Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Viral Marketing

Social media provided the ultimate way to attain a word-of-mouth phenomenon and in turn execute a Viral marketing campaign.  Although viral marketing is often seen as an ideal way to get one’s message distributed across consumers it is quite rarely achieved.  However, understanding how messages are passed along and analyzing the key characteristics of successful marketing campaigns may unlock a way to better prepare for this undertaking.


At the simplest level, for something to be viral it must be shared to more than one person per person exposed to the message. For example, if there are 40 people that enter a website, and only 4 people share it but to 15 other individuals then we get a return of 60 people per 40 views. The website has virality score of 1.5 for this metric. But viral is also measure of how quickly a message spread, not just to how many people it spreads to.


Viral, now defined as a measure of a message, is not the focus of a Viral Marketing Campaign.  The message and content should be the focus of the campaigns effort.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, delves deeply into how messages spread across populations.  From this book insights can be drawn which can be translated into the social media space. Gladwell states three key influencers to the spread of your message: stickiness, context, and reaching the right people.


Possibly the hardest part of all viral marketing campaigns is creating the right message. The message you send out has to be contagious and it has to be something people want to share.  Not an easy task but the first step is to make the message engaging to people that have been exposed to it.

Chip and Dan Heath have outlined the ways to engage people in their book Made to Stick.  They list six different techniques to create appeal but one is constant in all successful viral messages: Simple. For something to be shareable it has to be simple.  In the social media space, everyone is fighting for space and it has become a dynamic area in which stories get lost quickly.  Because of this, it is essential for the message to be understandable in a few second or preferably at first glance.

After having a simple message, there are a few options in how to create your message and it should really be tailored to your product.  The following are the remaining five ways Chip and Dan Heath listed as ways to make a message stickier:

• Unexpected – Catching people off guard can be very effective. Perhaps a very bold message, unique way of reaching people, or a quick turn of events in a video

• Concrete – Instead of stating facts and figures compare these to something tangible.  “Feels like your riding 2 rhinos” opposed to “a 270hp engine”.

• Emotional – Love, Lust, Glory, Passion, Family, Protection – Anything that people care about will make a more powerful message

• Stories – Gladwell also points to this as the natural means of communication.  Telling a story puts people in the situation and it’s easier for them to remember.

• Credible – Back up what you say and make it believable.


Although Gladwell describes context in a real world sense, context shouldn’t be ignored completely.  In the online world, context can be thought more as the current state of online “buzz.”  Online context relates to the idea of social listening.  What it is that people are passionate now, and what are they talking about.

Trending topics, important events, and current news are all what shape the context of the online world.  By paying attention to these and generating a message that speaks to the online sparks, it makes people more willing to share the message as it related to what people are talking about now.


Mavens, influencers and connectors are the three people that assist in spreading a message.  Although it is good to understand the role of all three the one you need to know to implement a Viral Marketing campaign is that of a Connector.

A connector is someone who knows a lot of people and knows the right people.  They walk different paths in life and accumulate a massive amount of connections in the process.  A true connector genuinely loves to meet people and is more interested in the action of meeting them then what it means to their social well being.

A key influencer in the social media space and can be thought of as the digital connectors.  As a campaign, the goal is to reach greats amounts of people likely within a particular demographic.  A key influencer is a connector that has great ties to this demographic.

These could be bloggers, avid social media users, editors of online media, or a great deal of other people.  The online space is very different than offline and is actually much easier to find the right people to reach out to.  The issue lies in getting their attention to spread your message for you.  If successful, these people can start a viral phenomenon.


Understanding the importance of the message and the key people to connect with, we can explore the execution of a Viral Marketing Campaign.  As discussed, there are different levels of virality and there are different paths to achieve these.


M&M decided it wanted to increase awareness of its product in between the busy times of the year and decided to go through with the idea that Proximity had presented them.  This gave birth to the FindRed campaign.  The idea was to find the life sized M&M called “Red” on Google maps in the street of Toronto.  The campaign revolved around this simple idea and it was executed really well.

This is a true marketing campaign that happened to go viral.  It was a great idea submerged in gamification which instantly got their fans talking about it.  It was a real world find Waldo in a social era.  The level of engagement and user experience naturally drove the campaign to a viral one.

This is a great example of a content driven viral marketing campaign that tapped into engagement to create buzz.


When launching the Ford Fiesta they ran a contest to give 100 avid social media users the Fiesta 18 months before their launch date. While still very much a marketing campaign, this strategy is starting to diverge away from a traditional marketing campaign and closer to a Social Media marketing campaign.  Of course selecting these connectors proved wildly successful and it falls back on the premise of reaching out to the right people.

Give key influencers your product to test out and to discuss.  This campaign is about as simple as it gets but it is effective.  By tapping into the trust people have in peer reviews Ford was able to reach 38% of Gen Y.  Of course they had to trust that the car they were giving these influencers was a great quality product because it could have completely backfired with a bad user experience.


The idea with product placement is simple, have something go viral regardless of what it is and have your product somewhere in it.  While sometimes this is done on purpose, other times it is completely accidental.  Although it’s not easy to tell if it was intentional or not, these two viral videos—Bud Light here and Neurosonic here—definitely promote products to some degree.

Product placement is highly focused on being viral and isn’t focused as much on delivering a message.  This differs greatly from the previous examples that are a more direct method to a viral marketing campaign.

A great spin on product placement is reacting to your products in an already viral video.  Hyundai gave Todd Jamison a new car after being the victim of a parking job gone horribly wrong. The response video got more views than the original.  It is the ultimate example of listening to online buzz and capitalizing on it.


Hotmail gained great amounts of awareness by adding “Get your private, free email at Hotmail.com” to the bottom of each email sent via there Hotmail account.  Naturally as the service was used by more people it was noticed by more people.  This strategy is used today by most smartphones with “sent from my ____” message.

Taking elements of this and modifying it a little it can make it be aptly utilized for anything.  90% of online leads go cold in one hour so making sure that all traffic coming to a website gets tended to quickly.  Trigger email—emailing someone once they have given an email—is one of the best methods to do this.  A simple thank you and a call to action to tell their friends about the product/service are much more effective if done right away.  It doesn’t handcuff the user to do it and that’s a good thing in current times. (Startups LaunchRock and Unbounce are great for setting up such systems.)

Focusing on how a message spreads should only ever be a portion of a campaign.  Making it easy to share only helps spread the message regardless of whether it is good or bad.  Furthermore, if the message or product isn’t great than regardless of how easy it is to share, it won’t be.  However, making content easily shareable is absolutely essential for a campaign to become viral.  One click sharing to Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, and others is a must.


A viral marketing campaign is an idealist strategy but things in life are rarely ideal.  Even after taking the time to prepare a message perfectly, setting the campaigns goals, and picking the strategy to achieve them there is no guarantee it will ever go viral.  Content going viral is normally a natural process that is uncontrolled.  To artificially try to manufacture viral content or a viral campaign is not easy and will likely not receive the same result.  Because of the nature of what viral is it can never be fully controlled.  As such, a viral marketing campaign is best suited to act as an enhancement to a more structured campaign.