Viral Marketing

The 6 key ingredients to a viral marketing campaign

When you say something “went viral,” you’re saying it spread rapidly from person to person—like a virus. Writing this in early 2021, we’re not going to go there, but keep the image of rapid-fire transmission in mind as you read more about what viral marketing is, how a viral campaign is achieved and how you can develop a viral marketing strategy for your brand.

Viral marketing can be considered a uniquely 21st century form of marketing. That’s because it’s largely—and in many cases, exclusively—spread through social media. The concept actually dates back to the mid 90s, with Hotmail’s campaign that offered free email addresses to new subscribers. At the time, that was groundbreaking. And as a result, Hotmail had about a million subscribers within the next six months.

Viral marketing is a high risk, high reward type of marketing. Even with the most careful planning, you can’t guarantee your campaign will go viral… but you can certainly take actions that increase the likelihood of it. Take a look at some of the most famous viral campaigns to understand how they worked and why they worked.

What does it mean to go viral?

Basically, with a viral campaign, you’re relying on people outside your organization to keep the campaign alive by sharing it.

Because of this, viral marketing can be one of the most cost-effective marketing strategies available to you. You don’t have to pay anybody anything to share your post or use the hashtag you created. All you have to do is introduce something people want to share, and they take it from there.

But here’s the catch: you can never guarantee a campaign will go viral. Think of it like calculated gambling: you can optimize it for success but ultimately, you don’t get to decide what goes viral.

black text with a roach in the letter V against a yellow background

Logo design by TEWGG via 99designs by Vista.

Viral marketing can be a great tool for lead generation, building brand awareness and cementing your brand in a specific demographic’s mind.

One example of viral marketing that made its brand a household name is AirBnB’s #livethere campaign. Using the hashtag #livethere, AirBnB users posted photos and videos of their unique experiences staying in AirBnB properties across the globe. Now, the brand is synonymous with inexpensive, immersive travel, all because AirBnB took a risk and had users handle the marketing.

Other well-known examples of viral marketing:

Share a Coke ad with Anna and Zach Coke bottles


  • Share a Coke
  • Ice bucket challenge
  • Dove’s real beauty sketches
  • Shot on iPhone X
  • Cadbury’s limited edition orange twirl
unlit LED Aqua Teen Hunger Force advertisement

Adult Swim’s designs were controversial in more ways than one, via Wikimedia Commons

Viral marketing has a lot in common with using memes in your marketing. In fact, creating a meme—or using one in a hilarious way that grabs attention—is a clear path to viral success.

Just be careful that the attention you grab is positive attention, not negative. In an attempt at guerilla marketing (a close sibling to viral marketing), Adult Swim made headlines in 2007 when snarky lite brite designs placed around Boston were mistaken for bombs.

The principles of creating a viral marketing campaign

Like any other marketing strategy, there are key principles to follow when spreading your branded wings and going viral:

  1. Send out the feels with an emotional connection
  2. Make it shareable
  3. Perfect your timing
  4. Use the right platform, the right way
  5. You’ve gotta be unique
  6. Exude authenticity

1. Send out the feels with an emotional connection

For your viral campaign to connect with people, it has to connect with them emotionally. Whatever emotion it touches, like compassion, bewilderment, ecstatic joy, a desire to have something, FOMO… it needs to hit people “in the feels” to drive them to share it.

For a while in 2019, the orange-flavored Twirl was so elusive, Cadbury had fans thinking it wasn’t even real—and created a candy frenzy that rivaled Wonka’s golden ticket campaign in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

three orange twirls on an orange background

Via Delish

This is why so many viral campaigns involve progressive values. Not necessarily political talking points, but pro-social ideas that make people feel good about supporting.

A few examples of successful viral campaigns for messages include Always with their #likeagirl campaign, New York State’s “Mask Up, America” and the WWF’s 2008 campaign that placed 1,600 paper mache pandas in Paris to bring attention to the species’ dwindling numbers in the wild.

You’ll rarely see a viral campaign for a more conservative standpoint because they tend to be far more divisive. Pretty much anyone, regardless of their political views, can get behind protecting pandas from extinction.

2. Make it shareable

Your materials also have to be shareable somehow. Shareability is the backbone of any viral marketing campaign.

yellow hashtag logo with the text “HashtagHello”

Logo design by Musique! via 99designs by Vista.

Maybe it’s through a hashtag, maybe it’s through imagery that can easily be manipulated and replicated, maybe it’s by giving something away that people will see others have and want for themselves. If it’s not easy to share, it can’t go viral.

Take, for example, the cronut. In 2013, Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City went viral when their latest creation, the cronut (croissant + donut) hit social media. Overnight, the chicest thing you could be seen with was a cronut and traffic to the bakery’s website rose more than 300 percent. A pastry is super shareable… if you’re sharing a photo, that is.

product photography of five cronuts lined up in a row

A selection of their sweetest cronuts, via Dominique Ansel

Another way to gain viral visibility is to get in on a trend that’s already gone viral. When “the dress” shook the internet in 2015, brands large and small meme’d it into their marketing almost immediately. One creative take was Dunkin’ Donuts’ Instagram post featuring two donuts paired with the caption, “Doesn’t matter if it’s blue/black or white/gold, they still taste delicious. #thedress.”

It works because viral marketing is, essentially, a worldwide conversation. Sharing a viral image is chiming into that conversation, making you part of the “in group.”

The concept of a worldwide conversation and getting into one long predates the internet-based viral marketing we use today. It’s the same foundation that brought us meme culture and can be seen in slogans and images like Andre the Giant has a Posse (later known as The Obey Giant) and lore developed in the leadup to The Blair Witch Project’s release.

3. Perfect your timing

Your campaign’s gotta be timely. Study the latest trends in what’s working for other companies in your field and what your target audience is into right now to get a sense of the zeitgeist you’re releasing your campaign into.

Take Baby Yoda, for example. If you were anywhere online in December 2019, your feeds were blowing up with pictures of that viral green toddler.

Baby Yoda

Via Popular Mechanics

Google Trends is a great tool to see what’s currently trending. You can see how popular a particular search query has been since 2004, where in the world it’s most popular and most importantly, you can see if it’s already peaked in popularity.

ripeness cycle of a banana

At what stage of ripeness is your viral campaign? Image via Free Pik.

Whether you’re aiming to create your own viral campaign or work an existing one into your marketing efforts, this information can help you see whether something’s still fresh, at the peak of ripeness or already going stale.

There’s also a more literal component to this: posting at the right time of day, the right day of the week. Schedule your posts for the peak time of day for your chosen platform to ensure the widest possible audience sees them. The best time of day to post varies from platform to platform, so find out which posting schedule works best for the platforms you’re on.

4. Use the right platform, the right way

Today, every brand is on social media if they want to reach their audience and stay relevant. But not every brand is on every platform and not every platform is the right choice for your viral campaign.

Successful viral marketing means choosing the right platform for your campaign—even if (ideally, when) it crosses onto other platforms, picking the right one to get it started is crucial. One famous viral campaign that couldn’t have been as successful on any other platform was Xbox Design Lab’s #MakeItYours campaign, where they asked gamers to post their own customized Xbox controllers to Instagram.

Instagram exists for sharing photos, so for a campaign driving people to customize their Xbox controllers, making Instagram that showcase made perfect sense.

Another great example of viral marketing that gained a ton of traction on social media was Adidas’ raffle for their NMD Pitch Black sneakers. Sneakerheads love Instagram almost as much as they love footwear, so when Adidas needed to build hype for the NMD Pitch Black, they did it with a cross-platform contest that had Instagram followers watch a Snap to get a hidden phone number, then text that phone number to enter the raffle.

Instagram screenshot showing Adidas NMD Pitch Black sneakers and raffle instructions

Via Adidas

Out of more than 16 million Instagram followers, 100 won a pair of the sneakers—out of the total of 500 manufactured. By creating this raffle, Adidas did more than promote a new release and build hype—they drove a ton of traffic to their Snapchat account.

As you map out your viral marketing campaign, think about which platforms your followers are on and where your message would be most likely to be shared. For a highly visual campaign, Instagram is the no-brainer choice. But for something where video best captures your campaign, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, you’re best off with a platform meant for video like Youtube or TikTok (and yes, we know you can post videos on Instagram… but there’s a difference between a photo platform where you can publish videos and platforms designed and optimized for publishing videos.)

One key strategy for viral marketing success is partnering with the influencers your audience pays the most attention to. If they follow particular Youtubers, work with those Youtubers to light the kindling that will ideally get your campaign roaring.

5. You’ve gotta be unique

Study what’s worked, but don’t copy what’s worked. It’s a fine line to walk, but when you’re trying to go viral, you have to be unique.

Think about how Baby Yoda exploded onto the meme scene and how companies tried to ride its tailwinds by creating regressed versions of their mascots like Baby Mr. Peanut. You’ve forgotten all of them except Baby Yoda, because Baby Yoda came first.

CGI Baby Nut

Via Today

How unique you need to be depends on whether you’re creating your own viral marketing strategy or simply hopping onto an existing viral trend. If it’s the latter, your success depends on your ability to put your own memorable spin on the trend, like we saw Dunkin’ Donuts do with their #thedress-inspired post.

Creating your own viral campaign requires a whole lot more work on your part. Forget about replicating something that’s been done before—you’ll fall flat.

Instead, think about your marketing goals. What are you trying to achieve with your viral campaign? Is it to promote a specific product? To promote your brand? To spread a message? To make an announcement about your brand, like a business pivot or a new logo?

Metro Trains Melbourne took their message of safety viral in 2014 with their Youtube video and free app Dumb Ways to Die. And it worked, too! Rail accidents went down 21 percent following the campaign.

Via Dumb Ways To Die

With a specific, actionable goal in mind, start working out how you can drive people to take the action you want them to take. For a brand promotion, this might be encouraging them to post photos of themselves with your products and tag them with a hashtag. For a new product, this might mean distributing it in a creative way like through a contest or raffle.

The key is to give it a unique spin that engages people—like sharing something hilarious with their friends or sharing their opinion in a heated discussion.

6. Exude authenticity

And just like you’ve got to be unique, you’ve got to be authentic. People know when they’re being pandered to—and if your audience feels you’re doing this to them, expect to go viral for the wrong reason.

Via Dove

Remember how we said your viral campaign should elicit some kind of emotional response, whether that’s laughter, compassion, awe or the kind of anger that drives people to take action? That’s the part that has to be authentic. You can’t tell people what to feel; your campaign has to provoke authentic responses.

WWF campaign featuring a gorilla, a tiger and a panda


Once you’ve got some rudimentary ideas sketched out, test them. Work with your team and people in your target demographic to determine whether the ideas you’re exploring elicit the responses you’re after. When you’re planning a marketing campaign, viral or otherwise, this kind of data is golden. It’s the data you’ll use to refine and reshape your ideas into fully workable campaigns.

When SHOULDN’T you use viral marketing?

Viral marketing isn’t always the way to go. In fact, it could be a total fail if your company/campaign goals aren’t the right fit for viral sharing.

For example, Pepsi’s “Join the Conversation” campaign during the Black Lives Matter protests fell flat. Let’s dissect that a bit… why did it fall flat? Because despite the intended message being one of unity and understanding, the primary image was construed as trivializing the protests by implying protesters and law enforcement could find happiness in Pepsi.

The lesson here is: don’t try to latch onto a serious, emotionally charged subject to market a product.

Don’t misunderstand that to mean you can’t successfully use a viral campaign to draw attention to a serious cause. Some of the most successful viral campaigns of the last decade, like the Ice Bucket Challenge and i love boobies! did just that.

man dumping ice out of a red bucket onto his head

Via Wikimedia Commons

To sum up:

  • Campaign to draw attention to a serious cause = yes
  • Campaign using a serious issue to draw attention to a product = no

Another reason why you might want to avoid viral marketing is if your audience wouldn’t respond to it. Viral marketing works with Millennial and Gen Z consumers because they’ve grown up with viral campaigns. Older consumers can be less likely to share viral images because they spend less time on social media and simply might not be as interested in being part of viral campaigns as their children and grandchildren. As with everything else in the world of branding and marketing, you need to know your audience.

Ready for rapid transmission?

If you’ve got an exciting new product or message, or if your brand is simply exciting in itself and you’ve got an audience who’s excited to be part of it, a viral marketing campaign could be what skyrockets you to insta-success. Just make sure you’ve got all the ingredients (in the right ratios, depending on your brand, your audience and what you’re trying to make viral) and just the right luck to make it all come together.

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Author: Lindsay Kramer