How does viral marketing work?

Viral marketing is one of the internet age’s most successful – yet also most challenging – promotional methods.

Monday, 28 August, 2023

In the pre-internet age, we had to rely on companies and advertising agencies to tell us whether something was worth buying or not.

Today, we can rely on each other.

Despite well-publicised issues around fake online reviews, the public remains more willing to trust itself than marketing firms.

If a PR agency claimed eight out of ten cats prefer Tiddles, consumer reaction would typically be muted at best.

Yet if an influencer posted a YouTube vlog showing their cat wolfing down a bowl of Tiddles, the manufacturer could expect an immediate uplift in sales.

The ultimate representation of consumer support for a brand occurs when a company achieves the elusive goal of making a story or message spread under its own steam.

There are no influencers being remunerated to promote it, and no direct control over how the story is reported or reposted.

This is known as viral marketing, and it’s been hard to escape in recent years…

Going viral

Viral marketing is often dreamed up by an advertising agency as a way of seizing the initiative, or responding to adversity.

A classic example of the latter was Aldi’s response to the copyright-infringement court case Marks and Spencer brought against it for plagiarising their Colin the Caterpillar cake.

Aldi’s Cuthbert character was quickly co-opted into a social media campaign involving everything from protests outside M&S to a video clip of Cuthbert and Colin ‘fighting’ at a party.

Photos of Cuthbert cakes in boxes with tiny locks on them and “serves 12 years” stickers were endlessly reshared across social media.

User-generated videos alone racked up over 30 million views in the weeks after the #freecuthbert campaign launched.

This is the objective of a viral marketing campaign – to incentivise people to run with a story and take it beyond the brand or business’s core audience to the wider public.

This might involve simply sharing and commenting on a story/post/event/campaign, or people generating their own content in homage to the original material.

On the downside, it’s impossible to control the narrative once this happens. On the upside, it can give even niche brands a level of exposure they’d never otherwise achieve.

What does a viral marketing campaign need?

The first thing a campaign needs is luck. Even a great marketing concept could be derailed by high-profile public events, competitor activity or a bigger negative story.

The next thing it needs is a simple concept. Think of the ALS Association’s ice bucket challenge, the Cadbury’s drumming gorilla or the John Lewis Christmas adverts.

Viral marketing campaigns have more chance of success if they use a few of the following elements: slogans, a catchy song, comedy, topicality and/or a dedicated social media hashtag.

Campaigns should ideally trigger an emotional reaction, perhaps using humour but potentially also triggering shock or sympathy.

It’s crucial to create content in an appropriate format – short videos for TikTok and YouTube, or memes for Instagram and whatever Twitter is calling itself by the time you read this.

Can a viral marketing campaign be created from scratch?

Because viral marketing relies on people wanting to share favourable content among people they know, it’s difficult to stage-manage a successful campaign.

The odds lengthen further if you’re a small business or sole trader with a limited audience, since the pool of people initially viewing whatever content you create is that much smaller.

Nonetheless, even a LinkedIn post could spread like wildfire if people engage with it. You certainly don’t need a big budget – just an original message or arresting concept.

Encouraging user-generated content often ignites a viral campaign, such as setting the public a challenge.

A firm might ask their customers to take selfies with their latest product in unusual locations, instigating a race to see who can choose the oddest backdrop.

A sense of competition is essential here; the ice bucket challenge became increasingly ridiculous as people tried to outdo one another.

With the right ingredients, even a humble product or prosaic service can achieve awareness levels and positive brand associations no conventional marketing campaign could hope to accomplish.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!