Gone are the days when the word ‘viral’ was limited to the common cold. Today viral has a whole other meaning like ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘The Harlem Shake;’ two great viral marketing examples.


In today’s internet age, marketers have found a tonne of new, innovative ways to market products and services while enhancing customer value. These new strategies not only challenge the fundamental basics of traditional marketing, but also shape modern marketing.

With the use of technology, changes are taking place at a rapid pace. Viral marketing is only one such change worth exploiting. With increased competition and difficulty in setting your business apart from the crowd, many turn to viral marketing for a competitive edge. But is a viral marketing campaign really something you can design, or is it something that ‘just happens’ almost by mistake?

What is Viral Marketing?

The term ‘viral marketing’ was developed by Juvertson and Draper almost 20 years ago to describe the free email service provided by Hotmail. Not what you were expecting, is it?


While viral marketing can be defined in numerous ways, one simple way is to say that it’s simply ‘word-of-mouse’ meaning that it’s content that quickly spreads itself with the click of a mouse in the same way that a virus spreads with a sneeze.

So a viral marketing campaign is really nothing more than a message that spreads to other people because people like it (or react strongly to it some other way) and choose to pass it on to others. However, this is not necessarily a planned occurrence. In fact, some of the best viral content was generated more by accident than design.

To get a little more technical, viral marketing campaigns capitalize on multi level marketing (MLM) making every customer touched a salesperson. In a sense, it draws on Metcalfe’s law, which states that the utility of a network is proportional to the squared numbers of users.


As more people join the system by using social networks, the number of cross-network connections rises quadratically. The pattern of viral communication reflects the pattern with which a contagious virus can move through a set of interacting hosts.

Viral marketing is far from a recent phenomenon. Before the printing press, traditional media and the internet, word of mouth was the only way to market your goods. Viral marketing is now really just word of mouth (or word of mouse) on social-fueled steroids.

If You Can Design it, What ‘Makes’ a Viral Marketing Campaign?

Viral marketing isn’t like baking cookies. It’s impossible to create truly viral content by following a simple recipe found in a blog post or given to you by your grandma. However, there are a few elements that are found in most successful viral marketing campaigns, so logic has it that incorporating these tips may increase your chances of creating a viral marketing campaign.

  1. Campaign structure must encourage viral activity by making it extremely easy for people to share your content with their networks. Social networking sites like Twitter and Youtube are great for this.
  2. The product, service, or message you’re featuring needs to be viral-suitable. It needs to be something people care about, get excited about, and want to talk about. Good luck having a campaign on socks go viral – nobody cares.
  3. Your message needs to be intriguing and inspire imagination, fun, passion, anger, or some other motivating feeling.
  4. Appropriate communication channels need to be selected. You want to be designing your campaign with the end channel in mind. Consider what type of people use each channel, and what type of information is typically popular on each channel.

While these elements cannot guaranteeing that your content will go viral, they’ll give you a good foundation. Old Spice provides an excellent viral marketing example that demonstrates the effectiveness of these elements.

Old Spice Man Internet Responses

Riding the wave of success from Isaiah Mustafa’s brilliant portrayal of The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, Old Spice brought the character to the social world with Old Spice Man Internet Responses. The brand uploaded 185 videos to YouTube over the course of two days, responding to comments on various social networks with the same quirky wit featured in the commercials.

The campaign spread like wildfire with viewers quickly sharing the videos through their social networks, telling friends, family, and colleagues about the campaign. Best of all, all Old Spice had to do was create some funny videos and watch them spread. But did they design this viral marketing campaign? Sure, they did a lot of planning and were aiming for virality, but there was still an element of luck involved – if no one had interacted, the campaign would have been a dud.

Does Viral Benefit Marketers?

There’s no question about it, the benefits of having content go viral is fantastic for marketers. Viral marketing can be great for maintaining and even improving your brand’s reputation. It also helps with your SEO efforts since Google incorporates social engagement into their ranking algorithm. Finally, as with all social media activity, viral campaigns can be a great traffic source for your site.

Viral-Marketing-SocialMediaWhen done properly, there’s a lot of science behind social marketing strategy, from analytics to testing and optimization. However, that’s not why content goes viral – virality comes about from the emotion a certain photo, video, or article generates.

There’s so much content on the web these days that no one can see it all, let alone remember half of it. Content that elicits strong emotional responses is what resonates strongest and is most often shared. In fact, anticipation, surprise and admiration can create more social shares than anything else making it rewarding to create content that hits those hot emotional triggers.

Viral marketing provides brands with a fantastic ROI seen immediately and directly. Once a viral campaign has been launched, it has the potential to deliver success over long periods of time providing tangible results throughout its lifespan. A well designed viral campaign that takes off can provide businesses access to millions of potential clients who are interacting with the company in a very personal way.

A viral marketing campaign can be used to build or enhance brand awareness, reputation and image. It can also communicate a specific message to a very receptive audience. Due to the huge amount of visibility a viral campaign can obtain, businesses can generate massive publicity and easily gather data on potential customers.

It’s easy to say something is awesome, but with viral marketing, there’s proof of awesomeness. Viral marketing can help businesses with:

  • Generating immediate visitors
  • Gaining long term visitors
  • Exponential growth from a large audience
  • Budget restraints – viral campaigns are extremely inexpensive compared to traditional advertising
  • Improved SEO
  • Quickly and effectively building a reputation
  • Increasing site traffic

These are just a few benefits that motivate hundreds of global brands to take viral marketing into consideration when allocating their social marketing strategy and advertising budgets. As a result, viral marketing is becoming one of the most pursued forms of advertising today.

Companies who want to get their brand message out to existing and potential customers on a global scale now see viral marketing as one of the best advertising options when it comes to ROI. It’s hard to argue with something that costs so little and delivers so much even though there’s always the risk that it won’t reach viral proportions.

Double Edged Sword

So what’s not to like? Nothing is perfect, especially when you can’t control it and viral marketing is no different: it presents issues and disadvantages as well. Let’s look at a few.

1. Nuisance Factor

Viral-Marketing-SpamOne of the disadvantages of viral marketing is the “nuisance factor.” You can’t force your campaign to go viral and trying too hard is sure to backfire. If you’re constantly and repeatedly pushing your campaign on your audience, they’re not going to share it, they’re going to hate it and that’s no way to go viral. While it’s true that there is plenty of internet noise to compete with and overcome, if your content is viral-worthy you won’t need to push it. Being considered a spam marketer isn’t good for any business trying to increase its web presence.

2. Negative Buzz

Sometimes, instead of creating a positive buzz about your business, viral marketing works in the opposite way. Human nature being what it is, people are even more likely to talk about something they don’t like with their friends, family members, and co-workers than share something positive.

The same design that can propel a business into online popularity and produce big traffic numbers can backfire to work in the opposite way. If a few people start criticizing your efforts with good points that others can get behind, or posting negative information about a particular venture of yours, that negativity can quickly overtake your original message. Very few people will take the time to investigate for themselves whether this negative buzz is warranted. Instead, they will often jump on the bandwagon and your business may suffer as a result.

3. Ethical Considerations

Many people have concerns about privacy issues, both online and in the brick and mortar world. They want to know what the companies they interact with are planning on doing with their personal information. Many are not interested in participating in a campaign if they think they are being taken advantage of or helping spam marketers.

Viral-Marketing-DecisionSavvy internet marketers make sure that they have a clearly defined and easy to find privacy policy that explains exactly how the information they collect will be used. Users need reassurance that their information will not be misused or sold to other companies.

Even with these policies in place, some recipients may feel that viral marketing is a sleazy practice, especially when more controversial messages are involved. Worst case scenario? They may choose not to do business with you, thus defeating the purpose of viral marketing in the first place.

4. Hard to Measure

All digital marketing campaigns must be measurable in some way, so business owners and managers can determine whether or not they’re effective. Viral marketing is a hit or miss proposition regardless of how well it’s designed so it can be very difficult to determine whether it is something worth trying. Obviously, if one cannot track the results of a campaign, it is useless. Still, the potential reward of viral marketing is so great that many companies make the decision to push ahead and aim for virality.

To Conclude:

Viral marketing is a powerful theory that attempts to harness the strongest of all consumer triggers – the personal recommendation. In the digital age, it may well be possible to include consumers in digital marketing and let them spread your message to millions around the world.

However, viral marketing is no miracle cure for social marketing strategy ills. At best, it is an extremely exciting and sometimes effective piece of a broader digital marketing programme. At worst, it’s a flop or an awful little bug spread by desperate marketers.

Most importantly, marketers should realize that a viral marketing campaign requires both excellent planning and sheer luck. Without both, it’s either an ordinary digital marketing campaign, or an uncontrolled mistake that brings attention of all kinds; both positive and negative. A viral marketing campaign isn’t something that can be completely controlled, thus making it a double-edged sword. The message it spreads can be either the planned positive one or a negative audience-created one. Either way, you’re going to be in the thick of it prospering or suffering.

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