Viral Marketing Explained: Definition, Examples, and Success Factors


Viral marketing is a dynamic strategy that relies on the rapid spread of information about a product or service through word of mouth or online sharing. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the concept of viral marketing, its characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages, as well as practical tips for launching a successful viral marketing campaign. Whether you’re a seasoned marketer or a business owner looking to expand your reach, understanding the power of viral marketing can help you tap into exponential growth and enhance your brand’s visibility.

What is viral marketing?

Viral marketing, often referred to simply as “virality,” is a marketing technique that leverages organic or word-of-mouth sharing of information about a product or service. The objective is to encourage individuals to spread a marketing message voluntarily, leading to exponential growth in its reach. Viral marketing can take various forms, including memes, shares, likes, forwards, and more, and it has been significantly amplified by the internet and social media.

The essence of virality

When we talk about “viral” in viral marketing, we’re referring to the rapid and widespread dissemination of content among an audience. While viral marketing is a deliberate strategy, the actual distribution of the message occurs organically. This method finds its roots in traditional word-of-mouth marketing but has gained immense popularity thanks to the digital age, with social media platforms acting as fertile ground for viral campaigns.

Evolution of viral marketing

Although viral marketing saw widespread use in the early 2000s with the boom of internet-based businesses, it remains prevalent, especially among online business-to-consumer (B-to-C) companies. The proliferation of social media networks like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook has transformed viral marketing and increased its effectiveness.

Examples of viral marketing

Exploring real-world examples helps illustrate the diversity of viral marketing strategies:

1. Hotmail’s Email Signatures

Hotmail, the free web-based email service launched in 1996, achieved remarkable growth by embedding an advertisement and a direct sign-up link in its users’ outgoing messages. This pioneering approach set a precedent for user-based media companies’ rapid expansion through viral tactics.

2. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge demonstrated the global impact that viral marketing can have. It involved people recording themselves getting doused with ice water to raise awareness and donations for ALS. Social media platforms played a pivotal role in making this campaign a worldwide sensation, resulting in over $115 million in donations.

Viral marketing characteristics

All viral marketing campaigns—whether intentionally crafted or spontaneous—share three key elements: the message, messenger, and environment. Each of these components plays a vital role in the success of a viral marketing strategy. These campaigns can incorporate various tools, such as videos, games, images, email, text messaging, and free products, to engage users emotionally, promote a worthy cause, and facilitate easy sharing. Often, influencers with substantial followings help propel the campaign forward.

Advantages and disadvantages of viral marketing


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks of viral marketing.

  • Wider reach to new audiences
  • Rapid and exponential growth potential
  • Lower marketing costs
  • Potential for negative word-of-mouth
  • Difficulties in measuring success
  • Variable virality

Advantages of viral marketing include expanded reach to audiences not typically targeted by traditional campaigns, cost-efficiency, and the potential to create buzz through creative approaches. Burger King’s humorous response to McDonald’s is an example of triggering virality to promote a brand’s message.

However, viral marketing can backfire, as negative news tends to spread more quickly and widely than positive news. Measuring the impact of viral campaigns can also be challenging, and privacy concerns may deter potential sharers.

How do you monetize viral videos?

Monetizing viral videos is a potential revenue stream. Creators can require subscribers to pay for access or allow companies to advertise to their audience for a fee. Licensing videos to third parties is another option, offering additional income opportunities.

The importance of transparency in viral marketing

Transparency plays a critical role in viral marketing. Consumers are increasingly

critical of traditional marketing, and companies are held accountable for their actions. Approximately 94% of consumers are more likely to be loyal to transparent companies. Honesty and openness in marketing build trust and credibility.

Understanding “seeding” in viral marketing

“Seeding” is a viral marketing technique where companies strategically distribute viral content to select users who are likely to share the campaign. Social media influencers often serve as seeds, helping spread the word and gather feedback. Effective seeding is essential for launching a successful viral campaign.

Steps to launch a viral marketing campaign

Starting a viral marketing campaign requires careful planning:

1. Define your purpose

Identify your campaign’s objective: Are you aiming to improve your brand’s image or raise awareness?

2. Know your audience

Understand your target audience’s preferences and behavior. Social media analytics can provide valuable insights.

3. Create shareable content

Your content should be easily shareable and relatable to your audience.

4. Leverage trends and hashtags

Use trends and hashtags to promote your content and capture your followers’ attention.

Tools for viral marketing campaigns

Companies have access to a variety of tools for viral marketing:

  • Create and sponsor communities.
  • Organize sweepstakes, contests, and rewards.
  • Sponsor messages and chat blasts.

Key elements of viral marketing

While viral marketing campaigns can take various forms, they all share common elements that contribute to their success. Understanding these key components can help you create an effective viral marketing strategy:

The viral message

The heart of any viral marketing campaign is the message itself. Your content must be engaging, compelling, and shareable. It should resonate with your target audience, evoke emotions, and prompt them to share it with their networks. Whether it’s a clever video, a humorous meme, or a thought-provoking article, the message is the driving force behind virality.

The messenger

Identifying the right messenger for your viral campaign is crucial. This could be an influential figure in your industry, a celebrity, or even your own customers. A trusted and relatable messenger can significantly amplify the reach and impact of your message. Consider partnerships or collaborations that align with your campaign’s goals.

Measuring the success of viral marketing

Assessing the effectiveness of a viral marketing campaign can be challenging due to its organic nature. However, tracking key metrics can help you gauge its impact:

Engagement metrics

Monitor metrics such as likes, shares, comments, and reactions to measure the level of engagement your campaign generates. High engagement indicates that your content is resonating with the audience and spreading effectively.

Reach and impressions

Keep an eye on the number of people your campaign reaches and the impressions it accumulates. This data provides insights into how far your message has traveled and how many individuals have been exposed to it.

Conversion tracking

Ultimately, the success of a viral campaign should translate into tangible results, such as website visits, sign-ups, or sales. Implement conversion tracking to link campaign engagement to actual conversions and revenue.

Real-world examples of viral marketing success

Let’s explore additional examples of viral marketing campaigns that have left a lasting impact:

3. Dove’s real beauty sketches

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign challenged societal perceptions of beauty. The campaign featured women describing themselves to a forensic artist, who then created sketches based on their descriptions. When compared to sketches based on descriptions from strangers, the message became clear: we are often our harshest critics. This emotionally resonant message garnered over 67 million views in its first week, sparking discussions about self-esteem and body image.

4. Wendy’s twitter roasts

Wendy’s, the fast-food chain, gained attention and engagement by using witty and humorous responses on Twitter. They engaged in friendly banter with followers and even took playful jabs at competitors. Wendy’s tweets went viral, with people sharing and retweeting their posts. This approach not only increased brand visibility but also highlighted the company’s distinct and authentic voice.

Strategies for creating shareable content

Crafting content that has the potential to go viral requires strategic thinking and creativity:

1. Emotional storytelling

Appeal to emotions by telling compelling stories. Whether it’s an inspiring journey, a heartwarming moment, or a humorous anecdote, stories create a connection with the audience, making them more likely to share your content.

2. Interactive content

Create content that encourages user participation. Quizzes, polls, challenges, and interactive videos not only engage your audience but also motivate them to share their experiences with others.

The future of viral marketing

Viral marketing continues to evolve with changing consumer behaviors and technological advancements. As we look ahead, several trends are shaping the future of viral marketing:

1. User-generated content

Brands are increasingly incorporating user-generated content into their viral strategies. Encourage your customers to create content related to your products or services and share it on social media. This fosters a sense of community and authenticity.

2. Micro-influencers

Micro-influencers, individuals with smaller but highly engaged followings, are gaining prominence in viral marketing. Partnering with micro-influencers can be cost-effective and result in more authentic connections with niche audiences.

The bottom line

Viral marketing is a cost-effective strategy that can enhance brand awareness and drive growth. Successful campaigns can help companies enter new markets, expand their customer base, and increase revenues. Choosing the right platforms and creating shareable content are key to success. While the path to virality may not always be clear, understanding the principles and techniques of viral marketing can significantly benefit businesses in the digital age.

Frequently Asked Questions about viral marketing

What is the main goal of viral marketing?

Viral marketing aims to spread information about a product or service rapidly through word of mouth or online sharing, with the goal of achieving exponential growth in its reach.

What are some common examples of viral marketing?

Some well-known examples of viral marketing include Hotmail’s email signatures with embedded ads and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised millions for ALS awareness through social media.

How can companies benefit from viral marketing?

Viral marketing allows companies to reach new audiences, experience rapid growth, and reduce marketing costs when executed effectively. It can also boost brand visibility and create buzz around products or services.

What are the disadvantages or risks of viral marketing?

Viral marketing can backfire if it leads to negative word-of-mouth. Measuring the success of viral campaigns can be challenging, and privacy concerns may deter potential sharers.

What role does transparency play in viral marketing?

Transparency is crucial in viral marketing, as consumers are increasingly critical of traditional marketing. Companies that are transparent in their marketing efforts tend to earn the loyalty of their customers.

How can businesses measure the success of a viral marketing campaign?

Measuring viral marketing success can be done through engagement metrics (likes, shares, comments), reach and impressions, and conversion tracking to link campaign engagement to actual results like website visits or sales.

What are some key elements of a successful viral marketing campaign?

Successful viral marketing campaigns share common elements: a compelling message, the right messenger (e.g., influencers), and a fertile environment (e.g., social media). Crafting shareable content, leveraging trends, and using appropriate tools are also critical.

Key takeaways

  • Viral marketing leverages word-of-mouth and online sharing to spread information rapidly and achieve exponential reach.
  • Successful viral marketing campaigns can expand a company’s audience, reduce marketing costs, and increase brand visibility.
  • Transparency plays a vital role in building trust with consumers in viral marketing efforts.
  • Measuring the success of viral marketing campaigns involves tracking engagement metrics, reach, and conversion rates.
  • Crafting compelling messages, choosing the right messenger (e.g., influencers), and creating shareable content are key elements of a successful viral marketing strategy.
View Article Sources
  1. Viral Marketing – Digital Commons @ Butler University
  2. (PDF) An Integrated Framework for On-line Viral Marketing … – ResearchGate
  3. Introduction To Viral Marketing – HRD corp e-LAITH