Viral marketing definition and examples

Social Media Specialist
Updated 25 September, 2023
Lauren Taylor
Social Media Specialist
Viral marketing is one of the most widespread advertising strategies. It helps to improve brand awareness quickly, increasing a company’s sales and profits. In this article, we are going to look at its definition, advantages and disadvantages, how it works, and the best examples of the campaigns.
Reading time — 9 minutes

Viral marketing definition — what is it?

Viral marketing is a brand promotion strategy. It is characterized by the exponential growth of brand metrics and performing most of the promotion activity by potential and real consumers. The brand only needs to give a good trigger to start with.

One could assume that viral marketing appeared with the development of social networks because it is social networks that have become the main channel of it. It happened so because sharing content on the networks is easier than anywhere else. However, the idea of viral marketing appeared before social networks. Moreover, in the first viral campaigns, the product was distributed offline.

So, viral marketing was first mentioned in 1989. Then John Bownes of City Bank explained how the company made employees want to change Compaqs to the Macintosh SEs when the company needed this change. His words accurately and briefly describe how viral marketing works: "It's viral marketing. You get one or two in and they spread throughout the company" (PC User magazine, 1989).

The first time when a company used viral marketing to promote its own product was in 1995. Then, Sony Entertainment was about to launch the first PlayStation. The brand understood that consumers wouldn't buy PlayStations that are pushed at them, which was usual for product promotion. Then the brand focused only on the insiders of the gaming world, who then spread information about the PlayStations to the rest.

The term "viral marketing" didn't become popular right away. At first, people said "network-enhanced word-of-mouth" (1997, Jurvetson and Drape) or "electronic word-of-mouth" to refer to the idea. They would also call it "an online version of the offline word-of-mouth". These describe the idea quite well.

According to one version, the term "viral marketing" was popularized by Harvard Business School faculty member Jeffrey Rayport. He used the term in the 1996 Fast Company article "The Virus of Marketing".

It is also believed that Tim Draper who graduated from the same Harvard Business School and Steve Jurvetson of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson affected the popularization of the "viral marketing" term. In 1997, they described how they promoted their Hotmail with viral marketing. They just added a suggestion to all outgoing user emails, it offered to create an email account for free. As a result, the number of users has grown 50 times.

There is also a version that the term "viral marketing" was popularized by Esther Dyson in 1999. He disapproved of the term "word-of-mouth". Also, he added another crucial characteristic to the viral marketing definition and description. He stressed that people spread information about a brand not for material gain. So, in "Second Sight: Melissa is a marketing tool", The Guardian (London, England), April 08, 1999, Esther Dyson said:

"The best viral marketing is not just word-of-mouth, as some people carelessly assume. Nor is it multi-level marketing, where Juan sells to Alice and then gets a cut of whatever Alice sells to Fred. It is when users actively recruit other users, not for pay, but because they benefit from a larger user pool, just as virus DNA benefits from the spread of a virus."

Understanding viral marketing roots allows you to understand how it works more accurately. Now let's take a closer look at the mechanics of modern viral marketing, which is used mostly online, in social networks in particular. And then let's figure out how to build your successful viral strategy.

How does viral marketing work?

Viral marketing works quite simply. A company’s marketer creates content that is likely to attract the target audience and make them want to share, then they promote it on the internet. After that, the only thing to do is to wait until the users start sending the content to each other at the speed of light.

Creating content for a viral marketing campaign, a company should define its dispersion strategy. It can be either evident or concealed. In the former case, the users are aware that they are viewing a brand's commercial. In the latter case, the marketing nature of the content is revealed at the end or not revealed at all.

What makes content viral and contagious

There are three main pillars of successful viral marketing. If you want your campaign to bring results, care to meet them.

1. Free to get and share

Goods or content that you use in your viral marketing campaign must be free and easily accessible for all users. This helps to create interest among potential consumers all over the world, even though they may not contribute to increasing the company’s sales.

2. Easy to send

The procedure of sharing the content should be very easy. For instance, users might be invited to pass it on using Instagram or Facebook, WhatsApp or via email. It can be any app, website or service that is used by all (or almost all) users of any age, location, or interests. This is essential for a viral marketing strategy.

3. Sensible message

Think thoroughly about the message for your viral marketing campaign. The shared content should be associated with something that promotes respect, confidence, or emotional appeal, or be socially important. It could be an attractive picture, a celebrity’s quotation, or some official statistical data.

Viral marketing advantages

Marketers all over the world use viral strategies to increase a brand's awareness and its reputation. No wonder because such strategies have strong advantages.

Viral marketing:

  • is an opportunity to diversify the content.
  • allows a brand to reach a large audience.
  • is a good influence on credibility since the content is usually got from friends.
  • engages and builds an emotional bond between a brand and its audience.
  • has low cost and no worse result.

Let's have a closer look at the four main viral marketing advantages.

1. Low cost

Compared to other types of promotional strategies, viral marketing enables to get hundreds of new profile visitors with almost no expenses. It makes a great profit/cost ratio.

2. Rapid audience growth

A viral campaign shows the first marketing results within hours. Most users access their social media accounts several times a day. So in a few days, you may get a considerably high users' activity.

3. Great reach rate

Viral adverts can potentially be shared with a huge international audience that goes beyond the company’s TA. For instance, young people can show a viral video to their elderly parents just because the ad is funny and can amuse them, without the intention to show the product itself.

Thus, people who do not even use the internet and otherwise would never view such content can get interested in the brand and eventually become its customers.

4. Mainstream media exposure

Viral marketing enables companies to improve their brand awareness on the most actively visited media platforms. Being present in such social media is the largest marketing initiative that a company can undertake.

5. Reacquaintance with your target audience

Thanks to viral marketing, a brand has an opportunity to define a circle of their potential clients by tracking real-time user activity. This will enable them to select additional advertising tools aimed at working with specific target audience categories.

Where to start a viral marketing strategy

The best place on the internet to start a viral marketing strategy is social media networks. Nowadays, there are lots of them with million of users. Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat are some of them. Resorting to such platforms, brands can achieve a multifold increase in their followers, and many of them will undoubtedly become customers.

Social media is a much more profitable solution than email services. The reason is that users have long since moved from emailing to spending time in their social network accounts. Socials have become the main platform not only for chatting with friends or reading news, but also for choosing and ordering various goods and services.

How to start a successful viral campaign

Follow these four tips for viral marketing campaigns and the content will spread as fast as a virus. 

1. Stay creative 

Try to make your content as catchy and unique as possible, then it becomes viral. Remember that users do not get attracted by classical ads anymore. They prefer posts that are emotional and surprising, not to say provocative.

2. Be clear

Your post should be explicit and comprehensible. Viral marketing presumes to give a large part of control into the users’ hands. They won't share the content if they are not sure about its meaning. Make sure you avoid misconstruction. Otherwise, the campaign will have an undesired effect.

3. Keep it short

The image or text shouldn't take much time to be viewed or comprehended. Users should be able to get the point fast. They are no less busy than you, don’t make them waste their precious time reading a long, intricate text or looking for a needle in a haystack in the picture.

4. Do not be spammy

Turning spammy when going viral can ruin the whole marketing campaign. If the users suspect the virality of the advertisement, they are likely to stop viewing it, or they view it but take no further action.

That's why, come up with an idea that will stick in the users’ minds, even without trying to make it as viral as possible. It's better for your marketing strategy than repeating the same message over and over again.

Best examples of viral marketing campaigns from famous brands

Viral marketing can be used by both small and big brands. Here are the best examples of campaigns made by famous brands.

KFC — #UntilWeCanFingerLickAgain

Fast food legends like KFC, Burger King or McDonald's have a lot of great examples of viral marketing advertising. Let's look at a case that all the world can relate to. There is a KFC's campaign concerning the Coronavirus.

For many years, and the tendency is close to a hundred, KFC's slogan was "it's finger licking good". It was viral itself. But it didn't seem right when the pandemic broke out. The fast food brand didn't get confused, instead, it made a good use out of the situation. 

KFC changed its slogan to #UntilWeCanFingerLickAgain. The brand used it as a hashtag on social media. The marketing campaign was a success. Users shared KFC's posts with each other and added their own posts with this tag.

The reasons for such viral marketing success are simple. The brand had a wide audience, so it wasn't difficult to deliver the message to the people. Besides, every user could relate to the Coronavirus concern. And, users liked the new witty and funny slogan.

Volvo Trucks — The Epic Split

A Volvo campaign is another good viral marketing example. The brand explained its car concept with no numbers and pathos words, there are no even artsy images of luxury salons. So, the message was clear to everyone, including those who knew little about cars.

Volvo made its marketing advertising video extremely simple, just a man and two trucks. Van Damme is doing a split between the trucks in it. This is how the brand showed the stability and precision of their dynamic steering. 

The actor is known all over the world, and he is famous for his stunts in films. That's why viewers can easily understand and relate. And this is what, beside the stunning Spanish sunset, made the advertising viral.

Dove — Real Beauty Sketches

Dove's viral marketing campaign example is different. Brands usually try to make their advertising fun and bold. That seems to be the best and the only right way in the age of memes. But Dove focused on the users' emotions and chose those from another part of the spectrum.

The brand targeted women's self-esteem and self-perception. It also interrogated current beauty standards in their social advertising campaign. The point of the viral marketing video was that people see themselves less beautiful, than what others see them. The issue was relevant to Dove's target audience, and the campaign had unbelievable success. 

You may also want to read these 5 inspiring examples of PR campaigns.

Viral marketing is for every brand

Being somewhat spontaneous and non-controllable, viral marketing provides promising opportunities for reaching and expanding target audience and getting new customers. And all this without much effort and money.

Viral marketing is an incredibly powerful tool that is massively used both by new and established brands. You can use it in your Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok marketing plan too and see how metrics in your social media report change.