people will want to share right away. Something that is new to them and has a message that they have never seen before will spur them to spread that message to others.

Viral marketing is sometimes called a pass-along marketing strategy. This is the most common way to get a piece of marketing to go viral. There is a chain formed when one user sees the piece and passes it on to another, and then that new person passes it further. Each person who views the content has to have a reason to pass it on. Tapping into those emotions and reasons will help the marketer craft a message that’s primed to go viral.

Preparing for Virality

You have probably heard the saying “any press is good press,” but that’s not always the case. Likewise, all virality isn’t good virality. It’s nice to have customers talking about you, but only if they are saying good things. When you have a viral marketing campaign in place, you need to be prepared for to handle the influx of interest. Otherwise, the buzz around your brand may turn sour.

Viral marketing can cause your company to grow at such at an unsustainable rate, leading to a decline in product quality, timeliness, or customer service. Your team and resources will be stretched thinner. Products could go out of stock, or you may run into production issues as demand rises and manufacturing has to ramp up quickly.

Mobile apps and other software products are best equipped to handle the boosts they receive from viral ads, but they, too, are imperfect. It’s best to imagine what will happen when the floodgates open before they actually do. That way, your company is prepared to handle the onslaught that you hope is coming. While viral advertising can be huge for any product, service, or brand, it can do more harm than good if your company isn’t ready for the sudden growth.

If you want to create a viral campaign, you need to give people something to talk about. As you might have guessed, though, that can be harder than it sounds. Many companies test out their ads well in advance to ensure that they are going to inspire the right emotions in the right people when they are viewed. Some of those tests fail, and then it’s back to the drawing board. Armed with the tips and techniques in this guide, you can increase your odds of launching a successful viral marketing campaign on the first try.


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