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Viral Marketing: Definition, Advantages, and Examples

Shivkumar M 20+ yrs shaping technology Product & GTM strategy. Fintech, healthcare & retail industry expertise. Leads product launches, adoption & GTM as Director, Product Marketing.
Viral Marketing: Definition, Advantages, and Examples

It’s every marketer’s dream to have a campaign they worked hard on be considered one of the best viral marketing campaigns.
But the sad truth is no one can predict with 100% accuracy whether their campaign will go viral. Customers are the only ones who have true control over something’s virality.

What is Viral Marketing?

Viral marketing is nothing more than a strategy that you can use to get people to promote your app (or any other product) via their existing social networks.

How a Viral Marketing Campaign Works

Building and setting a viral marketing campaign into motion is basically creating content so engaging and so relevant that people can’t help but share it with their friends: “Hey, you HAVE to see this!”
You plan and produce the content. You make it as shareable as possible. Then you release it in the hopes that it spread via word of mouth.
This is what makes it unpredictable. Not everything a marketer creates will resonate with their audience. And even if it does, not every resonant piece will persuade users to spread it to their circles.

Viral Marketing Advantages

Going viral has some excellent advantages:

  • Low cost: It doesn’t need to cost much to produce something that people will want to share. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that resonate the most. And when done right, it can give you excellent ROI.
  • Reach: Going viral spreads your message and your brand much further than you might expect.
  • Credibility: Suddenly, your brand is on everyone’s feed. Or becomes the topic everyone brings up at a party. If done well, this is your ticket to instant (and hopefully lasting) brand awareness.

 Disadvantages of Viral Marketing

But as with everything, there are cons to go with the pros. While a good viral marketing campaign can bring massive awareness about your brand in a cost-effective manner, it also has the capability to dilute your brand. Or at its very worst, build negative buzz regarding your brand and products. This is when “too much of a good thing” may just hurt your work in building your organization’s credibility.
Virality rests upon the idea that people share your campaign with their friends. But many will not do so if they’re afraid you’re going to end up scraping personal information from them or if you’re simply going to add their friends to a spammy mailing list. Remember, individuals  have their own “personal brand” to protect.
Additionally, going viral may lead to a massive influx of new users who suddenly disappear after checking out your app. These campaigns won’t automatically bring you loyal customers who will last years.
Overall however, the advantages of viral marketing far outweigh the disadvantages.

10 Viral Marketing Principles to Follow

With that said, there are principles that are present in every single one of the viral marketing campaign examples we tackle below. Let’s list them out here before diving into the best practices you can use to prepare for potential virality in your own campaigns.
Effective viral marketing campaigns have:

  1. Excellent planning
  2. Audience involvement
  3. Spectacle + press-worthiness
  4. Humor + like-ability
  5. A worthwhile cause
  6. Celebrity star power (optional)
  7. Low barrier to entry
  8. A really good incentive
  9. Exclusivity
  10. Urgency


Viral Marketing Examples from the 10 Best Campaigns


01. How The Dark Knight Viral Marketing Campaign Made Serious Bat-Buzz

In May of 2007, an agency named 42 Entertainment began a multimedia marketing campaign for the Warner Brothers film, The Dark Knight.
Using the film’s tagline “Why So Serious?” the agency built a huge scavenger hunt and role-playing experience. It started as early as 15 months before the film’s opening. And ended up involving over 11 million people across 75 countries. Participants became Joker’s henchmen or Harvey Dent’s campaign volunteers or Batman clones.001
They viewed hundreds of web pages, emails, print collaterals, and videos. They found clues leading to GPS coordinates. They called phone numbers written by planes in the sky. They even found prepaid mobile phones baked into birthday cakes. And they gathered for actual rallies, even winning unique collectible merchandise.
This 4-minute video case study shows how 42 Entertainment built their viral marketing campaign:

What Made It Viral

  • Planning: The campaign was so intricate and complex it took major planning. But participants never got bored. There was always something new to do or to expect.
  • Gamification: The campaign was an immersive game. It became a role-playing scavenger hunt that promised real-world items to participants. And it ended up drawing in more than the hardcore fans of the Batman franchise.
  • Press-worthiness: It was very visual. (Photos in Joker face paint, anyone?) And it was so unique a concept that it led to a flood of press and blog coverage. This bolstered the impressive numbers that went to see the movie on its opening week.

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02. How the Blendtec Viral Marketing Campaign Crushed It

Back in 2006, Blendtec’s new marketing director George Wright discovered something cool. Their CEO Tom Dickson and their R&D team tested their blenders by throwing in wooden boards to see if the blades survived.
He figured this would make an intriguing visual. Wright recorded inexpensive videos of the blender chewing up random supplies. Total investment for the first few episodes: less than $100 dollars. Mainly for the supplies to feed the blender.
Their videos led to a combined 285+ million views and an increase in sales of 700%. It also led to mainstream publicity. Blendtec appeared on US TV shows such as The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and many more. The company won a bronze Clio award in 2008 for advertising. Most importantly, the videos turned their brand into a household name.002
Blendtec’s “Will It Blend?” campaign ended up defining the viral video marketing campaign.
Here’s one of the early videos from the Blendtec viral marketing campaign:

What Made It Viral

  • Spectacle + Interactivity: Blenders crushing a wild variety of inanimate objects? What a spectacle! It prompted viewers to continue suggesting future items to throw into the blenders. Instant interactivity.
  • Low-Cost Production: Wright produced their viral marketing campaign inexpensively. So much so that ROI was instantaneous and kept growing. The idea was king. Execution and production almost took a backseat to the intriguing concept.
  • Involved Audience: The campaign involved their target audience almost immediately. Because of this, Blendtec was able to increase brand awareness, which led to a 700% increase in sales.

03. How Old Spice Turned Internet Silliness Into Great Smelling Profit

Look at that Old Spice video entitled “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” Now, back to me.
In the video, a muscled Isaiah Mustafa strolls into view wearing only a towel. He saunters through various background settings, speaking in cliches. It’s funny, of course. And viral.
Old Spice’s viral video marketing campaign first aired during 2010’s Superbowl weekend. It went on to increase the company’s revenue by 107%. The campaign had 40 million views. It increased Old Spice’s Twitter followers by 2,700%. It lifted Facebook interaction by 800%. All these viewers turned the Old Spice YouTube channel into the all-time most viewed channel.003
This 4:44 video case study shows the results of the Old Spice campaign.

What Made It Viral

  • Humor: Old Spice’s viral video marketing campaign used humor to great effect. They had to. After all, there aren’t many other interesting ways to promote a deodorant / body wash. But they did it with a knowing smirk. The brand didn’t mind poking fun at itself. And it worked. The usage of humor introduced the brand to a younger, Internet-savvy audience.
  • Targeting the Right Audience: From the opening line of the video, Old Spice targeted females (“Hello, ladies”). Which made sense. Females make the buying decisions in this product category (soaps and body wash). This had the added benefit of turning Old Spice into a topic of conversation between genders.
  • Interactivity: Sure, the initial videos were cool and funny. But it was their response campaign which upped the bar. Old Spice recorded personalized response videos to 100 hand-picked commenters on Youtube. It was an unprecedented amount of customization from a marketing standpoint. But the audience loved it, and made the campaign even more viral.

04. How the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Made a Cause Cool

And then in 2014, there was an explosion of viral videos where people had ice water poured over them. After the cold soaking, participants told viewers to donate to the ALS association. They would then challenge someone they knew to take the same challenge.
It seemed like everyone had buckets of iced water poured on them over the course of those two months. Results? 2.4 million videos posted to Facebook. 28 million people uploaded, liked, or commented on an ice-bucket related video.
From July to August of 2014, the ALS Association received $98.2 million dollars. The previous year, they’d only received $2.7 million during the same period.004
Here’s one celebrity doing the ALS Ice Bucket challenge:

What Made It Viral

  • Unusual: Having ice water poured on yourself? Definitely unusual… at first. But that was exactly what made it so interesting and entertaining to watch. It was a different kind of stunt. And no two were ever alike.
  • Cause-driven: The videos made viewers feel something. Sure it looked fun, but participation was driven by the desire to make more people aware of ALS. In general, people want to make a difference. This viral campaign gave them an opportunity to do that.
  • Celebrities: A huge reason for the virality is the participation of celebrities. Viewers wanted to see their favorite stars getting soaked. And celebrities nominated other celebrities to take up the challenge. A vicious (and entertaining) circle.

05. How Lay’s Chips Crowdsourced Snack Flavors and Built a Tasty Tribe

In 2012, food company Frito-Lay rolled out a tasty campaign entitled “Do Us a Flavor.” Via Facebook app and SMS, fans had the power to suggest and then vote for a new flavor of potato chips. Of course, it helped that the prize was $1 million dollars.
A panel of celebrity chefs judged the entries. And three finalist flavors emerged: Cheesy Garlic Bread, Sriracha, and Chicken & Waffles. Frito-Lay produced the three flavors at the same time, urging fans to vote via Facebook, Twitter, or SMS. Thousands did. The winner? Cheesy Garlic Bread.
The viral campaign tripled the numbers of Frito-Lay’s US Facebook fans, increasing sales by 12% nationwide.005

What Made It Viral

  • Inclusion: Giving fans a say in product development is ordinary for technology companies. But for potato chips? By doing this, Frito-Lay was able to get people excited about a new product that they got to suggest and vote on. Instant engagement.
  • Incentive: With a cash prize like $1 million dollars (or 1% of net sales on the new flavor), who wouldn’t want to participate?
  • Low Barrier to Entry: If you want things to go viral, then lower the barrier so that more people can take part. They had a Facebook app and Twitter, but also SMS, which meant anyone with a phone could suggest flavors or vote.

06. How PooPourri Made Toilet Humor Mainstream, Selling Millions

Toilet humor isn’t for everyone. But PooPourri decided it was the best way to make a stink about their toilet spray deodorizer. The resulting video, “Girls Don’t Poo,” contained:

  • A ladylike narrator
  • A script full of poo-etic puns
  • A clear explanation of how the product traps odors from escaping

The viral video garnered 6 million views and more than 278,000 shares in its first week alone. Their Facebook following increased by 354%. And went on to much more success.006
Here’s the original video:

What Made It Viral

  • Humor: How many poop puns did you hear in that script? Too many to count. And yet somehow it all worked. People shared it because it was a hilarious script delivered by an actress with charisma. Which brings me to the second point.
  • Likeability: The video wouldn’t have worked if the actress, Bethany Woodruff, wasn’t likeable. PooPourri found a public face in her. A perfect casting choice.

07. How Angry Birds Got to 1 Billion Mobile Devices Despite Failure to Fly

Before Angry Birds, Rovio Entertainment produced 52 previous games. None of them successful. When they released the first Angry Birds game in December 2009, it too flopped. There wasn’t enough interest in the app within English-speaking markets.
But that didn’t stop Rovio from switching up their strategy. They decided to build a fanbase in smaller European markets. Three months later, Angry Birds hit the top spot in the Finnish app store after only a few hundred downloads. And from Finland, it snowballed to hit number one across Sweden, Greece, and Denmark. In the process, the app gained 40,000 downloads.
With this success, Rovio approached independent game publisher Chillingo to push the app out to UK and US app stores. Chillingo then convinced Apple to feature Angry Birds on the front page of the UK App Store. As game of the week in 2010, it was only a matter of time till the app grew to 1 billion downloads.

What Made It Viral

  • Starting Small: Faced with a lack of success in the 2 biggest English markets, Rovio pivoted. They decided to start with smaller markets and work their way up from there.
  • Outstanding Content: Angry Birds became viral because it is such an addictive game. It is intuitive to play, has zero load time, is free to play (mostly), and you can play it anywhere. And the birds are cute.

08. How GoldieBlox Engineered an Alternative to Boys’ Toys

In 2013, a company called GoldieBlox set out to build buzz for their line of construction toys for girls. The challenge: how could they show children the dynamic fun of engineering-based play? They also wanted to show parents some cool alternatives to princess dolls.
The solution was to create a video entitled “The Princess Machine.” In it, three bored girls build and launch a Rube Goldberg machine designed to do one task but in the most complicated way. It shows engineering skills and GoldieBlox toys, physics and chain reactions. It could be straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. And somehow it entrances the viewer for the full two minutes.
In its first week, it had 8.5 million views on YouTube and brought brand awareness to the young toy company. Two years later, GoldieBlox had its own float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And they proved there was market viability for their toy line. 007

What Made It Viral

  • Kids Having Fun: If you want to advertise to kids and their parents, take a page from Disney. Show the children having a great time! “The Princess Machine” has it in spades, showing fun and creativity at the same time.
  • Authenticity: Surprisingly, the three girls in the video aren’t actors. They’re real GoldieBlox customers. That fun they exude in the video? It’s as real as it gets.
  • Challenging the Status Quo: Founder Debbie Sterling is an engineer out of Stanford who wanted to give young girls their own version of Legos. She wanted them to get excited about engineering and science. In the process, her brand shook things up – including gender stereotypes in the toy aisles.

09. How Mailbox Made People Wait … and Want their Email App

In 2013, a new email app for the iPhone built buzz for its software by making people wait in line… virtually. Other apps conducted closed beta testing with a core group of early supporters. Mailbox decided to rope off the app.
They allowed users to download the app but placed them into a virtual queue. The app told you your place in line and how many people were after you. And you had to wait. That line grew to a whopping 800,000 hopeful users. And all for an email app!
Check out what their waiting system looked like in this video:

What Made It Viral

  • Exclusivity: Mailbox used the virtual line to slow down the addition of new users. This allowed them to test the strain on their servers. It also ensured their email app would work properly once everyone was on it. In the process, they built an exclusive little club that everyone wanted to be a part of!
  • Urgency: They engineered the wait system to show how many people were ahead of you, as well as behind you. But as you checked your status, you saw the counter of people behind you keep increasing. In effect, the more people lined up after you, the more it made you want the app.

10. How Scrabble App Gave Out Free Wifi for Playing

In 2014, ad agency Ogilvy & Mather Paris set up wifi hotspots in areas of Paris that did not have wifi connections. But to use these special hotspots, you had to select the Scrabble network, create your best word, and earn free wifi minutes based on your score. Like regular Scrabble, players could earn more points with longer words. And if you shared your words on Facebook, you got to double your score (and thus your wifi minutes).
Over a two-week campaign period, people played more than 6,000 words.

What Made It Viral

  • Usefulness: If you reward your users with something useful, they will flock to you. The Scrabble hotspots were in high traffic places with no free wifi connections. Giving users free internet time in exchange for time spent on the app? Well played.
  • Social Amplification: They incentivized people to post their words on Facebook. Leveraging social media increased brand awareness for Scrabble, and got more people to check out the campaign.

8 Viral Marketing Lessons for Building Virality

Each of the viral marketing campaign examples above contains useful tips. But you can boil them all down to eight secrets that will help you craft a shareable campaign.
First, keep it simple. Base your marketing campaign on a simple idea. Something that people can relate to and understand. If you can’t summarize your idea in one sentence then your campaign may fail.
The second secret: relevance to your target segment. Do the research. Does your idea resonate with your target market? Would they share it on social media?
The next six secrets come from Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. He says that the six drivers to whether something goes viral can be summarized as:

  1. Social Currency: we share it because it makes us look good
  2. Triggers: we share it because it’s top-of-mind
  3. Emotion: we share it because it makes us feel something
  4. Public: we share it to imitate what others do
  5. Practical Value: we share it if it’s useful to others
  6. Stories: we share it to tell a story

Remember: we can’t force a viral campaign. The only thing we can do as marketers is to make our campaigns as share-worthy as possible. To make them more likely to spread via word-of-mouth. Once we lower the barrier so that sharing becomes the only worthy reaction, we’ve prepared the field. The rest is up to the audience.

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Last updated on March 29, 2024