What Is Viral Marketing & Does It Work?

As a marketer, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Make it go viral,” more times than you could count. But how do you actually create a piece of viral marketing material?

Knowing what viral marketing is, keys to virality, examples of campaigns that have gone viral, and the like, are the first steps in understanding how viral marketing works and if you can create a piece of viral content for your brand.

Throughout this article, we’ll talk more about the concept of viral marketing and how you can attempt to replicate viral marketing campaigns for your own brand.

Shall we?


What Is Viral Marketing & Does It Work:


What is Viral Marketing?

If you’ve been on the internet before, you’ve heard of viral content. You’ve seen the latest viral video or viral TikTok trend. You know the viral memes going around on Twitter.

But how does that pertain to marketing?

Viral marketing is a marketing campaign that internet users share and talk about without any influence, nudging, or affiliation with your brand. Instead, it’s based on a promotional technique that’s meant to spread online quickly.


Does Viral Marketing Work?

In short: it can.

It depends on the type of content and message you create and share with your audience. Not every piece of content that was intended to go viral does. And not every piece of viral content is interpreted as it was meant to be.

However, viral marketing that works as it was intended to can be a great way to build brand awareness and improve your overall brand reputation.


5 Great Examples of Viral Marketing

Let’s dive into a few great examples of viral marketing to help you get an idea of what this could look like.

As mentioned, not every viral marketing campaign ends up with the reception your team may have been hoping for. But we’re going to cover a few examples that did.

1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge started as a happy accident back in 2014. Social media users were videoing themselves dumping buckets of ice water on their head and naming their preferred charity to bring awareness.

It was first linked to ALS by a man named Chris Kennedy, who chose ALS awareness to honor a friend diagnosed with the disease. From there, the challenge took off and the ALS Association noticed a major uptick in donations.

After that, the ALS Association ran with the campaign, ultimately generating $115 million in donations within just eight weeks. Celebrities and other notable individuals like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates participated in the challenge as well as donated to the organization.

Here’s a compilation video showcasing 38 different celebrities who joined in, further elevating the cause.

While a general charity campaign wouldn’t typically generate this kind of attention, the challenge aspect helped bring it to virality.


2. “Dunk in the Dark” by Oreo

In what can only be described as a stroke of genius, Oreo capitalized on the power outage at the 2013 Super Bowl with a single simple tweet.

Although Super Bowl ads cost an arm and a leg (or $6 million, to put an exact number on it), Oreo was able to generate a ton of buzz at absolutely zero cost. 

When the Mercedes Superdome experienced a 30-minute power outage, the cookie brand was able to grab the attention with a quick-witted tweet that is still the highlight of the 2013 game.

This goes to show that not every viral moment is carefully planned. Sometimes you have to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.


3. “Our Blades are F***ing Great” by Dollar Shave Club

While Dollar Shave Club has become more of a household brand, back in 2012, they were still a newer startup trying to gain some traction. And boy, did they ever.

Their promo video featured the Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin walking through a warehouse giving a spiel on why “our blades are f***ing great.”

This example shows us that you don’t need to be a big brand or have a big budget to go viral. The video cost $4,500 to produce and was filmed in a single day. It went viral within 72 hours, second so much traffic to their website that their servers went down.

After they got the site back up and running, they saw 12,000 new subscriptions in a single day. Since 2012, the video has received over 27 million views on YouTube.


4. MoonPie on Twitter

Some brands just get how to use social media, and MoonPie is one of them. By jumping on Twitter memes with MoonPie-related content, they have a regularly engaged audience, but still see the occasional viral tweet.

Take this tweet for example:

While they typically get around 1-2k likes on each post, this tweet garnered nearly 70k likes, 6k retweets, and over 200 replies.

Here’s another example that helped them get over 20k likes and almost 2k retweets:

Sometimes viral content doesn’t revolve around a campaign. Instead, it’s all about being consistent and testing different ideas. Similar to our Oreo example: you just need to see what sticks.


5. Zoom’s Virtual Background Competition

Sometimes the viral situations just write themselves. When the world was thrown into lockdown and remote work at the beginning of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom became a crowd favorite for both work meetings and virtual gatherings.

They took advantage of the situation by promoting a competition for users to submit their own virtual background designs and ideas:

The results? Over 50,000 people signed up to take part in the contest, the top three of which won prizes.

Plus, Zoom virtual backgrounds became more of a normal practice, with online graphic design tools like Canva and Visme creating templates for Zoom backgrounds that can be customized and downloaded.

A viral marketing campaign like this was a great way to turn a bad situation into something more lighthearted. As many people were isolating at home, Zoom’s contest provided a way for its users to have fun and get creative.


Key Elements of a Viral Marketing Campaign

Want to test viral marketing for your brand? There are a few key elements that you need to keep in mind when planning out and implementing your campaign.

Boldness

If you want your content to go viral, you can’t be afraid to make a bold statement or take a bold stance. 

Think back to our Dollar Shave Club example. Creating an entire campaign around the tagline, “Our blades are f***ing great,” is a definite risk. Not everyone is going to take something like that well.

But that’s also part of why it worked so well. Their target audience did love it, and they were able to reap the benefits.

Consider how your brand can take a stand in your viral campaign in a way that won’t generate any (or much, if we’re being realistic) backlash.


Authenticity

You can’t force virality. Your content must be authentic, genuine, and organic. While you can insert elements of viral content into your marketing (like we’re teaching you to do here), there’s still a large amount of luck behind it.

So the best thing to do is just remain authentic in your marketing content. If you don’t go viral, that’s okay. Just try, try again.


Relevance

Remember our Oreo example and how popular it got because it was clever and timely? Sometimes that’s all it takes for a piece of content to go viral.

Jump on trending memes or TikTok challenges to see if you can get extra traction for your business. But remember that relevance is key. You’re not going to see any success (in fact, you’re going to get more than a few “OK, boomer” responses if you’re jumping on a meme way after it’s stopped trending.


Charity

Oftentimes, all it takes to go viral is support for a charitable cause or a contest/giveaway. For example, we saw in our look back at the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge how they raised over $100 million and drew attention of a number of notable people.

To help your campaign get a bit more reach, consider aligning with a charity that means a lot to you and your brand.

Or, put together a massive contest or giveaway that has potential to go viral. Make sure that your process or prize are relevant to your business. Sure, going viral is great. But having a contest full of participants who have no interest in your brand, simply because you’re giving away an all-purpose prize (i.e., iPad or computer) does nothing for your bottom line.


Emotion

Another element of a viral marketing campaign is emotional resonance with your audience. If your ad makes people feel things, they’re more likely to share it with friends and family, creating a viral trend.

Take a look at a viral video by Starbucks for their series called “Every Name’s a Story,” about a trans man who keeps getting called by his dead name. But at Starbucks, he’s able to share his real name.

Campaigns like this tug at heartstrings, and the video has seen over 2.8 million views. Pay attention to ways that you can connect with your audience emotionally in your own viral campaigns.


Shareability

And of course, it must be easy for your audience to share your content. If they have no way—or at least no easy way—to share it, it won’t reach its viral potential.

Share it across multiple platforms and make sure there are obvious share buttons available on your website to keep it as simple as possible to reach a large audience.


How to Create a Viral Marketing Campaign

Keeping the above six elements in mind, let’s get a bit more strategic. How do you create your own viral marketing campaign?

We’ll walk you through six steps to get started.


Know your audience.

If you want a piece of content to go viral, you need to create it specifically for your target audience. Knowing their demographics, online behavior, sharing patterns, and content consumption preferences is key.

You can put together a buyer persona that will help you outline exactly who you’re targeting with your content. Reference it as you brainstorm content ideas to make sure you stay in line with their preferences.


Know why you want to go viral.

As with any campaign, you need to set objectives. Are you hoping to simply make a splash and increase awareness? Or do you want to grow your online following? Or, better yet, do you want to generate a mass increase in purchases, signups, or subscriptions?

Having goals and knowing what you want your viral content to do for your brand will help to shape the rest of your campaign.


Determine your viral content type.

There are a number of different types of content that are most likely to go viral, so you need to decide which is the best option for your business.

Looking at our five examples and keeping other viral campaigns you’ve seen in mind, these top content types include:

  • Challenges
  • Contests
  • Trending topics
  • Memes
  • Videos

Videos are by far the easiest way to create a piece of viral content, but they can come with the biggest cost and take the longest time to produce.

If you’re looking for a quick viral post, you’re better off jumping on a trending topic or meme. To consistently pump out content with viral potential, make sure your marketing team is always keeping an eye out for trending topics that are relevant to your business and make sense for you to share.

However, if you decide to create a video, make sure you start by mapping out a storyboard and pinpointing your message. Viral videos need to be created with purpose. They also need to follow our next couple of steps.


Capture attention early.

Memes are easy to grab attention. But if you’re creating a video, it needs to immediately engage your viewer and reel in their interest. Otherwise they’ll keep scrolling and you’ve lost your viral moment.

Be intentional when you create your content to give it its best chance at success. Again, start with a storyboard and write out your script so you know exactly how to pull in your audience right from the get go.


Stick to a single message.

Viral marketing needs to be simple. It needs to have one main point and stick to it the entire time—otherwise it will get lost in translation. Being able to sum up your main message in a single sentence is key to having a viral campaign that resonates.

And ensuring your content appeals to your audience so much that they want to share it is the only way to have it spread. Remember: you can’t force viral content. Keep it simple and make it stand out.


Create and share.

Now that you know what you want to create and what message you want to promote, it’s time to get down to it. Create your video, meme, contest, challenge, etc., and share it online.

Remember that not every attempt at virality will end in success. But if you keep testing different messaging and content types, you may eventually start to see that post spread like wildfire across the internet.


Conclusion

Viral marketing is a great way to massively increase your reach and revenue—if you’re lucky enough to create a successful viral campaign. By referencing the key elements of viral content and using our step-by-step guide, you should be well on your way to create viral campaigns your audience will love.

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