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Viral marketing

Viral marketing is far from a recent phenomenon; before the advent of the printing press, broadcast media, and the Internet, WOM was the only way to market your goods." 1

(Ferguson, 2008)

If you use any form of social media, you have likely encountered a viral video or campaign. As you might have noticed, any regular person can go viral on the Internet overnight nowadays. Due to the buzz virality creates, companies and brands have also started using viral marketing to attract attention to a product, service, or brand. So how do viral videos get everyone talking about the same thing? Why are we attracted to viral content? And how can companies create campaigns with virality in mind? Read along to find out all about the behind-the-scenes of viral marketing.

Viral Marketing Definition

With the rise of social networking and digital media platforms like TikTok and YouTube, anyone and anything can go viral (including cats or Gigi Hadid's pasta). Viral marketing is based on the idea of creating exciting content that viewers are compelled to share and forward to others. So what is the difference between viral marketing and word-of-mouth (WOM)? Well, according to Ferguson (2008), the difference stems from cause and effect, whereby viral marketing is the cause, and word-of-mouth is the effect.1 As a result, we define viral marketing as follows.

Viral marketing is a marketing strategy that involves producing captivating content that raises awareness of a product or brand by creating word-of-mouth.

Similarly, De Bruyn and Lilien (2004) state that what distinguishes viral marketing from other forms of marketing is its consumer-to-consumer (peer-to-peer) nature. Rather than companies communicating information about a product or brand, it is consumers who are spreading information to one another.2

Look at our word-of-mouth marketing explanation to learn more about the different types of WOM.

Viral marketing occurs on the Internet, frequently through social networking sites like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook. Additionally, the virality of a campaign is often impacted by the advertising appeal used to engage customers.

To learn more about emotional appeals, check out our explanation of advertising media.

In the following sections, we will discuss marketing campaign appeals used in viral marketing.

Viral Marketing Methods

Let's first take a look at the viral marketing methods marketers may use when creating a campaign. Grifoni, D'Andrea, and Ferri (2013) presented a method for developing marketing campaigns.3 Based on their model, the steps of designing an online viral marketing campaign are as follows (see Figure 1 below):

  1. Phase I: company and business context - Phase one involves analyzing the internal (including competitors, consumer behavior, etc.) and external (including strategies, resources, products, etc.) environment. Regarding external analysis, the company must carefully consider competitors' customers, market share, promotion strategies, and product developments. This phase should also include an extensive product analysis whereby the company assesses product features, pricing, distribution, promotion, and support of its current products. Finally, the company must also evaluate its financials to see whether they have the budget for a viral campaign and to assess how the campaign will impact its returns.

  2. Phase II: objectives and goals - The next phase includes defining the goals and objectives of the campaign. There are three different types of objectives that marketers must determine: cognitive (how will we reach customers?), behavioral (how do we want customers to react?), and financial (how will this campaign help in building the brand?).

  3. Phase III: designing a message and selecting the medium - The following phase involves selecting the message type, including the emotional appeal that the campaign will use to encourage viewers to forward the content and the medium through which the message will be conveyed. Examples of media include videos (e.g., on social media), written content (e.g., Twitter posts, blogs, or e-mail), audio content, or even offline content.

  4. Phase IV: implementation and results - The final stage includes implementing the viral campaign and analyzing the results. A helpful method of campaign implementation in viral marketing includes seeding.

In viral marketing, seeding is the idea that the content is first shared with a small target customer segment, who are then encouraged to forward it to others. I.e., the campaign is planted within the small group, who then spreads the campaign to others, allowing it to grow and increase its reach.

After the initial implementation is finished, marketers receive feedback from the small target group before the campaign goes live. Businesses can use this test marketing approach to make changes to the campaign if necessary. Finally, they implement the campaign on a larger scale and assess its effectiveness. This data is collected and transformed into useful insights for future campaigns.

Viral Marketing Elements

So how do ads, or content in general, go viral? Let's take a look at some of the specific elements of a viral marketing campaign.

Emotional Appeals - A crucial element of a viral marketing campaign is the emotional appeal used. Emotional appeals are essential for capturing the audience's attention and are powerful tools used to encourage people to forward content on social media. Whether it be feeling sad for abandoned puppies or celebrating our favorite football team's win together through a challenge, emotional appeals work. But which one is the most effective for viral marketing? According to Petrescu, Korgaonkar, and Gironda (2015), it's humor - humorous appeal has the highest potential when creating viral ads.4

For example, the company RyanAir uses humor to create viral videos on TikTok. The company often jumps on trends and even makes fun of its customers and its own services to entice viewers to like and share their videos with others. This strategy seems to have proven successful as some of RyanAir's TikToks have over 10s of millions of views and tens of thousands of shares each.

Motivation to forward content to others - Another crucial element of viral marketing campaigns is their ability to entice viewers to forward the content to others rather than simply engage the viewer. The message and content must have a unique view on a particular topic and should be relevant to current situations or trends. All in all, the content should give the viewer a reason to share the information with others. Therefore, a viral marketing campaign will be more successful if its message resonates with the target group. It should appeal to the motivations for sharing information, particularly to the motivations of helping others and standing out from the crowd.5

Social media videos often try to entice viewers with a call-to-action (CTA). A CTA is a phrase that motivates the viewer to engage further with a post by, for instance, clicking like or sharing with a friend.

Opinion leaders and influencers - Finally, certain brands attempt to go viral by partnering with an opinion leader, e.g., an influencer or a celebrity. For instance, Nike often uses famous athletes like Serena Williams or Michael Jordan to draw attention to its new campaigns. Using celebrities and influencers can have an impressive impact on a campaign's virality due to the reach of the celebrity involved. However, marketers should be careful in choosing which celebrities they involve in a campaign as it can come across as inauthentic if there is no immediate connection between the brand and the celebrity.

Puma faced backlash on Twitter when it chose Kylie Jenner as one of its brand ambassadors. As a sports brand, Puma was trying to promote its new sneakers and athletic wear but chose an unconventional person as a brand ambassador. In two separate campaigns, a track and field and a basketball one, Jenner was criticized for her stance, the way she positioned her shoulder, held the ball, etc.6 Simply put, Kylie Jenner is a celebrity, not an athlete. As a result, these marketing stunts can quickly become inauthentic when choosing the wrong person for the campaign.

Viral Marketing Advantages and Disadvantages

All in all, viral marketing is a tricky science, but is it worth it? Let's now turn our attention to some of the advantages and disadvantages of viral marketing.

The advantages of viral marketing include:

  • Reach - Viral marketing can reach many people quickly.

  • Buzz - Viral marketing creates buzz around a product or brand, increasing awareness and purchase motivation.

  • Costs - Viral marketing can be a low-cost strategy as it is dependent on word-of-mouth rather than ad spending to target customers.

  • Authenticity - As viral marketing relies on word-of-mouth, it can come across as more authentic and credible. For example, a friend sharing a video seems more genuine than a company pushing it on your social media feed.

The disadvantages of viral marketing include:

  • Negative word-of-mouth (NWOM) - If viewers get a negative impression of the campaign, it could spark negative word-of-mouth.

  • Implementation and control - It is difficult to target a viral marketing campaign; therefore, it might not reach the intended audience.

  • Wasting time - If the campaign is unsuccessful and consumers are not interested in it, marketers have wasted time and effort creating it. Additionally, not all interested viewers are guaranteed to share the campaign.

  • Feedback: It is challenging to collect feedback and measure the results of a viral marketing campaign as it is heavily based on word-of-mouth.

Viral Marketing Examples

Let's look at some viral marketing examples to familiarize ourselves with the processes of viral marketing.

In 2018, KFC Australia announced they would give away a year's worth of free food to one lucky winner. KFC ran a competition on Facebook to find out who was the biggest KFC superfan. The superfan would win the prize. The viral campaign attracted much attention to its Facebook and other social media pages. So, how did the winner manage to secure 100 dollars worth of KFC food a week? By getting a KFC logo tattoo on her foot! Yes, the biggest superfan went to the lengths of getting a tattoo dedicated to her favorite fast food chain. For KFC, the campaign's total cost was only $5,200, but the brand reached a tremendous number of customers in Australia.7

Viral Marketing KFC viral marketing example StudySmarterFig. 2. KFC Australia Viral Marketing Example

Let's now take a look at another example from Spotify.

You might be familiar with Spotify Wrapped. But how did it become a viral trend? Well, Spotify sends an e-mail to all Spotify users eligible for a wrapped review at the end of the year. Spotify Wrapped is a personalized overview of the songs, artists, genres, and podcasts the individual has been listening to the most that year. Spotify then encourages the individual to share their wrapped review with friends on social media platforms. Typically, Spotify experiences an increase in app store downloads every year after millions of users share their Spotify Wrapped on social media platforms. The virality of Spotify Wrapped can primarily be attributed to the level of personalization of the campaign.8

Viral Marketing Spotify Wrapped viral marketing example StudySmarterFig. 3. Spotify Wrapped Viral Marketing Example

Viral marketing - Key takeaways

  • Viral marketing is a marketing strategy that involves producing captivating content that raises awareness of a product or brand by creating word-of-mouth.
  • Viral marketing occurs on the Internet, frequently through social networking sites like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook.
  • To develop a viral campaign, the marketer has to assess the business environment, determine objectives, design the message, select a medium, implement the campaign, and collect feedback.
  • Seeding is the idea that the content is first shared with a small target customer segment, who are then encouraged to forward it to others.
  • Viral marketing campaigns should use an emotional appeal, have a unique element, and motivate viewers to forward it to others.
  • The advantages of viral marketing include its reach, the buzz it creates, low costs, and authenticity.

References

  1. Ferguson, Rick. Word of mouth and viral marketing: taking the temperature of the hottest trends in marketing. Journal of consumer marketing. Harvard. 2008.
  2. De Bruyn, Arnaud, and Gary L. Lilien. A multi-stage model of word of mouth through electronic referrals. eBusiness Research Center. Working Paper. 2004.
  3. Grifoni, Patrizia, Alessia D'andrea, and Fernando Ferri. An integrated framework for on-line viral marketing campaign planning. International business research 6, no. 1 (2013): 22.
  4. Petrescu, Maria, Pradeep Korgaonkar, and John Gironda. Viral advertising: A field experiment on viral intentions and purchase intentions. Journal of Internet Commerce 14, no. 3 (2015): 384-405.
  5. Ho, Jason YC, and Melanie Dempsey. Viral marketing: Motivations to forward online content. Journal of Business research 63, no. 9-10 (2010): 1000-1006.
  6. Rachel Lubitz. Here's why runners are so angry about Kylie Jenner's latest Puma campaign. Business Insider. 2017. https://www.businessinsider.com/runners-kylie-jenner-puma-campaign-backlash-2017-4?r=US&IR=T
  7. Papirfly. 6 viral campaigns that didn't break the bank. 2022. https://www.papirfly.com/blog/marketing/6-viral-campaigns-that-didnt-break-the-bank/
  8. Harshit Verma. Spotify Wrapped - The Whole Story and the Hidden Marketing Behind It. 2021. https://startuptalky.com/spotify-wrapped-campaign-analysis/

Frequently Asked Questions about Viral marketing

Viral marketing is a marketing strategy that involves producing captivating content that raises awareness of a product or brand by creating word-of-mouth.

To develop a viral campaign, the marketer has to assess the business environment, determine objectives, design the message, select a medium, implement the campaign, and collect feedback. Viral marketing campaigns should use an emotional appeal, have a unique element, and motivate viewers to forward it to others.

Viral marketing is important as the content can reach many people relatively quickly. Viral marketing also creates a buzz around a product or brand, which increases awareness and possibly purchase motivation.

Viral marketing campaigns are often based on an emotional appeal to capture the audience's attention. Another type of viral marketing includes using celebrities or influencers to increase the reach of the campaign.

The advantages of viral marketing include its high reach, the buzz it creates, its low-cost implementation, and authenticity due to its word-of-mouth nature.

Final Viral marketing Quiz

Question

Viral marketing is based on the idea of creating exciting content that viewers are compelled to _____________.

Show answer

Answer

share and forward to others

Show question

Question

__________ is a marketing strategy that involves producing captivating content that raises awareness of a product or brand by creating word-of-mouth.

Show answer

Answer

Viral marketing

Show question

Question

In viral marketing, rather than companies communicating information about a product or brand, it is consumers who are spreading information to one another.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What does Phase I of viral marketing campaign planning involve?

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Answer

Phase one involves an analysis of both the internal (including competitors, consumer behavior, etc.) and external (including strategies, resources, products, etc.) environment.

Show question

Question

"The company must also assess its financials to see whether they have the budget for a viral campaign and to assess how the campaign will impact its returns." Which viral marketing campaign planning phase does this statement belong to?

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Answer

Phase I

Show question

Question

The three types of objectives marketers must determine when planning a viral campaign are:

Show answer

Answer

cognitive 

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Question

The third phase involves selecting the message type, including the __________ that will be used to encourage viewers to forward the content and the medium through which the message will be conveyed. 

Show answer

Answer

emotional appeal

Show question

Question

In viral marketing, ________ is the idea that the content is first shared with a small target customer segment, who are then encouraged to forward it to others.

Show answer

Answer

seeding

Show question

Question

"Businesses can use this test marketing approach to make changes to the campaign if necessary". This statement relates to which phase of the viral campaign planning process?

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Answer

Phase IV

Show question

Question

Which emotional appeal is the most effective for viral marketing campaigns?

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Answer

Humor

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Question

A viral marketing campaign will be more successful if its message resonates with the ______.

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Answer

target group

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Question

Certain brands attempt to go viral by partnering with a(n) _________.

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Answer

opinion leader

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Question

Name two advantages of viral marketing.

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Answer

Any of:

  • High reach,
  • Buzz, 
  • Low-cost
  • Authenticity

Show question

Question

Viral marketing occurs on the Internet, frequently through social networking sites like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

__________ are essential for capturing the audience's attention and are powerful tools used to encourage people to forward content on social media. 

Show answer

Answer

Emotional appeals

Show question

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