3 Viral Marketing Campaigns That Are Worth the Catch

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that nothing comes free.

That free trial of Netflix you signed up for? They didn’t offer you it to support your binge-watching habit. Ultimately, they wanted you to get a taste of what they’re offering so that you stay a customer. Or what about the newsletter you signed up for from your favorite retailer to receive a 15% discount in your inbox? Soon, those promotional emails on new items and sales will start flooding in. Even the stray kitten I decided to adopt last year wasn’t free. His cute little face didn’t just bring endless cuddles; it came with vet bills and sleepless nights filled with meows and yowls.

Why does this matter to you as marketer? We’re all familiar with the idea of give-to-get. To gain something you want, such as new clothes, knowledge, or relationships, you need to be willing to give something up—money, time, effort, etc. As a consumer, it’s likely that you know this already and have given up pieces of your personal information for something in return. On the flip side, as a marketer, your goal is to give your buyers something valuable enough to earn their interest, business, loyalty, and advocacy.

So what might these incentives look like? According to eMarketer, when US internet users were asked what would motivate them to share personal information with brands:

  • 100% of respondents would share personal information for cash rewards
  • 77% of respondents would share personal information for significant discounts
  • 68% of respondents would share personal information for fewer steps to get things done
  • 63% of respondents would share personal information for something that inspires something new based on people like them
  • 63% of respondents would share personal information for reminders at the right time on the right device

The incentives above aren’t all encompassing, and the best marketers know how to create engaging campaigns that offer their audience something they want for a price that’s well worth the exchange. Let’s take a look at a few recent marketing campaigns that have gotten this down, offering valuable (or just purely entertaining) content for a small price the audience is happy to pay:

1. Powerpuff Yourself

There’s a lot I don’t remember from my childhood, but one thing I do recall is the television programs on Cartoon Network. Dexter’s Laboratory, Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Ed, Edd n Eddy, and Powerpuff Girls pretty much took over my afterschool life.

To promote their Powerpuff Girls reboot, Cartoon Network recently launched “Powerpuff Yourself,” an avatar generator that allows you to become a Powerpuff Girl or Boy. Jill King, SVP of Consumer and Sponsorship Marketing for Turner Broadcasting, parent company of Cartoon Network, told Digiday that “Powerpuff Yourself” was created for fans to “engage and identify with the brand.” Their goal is clear: to revive the legion of Powerpuff Girls fans and boost their program ratings.

As I began “Powerpuffing” myself (which I enjoyed way too much), a familiar marketing tool appeared before I could save my avatar: a gated page with a form fill-out. This particular one asked for my birthdate:

Powerpuff Yourself

What can we assume from this clever tactic? Perhaps Cartoon Network is interested in learning about their audience demographics so that they can make sure their programs appeal to the right audience and keep their ratings high. I’m all for supporting the Powerpuff Girl franchise, so I didn’t even hesitate to fill it in. In fact, it helped me fulfill a bucket list goal that I never realized I had.

Powerpuff Girls avatar or not, you need to give your audience something worth what they’re giving up. I didn’t even hesitate to fill in my birthday for this fun avatar generator. Now, if they were asking for my full name and address, it might be a different story. If you’re offering educational content, don’t ask your visitors for too much information or don’t even gate it. And with marketing automation technology, you still stand to gain something by tracking the behavior of anonymous website visitors and converting them down the road with web personalization tools.

2. Snapchat Filters

Snapchat filters have been all the craze lately. You may have seen screenshots or videos floating around on social media of your friends or family with fun overlays of dog faces, animations, and even face swaps (some that are downright horrifying).

Face Swap

The filters are a great way for Snapchat to increase app usage and engagement, with this fun feature exclusive to their app. It might even result in more app downloads from new users, as Snapchat users share pictures with these filters on their other social networks. But this isn’t all that they gain. In fact, these filters are bringing in some major revenue for them.

Snapchat’s filters are open to brands through sponsored geofilters, which is really quite genius for “free” product placement that personally incorporates your audience (similar to when consumers wear clothing with a retailer’s logo splashed on top but an instant, digital version). Snapchat geofilters place users directly into a brand’s filter, not only showing their support for the brand, but also influencing their networks to feel positively about it and participate too.


Both Snapchat and brands are cashing out on this. In fact, more than 60% of U.S. 13 to 34 year-old smartphone users (Snapchat’s target audience) are Snapchatters, according to Snapchat. And their user base is at 100 million daily active Snapchatters and growing.

Being that Snapchat is a mobile app, these sponsored geofilters not only follow users wherever they go, but they are relevant to that particular user’s location. While Snapchat might not be the right channel for every brand, the key message here is to be where your audience is and find ways to interact with them personally and build advocates. There’s nothing more personal than placing a brand’s geofilter on your face.

3. #TacoEmojiEngine

Emojis are a popular form of self-expression. 92% of the online population uses emojis. People use them to help communicate their thoughts and build personal relationships, according to the 2015 Emoji Report by Emogi. It’s also a universal language that translates well across languages and regions.

Brands have caught on to the emoji phenomenon using them more and more in their advertising, emails, even billboards, and fast food chain Taco Bell is no exception. In fact, they led a movement to add a taco emoji through a Change.org petition, one that garnered 32,797 supporters. When the Unicode Consortium finally approved the taco emoji for iOS 9.1, Taco Bell celebrated with the launch of the #TacoEmojiEngine on Twitter. Just tweet at Taco Bell with a taco emoji along with another emoji, and you’ll receive an instant, personalized response—one of 600 pieces of unique taco-inspired content. Here’s the #TacoEmojiEngine in action:

So what’s behind these 600 bits of pure pleasure? Rob Poetsch, Director of Public Affairs and Engagement at Taco Bell, told TechCrunch that they launched the #TacoEmojiEngine to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of the taco emoji and to thank taco lovers everywhere for their support of the emoji, which they had been campaigning for more than a year. But there must be more to this to justify all the time, money, and effort they put into creating this viral campaign, not to mention maintain it. What other objectives might be driving this effort? Let’s taco ’bout it (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Hashtags are a great way to build brand awareness and generate awareness. The #TacoEmojiEngine campaign lives on Twitter, where trends are a way for users to gauge which topics are going viral that they are most likely to care about based on their interests, network, and location. With all the traction #TacoEmojiEngine generated, it successfully became a trending topic, meaning it became something “worthy” of your interest. You might be among the few that first discovered it and if not, then you were likely among the many that jumped on as @tacobell and #TacoEmojiEngine started popping up all over your feed and on the “Trends” sidebar. The impact continues to spread to this day as users still interact with the campaign.

There are quite a few things we can learn from Taco Bell, and it’s not just that tacos go with almost anything. As you’re planning your marketing campaign, find something that aligns with your mission and resonates with your audience, and then actively join the movement. REI demonstrated this on Black Friday with their “Opt Outside” campaign that closed their stores and paid its employees to go outside. Also—no surprise here—personalization played a critical factor in the success of this campaign. Taco Bell responds to each tweet with literally the same exact combination the user asked for. Emojis might not be the right way to personalize your content to your audience, but the idea is the same: find what your buyers are interested in and respond with curated content that resonates with them, promptly. Seconds (or maybe even milliseconds) after sending out my tweet, I received a response from Taco Bell.

Cartoon Network, Snapchat, and Taco Bell are brands with significantly different business models and audiences, but they’ve got their marketing down to a T (or in Taco Bell’s case, an emoji). These brands have all successfully influenced their audience to want to become part of their marketing campaign, with buyers disclosing their information, engaging with the brand, and sharing on their networks—all on their own terms. So find what resonates with your audience the most and think of creative ways to successfully do the same.

What other creative marketing campaigns have you seen that were worth the catch? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!