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What is Viral Marketing, and Why Does it Matter?

What is Viral Marketing, and Why Does it Matter?

Viral marketing refers to marketing techniques that seek to spread information about a product or service from person to person as a virus spreads from one host to another. It leverages the power of social media, email, and other digital channels to achieve exponential reach and exposure.

As people increasingly rely on technology and online networks for information, viral marketing has emerged as one of the most potent, cost-effective strategies for brands looking to supercharge their growth. This guide will explore what makes viral marketing campaigns tick, spotlighting some of the most spellbinding examples while unpacking the psychology underpinning their success.

The Anatomy of Virality: Key Ingredients for Potent Campaigns

How Viral Marketing Works

Viral marketing campaigns succeed when they incorporate specific emotional and psychological triggers that motivate people to engage and share with their networks. These include:

  • Surprise/unexpectedness: Content that subverts expectations piques curiosity and interest
  • Positivity: Feel-good, uplifting messages resonate more widely.
  • Humour: Laughter transcends barriers and makes ideas stick
  • Controversy: Ideas that stir debate tend to spread as people take sides
  • Utility: Useful, practical content drives shares by providing value
  • Emotion: Stories that make people feel inspired engagement
  • Social currency: Content seen as conveying status often goes viral

Skilfully incorporating these ingredients can spur ordinary people into unpaid brand ambassadors as they eagerly share posts that make them look intelligent, in-the-know or generous to their peers.

Key Virality Triggers

  • Surprise/unexpectedness 
  • Positivity
  • Humour
  • Controversy
  • Utility 
  • Emotion
  • Social currency

But viral success doesn't happen by chance. Brands increase their odds by strategically seeding content to amplify and direct the spread.

Seeding for Scale: How to Strategically Kickstart the Viral Process

Releasing a viral marketing campaign into the digital wilderness without a distribution plan is like throwing a party without sending the invites. For campaigns to explode, brands must proactively seed content within relevant networks. This stimulates the sharing momentum and word-of-mouth buzz vital for exposure and traffic growth.

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Potential seeding strategies include:

  • Influencer marketing: Get influencers or industry leaders to share posts with their followers
  • Owned media: Share new campaigns prominently across owned sites and social channels
  • Employee activation: Mobilise staff to communicate content within their networks
  • Paid amplification: Run targeted ads linking to the viral content to widen its reach
  • Community outreach: Activate brand advocates and loyal customers to kickstart organic spread
  • Email marketing: Deploy to current subscriber lists to build initial momentum
  • Cross-promotion: Feature the campaign prominently on on-site pop-ups, banners and tooltips

The exact combination of seeding tactics depends on budget, owned assets, influencer relationships and campaign goals. But the focus should be on igniting that initial spark to get people engaging and fuel sustainable viral momentum.

Case Study: Dollar Shave Club

Dollar Shave Club Design

Dollar Shave Club launched in 2012 with a viral product demo video that exploded, triggering 12,000 orders within 48 hours. The irreverent, mock-infomercial style ad resonated widely thanks to humour, novelty and an innate understanding of internet culture.

Dollar Shave Club's Initial Seeding Tactics

  1. Shared by founder Michael Dubin to his social followers 
  2. Sent to a small list of friends and family to kickstart momentum
  3. Embedded on the startup's essential website to capture visitor shares

This strategic approach meant the video didn't emerge and die in obscurity. Instead, it steadily accumulated social chatter before crossing the threshold for rapid sharing. The rest was viral history.

Psychology-Driven Design: Crafting Contagious Content

Viral content doesn't spread itself. To inspire epidemic levels of sharing, brands need to bake viral triggers into their creative strategy and campaign architecture.

The CASE Framework

Developed by Harvard researchers, CASE offers a blueprint for engineering viral sharing. It asks creators to consider four key questions:

Currency: Does the content offer timely, helpful information that people want to stay updated? Trending topics and news-jackable moments often trend online.

Altruism: Does it make people seem kind or generous for sharing it? We share to make ourselves look good.

Social: Does the idea resonate with groups and relationships? Network-oriented content spreads faster.

Emotion: Does it capture attention and imagination through powerful feelings? We share what we feel.

Thinking through CASE when conceptualising campaigns encourages viral thinking from the start. But psychology should inform design, too…

Applying Social Psychology

Powerful sharing triggers are woven into our collective behavioural DNA. Calls-to-action can activate them.

  • Reciprocity – ‘Share this, and I'll share your page.'
  • Social proof – '87k people shared this!
  • Scarcity – ‘Limited time only!' ‘Only three remaining!'
  • Authority – ‘As featured in…' logos and citations
  • Liking – Images/spokespeople people find attractive or relate to

These principles subtly yet profoundly impact sharing behaviours at scale. By strategically highlighting them, brands inspire faster, more frequent viral spread.

Optimising for Shareability

Beyond psychology and strategy, campaign construction matters hugely for contagiousness. Formats should remove friction from engaging and sharing, putting virality on autopilot.

Shareability Optimisation Tips

  • Lead with intriguing headlines/questions 
  • Use captions/subtitles to preview content
  • Front-load key moments  
  • Add clickbait thumbnail images 
  • Include forward-facing calls-to-action  
  • Make sharing frictionless with social plug-ins
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With creativity and intelligent UX design, campaigns can practically share themselves.

Mastering the Art of Storytelling

Hero Brand Archetype

Stories represent the underlying dialect of human connection, and ideas spread stories. That's why narrative-driven marketing tends to tear through networks. But great yarns don't just happen. Skilful story architects intentionally engineer narrative tension, empathy and resolution into their tales.

The Hero's Journey: A Blueprint for Viral Stories

All compelling myths and legends seem to share a fundamental structure. Joseph Campbell called it ‘the hero's journey' in his seminal text The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He noted that ‘go viral' memes often echo this universal storytelling roadmap.

The hero's journey unfolds as follows:

  1. The Ordinary World: We meet the hero pre-transformation in their everyday environment.
  2. Call to Adventure: The inciting incident/opportunity that kickstarts change.
  3. Refusal: The hero initially hesitates, afraid to embrace the journey
  4. Mentorship: A mentor arrives to convince the hero to take action
  5. Crossing the Threshold: The hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure.
  6. Tests + Trials: Obstacles and challenges arise to frustrate the mission
  7. Approach to Crisis: The journey culminates in an ultimate ‘do or die' showdown
  8. Reward – Victory! The hero's efforts pay off as the goal is achieved.
  9. The Return: They return home transformed by the experience
  10. New Equilibrium: Life resumes, but it will never be the same again…

This narrative arc taps into timeless storytelling patterns etched into our minds. Emulating it makes viral content feel richer, more compelling and ‘share-worthy.'

Crafting Relatable Characters

The hero represents us. They express our hopes, dreams and struggles. That's why we catastrophise over their fate like they're old friends. To inspire viral engagement, brands should craft messages starring everyday protagonists their communities can connect with.

Relatable Character Tropes

  • Underdogs
  • Passionate Mavericks  
  • Quirky Misfits
  • ‘The Zany One'
  • Aspiring Learners
  • People who look like your audience

Relatability, vulnerability and imperfection – not polished celebrity tropes – forge bonds with audiences that turn them into receptive viral vehicles.

Storytelling Through Multiple Formats

Baking virality into modern campaigns requires matching formats with moments to drive narrative tension and resolution through touchpoints.

E.g. Awareness > Interest > Consideration > Action

Viral Storytelling Formats 

  1. Video trailers and product demos
  2. Interactive polls, quizzes and games 
  3. Daily email journeys and challenge sequences 
  4. Serialised cartoon strips and comics
  5. Multi-part blogs, vlogs and podcast episodes 
  6. Augmented reality try-ons and engagements
  7. Phygital experiences blending AR, VR and real-world moments

Formatting content for episodic consumption keeps audiences leaning forward, awaiting the next instalment. This strings out attention while multiplying touchpoints to convert viewers into evangelists who corral others into the journey.

Growth Hacking: Unconventional Marketing for Exponential Reach

Growth Hacking Funnel

Growth hacking represents the building and executing of rapid experiments across platforms to supercharge viral adoption. It provides rocket fuel for early-stage startups looking to gain traction fast by any means necessary.

The Four Tenets of Growth Hacking

  • Product Marketing – Optimising product virality triggers 
  • Creative Marketing – Producing viral content for amplification  
  • Analytical Marketing – Data-driven optimisation and testing  
  • Tech Marketing – Automation and strategic integrations

While the lines between growth hacking and marketing blur over time, the emphasis remains on aggressive testing and non-traditional tricks to kickstart exponential growth.

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How Growth Hackers' Hack Growth

With an entrepreneur's risk tolerance and hunger for scale, growth hackers commandeer the entire marketing stack to find cracks where viral momentum hides. Tactics stretch far beyond the realms of conventionality, including:

  • Referral program testing – Experimenting with discounts, tiers and rewards to maximise conversion and sharing
  • Social channel testing – Trying multiple platforms to uncover the most viral content/messaging fit
  • Influencer experiments – Getting creative with equity offers, collaborations and co-marketing deals
  • Syndication and aggregation – Repurposing and licensing content to third-party sites
  • Algorithm manipulation – Reverse-engineering platforms through rapid testing to increase visibility
  • reviews and integrations – Making it ultra-easy for fans to share and spread the word
  • PR stunts and exclusives – Pitching newsworthy stories to grab attention and social heat

Where traditional marketers see boundaries, growth hackers see hurdles to overcome however possible. Every platform and channel represents a potential launchpad for exponential takeoff.

Hustling > Budgets

Growth hacking thrives on hustle over hefty budgets. With enough drive and creativity, it's surprising how dramatically startups can boost traction through unconventional experiments.

Legendary examples include:

  • Airbnb using election night Obama/McCain cereal to spark early PR
  • Spotify incentivising sharing by enabling listeners to access playlists
  • Uber surprising users with UberKITTENS and UberPUPPIES on demand
  • The Skimm incentivising readers to act as brand ambassadors and content co-creators

Scrappy startups willing to take risks and leverage their networks creatively gain early footing. This momentum unlocks access to capital that funds increasing-scale future experiments and platform testing.

Viral Marketing Case Studies

The following case studies showcase viral marketing campaigns of differing shapes and sizes that took the world by storm. They offer a window into the strategy and execution factors driving breakthrough success.

Blippi Videos for Kids: Viewed Over 8 Billion Times

Blippi Viral Marketing Example

Blippi, the wildly popular children's educational YouTube channel, understands better than anyone how to engineer videos to trigger algorithmic amplification. With almost 200 million subscribers, Blippi (aka Stevin John) invites toddlers and preschoolers into fantastic worlds blending music, physical comedy, and skills-based learning.

Virality lessons:

  • Ultra-frequent video output sustains visibility
  • Videos target trending kid topics and themes
  • Maximise watch time and engaging moments throughout
  • The upbeat tone keeps toddlers transfixed
  • Family-focused collaborative consumption model
  • YouTube data-driven topic selection and optimisation

Blippi's formula for consistent, copious engagement continually wins algorithmic promotion, compounding an astronomical view count into the billions.

The Ice Bucket Challenge: From Zero to $250 Million for ALS

The 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge remains the poster child for viral fundraising campaigns. It began with former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. To raise awareness, he created a campaign where participants filmed themselves getting doused in ice water before nominating others to repeat the stunt.

This sparked a chain reaction on social media, with celebrities from Oprah to Lady Gaga embracing #IceBucketChallenge. Views exploded into the billions, securing millions in donations for ALS charities.

Virality Lessons:

  • The nomination element baked into social sharing
  • Unexpected spectacle tapped into voyeurism
  • Involved celebrities droves amplification
  • A tight feedback loop maintains momentum
  • Easy to replicate and participate
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By blending entertainment, mobility and social competition, the Ice Bucket Challenge won hearts and headlines and opened wallets en masse.

Will it Blend?: 79 Million Views on YouTube

Will It Blend Viral Marketing Campaign

When Blendtec founder Tom Dickson began uploading grainy videos showing his industrial blenders pulverise iPhones, glow sticks and other household objects, few could've predicted their viral ascendance. But the “Will It Blend?” series exploded, demonstrating how niche product marketing can flourish in the internet's untamed waters.

Virality Lessons

  • Short runtimes fit viewing habits
  • Shock factor/unexpectedness
  • Serialised episodes build anticipation
  • Interactive channel community rewards engagement
  • Vital visual payoff/money shot

Will it Blend didn't try to mimic the slick corporate video. Instead, it embraced the medium's raw, unscripted feel while leaning into shareable moments week after week. This authenticity struck a chord with 79 million curious viewers and counting.

Leveraging Influencers for Maximum Impact

Niche Social Influencers

Influencer marketing represents collaborating with personalities who wield sizable social clout to expand campaign reach. It hinges on the psychological principles of liking and social proof, with audiences more receptive to ideas trumpeted by voices they know and relate to.

The Anatomy of Impactful Influencer Partnerships

Successful influencer collaborations blend brand needs with influencer strengths to craft something resonating authentically for both sides. Core elements include:

  • Complementary values + aesthetics – Ensures conceptual alignment from the start
  • Multi-platform seeding – Leverages owned, earned and influencer channels
  • Co-created + customised content – Resonates more genuinely with persona-specific communities
  • Performance metrics + analysis – Provides a blueprint for campaign optimisation and expansion

The most effective partnerships feel less like mercenary commercial transactions and more like strategic friendships. This leads to long-term wins as creativity flows and communities unite behind collaborative viral visions.

Influencer Archetype Examples

Brands seeking maximum amplification should scout influencers spanning archetypes that engage distinct yet similarly valuable audiences through differing viral currencies.

Key Influencer Archetypes

  • Celebrities – Followers: Vast. Virality: Very High 
  • Macro-influencers – Followers: Multi-million. Virality: High
  • Power Niche Micros – Followers: 100k-500k. Virality: High 
  • Hyper-Engaged Nano Influencers – Followers: <10k. Virality: Moderate
  • E&E's – Employees & Enthusiasts. Followers: Small. Virality: Low

Layering multiple tiers gives campaigns the best chance of resonating widely while retaining niche depth where it matters most. Micro and nano influencers drive credibility and engagement efficiently when strategically activated.

The Rise of Virtual Influencers

CGI influencers with fictional identities, backstories and values are exploding in popularity across platforms from Instagram to TikTok. Mirrored on real-world role models, these “virtual humans” wield disproportionate sway thanks to their idealised (and tirelessly optimised) existence.

Top examples include:

Notable Virtual Influencers

  • Lil Miquela – 3 million IG followers   
  • Knox Frost – 1.8 million TikTok followers
  • Shudu – 245k IG followers  
  • Imma – 367k IG followers

Free from the constraints of reality, virtual influencers represent the frontier of fabricated virality. They also raise intriguing questions about disclosure and ethics, given the inability to discern real from fake identity in the digital domain.

Harnessing the Power of Going Viral

Likelihood Of Going Viral

Once unleashed, viral content can take on a life of its own – spreading far beyond campaign KPIs. But exponential growth doesn't happen randomly:

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Preparing for Turbulence: Managing Campaigns That Go Super Viral

When campaigns explode faster and broader than expected, brands can be overwhelmed by the influx of sudden attention. Without contingency protocols, infrastructure strains under the load. Customer experience suffers. Opportunities get missed.

To ride unpredictable viral waves smoothly, marketers should:

  • Stress test site capacity – Use load testing tools (e.g. Loader.io) to find and fix bottlenecks
  • Line up extra creative assets – Have additional images, gifs and videos approved and on standby
  • Prepare CRMs and sales teams – Scale support capabilities to handle spikes in inquiries
  • Automate where possible – Set up chatbots, email nurture streams and basic feedback handling
  • Get leadership aligned – Ensure decision-makers are briefed and ready to go

With the stability to withstand flashes of intensity, brands transform internet brushfires into catalysts driving exponential business progress.

Case Study: Exploding Kid

In 2007, Utah teenager David DeVore Jr accidentally became an early viral icon when his dad uploaded a video of David emerging from anaesthetic. His woozy, meme-worthy reaction spawned hundreds of musical remixes and parodies.

Unprepared for the spotlight, David retreated from public view despite coveting fame. He later reflected:

It was too much attention for me to handle. I didn't know how to control it. I made some mistakes. I'll be ready if I ever get another chance at fame.

Monetising Memetic Moments

Lightning traction brings commercial possibilities. But brands must strategically strike before momentum melts. Potential revenue streams include:

  • Merchandise – T-shirts, mugs, and socks featuring viral slogans/images
  • Advertising – Monetize site traffic spikes via Google AdSense
  • Donations – Add payment integrations while urgency and eyes accelerate generosity
  • Transactional Conversions – Offer special promotions to capture sales
  • Licensing content – Let media companies compensate for redistribution rights
  • Crowdfunding – Launch projects while public awareness and goodwill peak
  • Selling data assets – Consumer data gains value from virality
  • Paid content subscriptions – Offer exclusive materials to paying members

With creative commercialisation, brands transform social currency into economic currency before invisible internet points disappear back into the ether.

The Risks of Going Viral

Despite the headline-grabbing hype and hockey stick growth charts, viral launches can boomerang if strategy neglects broader imperatives around safety, ethics and brand building beyond clicks.

The Pitfalls of Prioritising Virality Above All Else

While tentpole viral marketing campaigns can break through the noise, focusing too narrowly on explosions often obscures broader business fundamentals still required for sustainable success.

Potential Downsides Include:

  • Forced gimmicks – Trying too hard for novelty backfires
  • Budget burn – Expensive campaigns fail more spectacularly
  • Attention displacement – Fleeting spikes undermine long-term metrics
  • Infrastructure overload – Platforms crash under the weight of their success
  • Community misalignment – Reach exceeds relevance
  • Exposes blindspots – Sudden scale stresses expose operational cracks

Like an inferno burning through cash reserves and public goodwill, chasing viral pyrotechnics risks spectacular collapse unless ignited carefully and grounded in business basics beyond the hype.

Safeguarding Reputation Amidst Rampant Misinformation

Virality favours sensationalism over truth. Inattention allows misinformation and conspiracies to metastasise rapidly amidst potent outrage. Psychological blindspots impede self-correction. This necessitates added vigilance.

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Brands should:

  • Rapidly issue clarifications – Don't let false claims gain traction
  • Contact platform admins – Report verifiably fake or misleading content
  • Moderate communities tightly – Keep discussions constructive
  • Avoid knee-jerk reactions – Carefully evaluate the validity of critiques
  • Prioritise transparency – Proactively share processes and data

While neutralising disinformation entirely may prove impossible, facts hold power. Even limited reach helps inoculate audiences against the viral spread of lies.

Preserving Organic Authority Over the Long Haul

Gamed trends and engineered moments seed doubts over authenticity. Once magic wears off, engagement falls back to earth. This necessitates balancing top-down orchestration with organic community connection.

Tips to Sustain Engagement Authority 

❏ Encourage user-generated content and co-creation  

❏ Cultivate niche community conversations

❏ Gradually decentralise publishing power  

❏ Maintain candid dialogue amidst critique

❏ Invest in relationships beyond transactions

Marketers must toggle between pouring rocket fuel on embers while fanning flames bottom-up through lasting human relationships that turn ephemeral excitement into movements with meaningful momentum.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is viral marketing?

Viral marketing refers to branded content and ideas designed to spread rapidly from person to person on digital platforms through techniques that trigger high levels of organic sharing and engagement.

What makes a campaign go viral?

Viral campaigns tend to incorporate specific ingredients like humour, surprise, controversy and intense emotions that motivate people to share content with their networks, exponentially amplifying reach.

How do you make viral content?

To make viral content, identify critical psychological sharing triggers to bake into your campaign narrative and presentation strategy. Craft relatable stories starring everyday characters. And strategically format and structure content to remove friction from engaging and sharing.

What is an example of successful viral marketing?

Classic examples of viral success include the Will It Blends YouTube videos (79 million views) and the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $250 million for ALS charities. Both leveraged unexpected spectacles and potent social dynamics to achieve exponential amplification.

How can I make my business go viral?

Boost your chances of viral success by obsessing over shareability and social currency signals when crafting content. Proactively seed campaigns within your existing communities and networks. And don't hesitate to experiment with unconventional guerrilla marketing tactics if growth remains elusive.

Conclusion

Viral marketing represents a unique chance to spark movements through messages that sell themselves. Campaigns take flight on their momentum as people eagerly spread ideas offering value, entertainment or meaning.

Yet manufactured memetic moments mean little without lasting substance grounded in human connection and business fundamentals beyond the hype. Great campaigns balance orchestration with community collaboration to sustain liftoff beyond initial explosions.

The rest comes down to understanding social psychology, embracing creativity and taking bold risks to produce sparks amplified by networks ready to watch campaigns soar higher and faster than imaginable, even in today's hyper-connected cultural landscape.

So, are you ready to architect ideas built to spread? The world awaits whatever viral visions you're prepared to unleash…

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Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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