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Viral Marketing Initiatives

Photo credit: Marc_Smith

Photo credit: Marc_Smith

Author David Meerman Scott prefers to call viral marketing, word-of-mouse, in which having other people share your story drives action.  One person sends it to another, then that person sends it to another, and on and on.  This marketing approach comes with the potential for great payoff with incredibly low costs (if any) and limited started up time.  When compared to traditional, more time consuming and costly marketing efforts such as print, television, or radio it’s easy to see why many are hoping to hit the jackpot with a successful viral marketing initiative.

One goal of a viral marketing campaign can be money.  For a young startup like the Dollar Shave Club, the goal was to announce the business and generate sales.  Utilizing a $4,500 budget they created a humorous video that was put up on YouTube and within 24 hours had amassed 12,000 orders until their servers shutdown as result of too much traffic.  For other organizations, the goals may be to build a stronger brand or establish more concrete relationships with their customers as you’ll read about below with Dove.

Top 5 characteristics of a successful viral marketing initiative

Creating a successful viral marketing initiative is no easy challenge.  If they were, we would see more of them every single day.  Social Media and Internet Analyst Brad Hines says “Going viral is like a calculus function mixed with the element of randomness. You need a very specific combo of things, and then luck thrown in” (Torkildson, 2012).  Although you cannot do much about the luck factor, you surely can tip the scales in your favor by ensuring you employ the following characteristics in your campaign:

Compelling content

University of Southern New Hampshire profession, Barry Dickinson notes that “viral marketing must elicit a response, and laughter is universal.  Just like feeling compelled to retell a funny joke, people cannot help but share humorous content, videos or posts” (Dickinson, 2014).  Dickinson’s claims are easily backed up when you consider the numerous viral initiatives based upon humor.  One example is the Old Spice campaign that was a video-based initiative that targeted women.  The video provided a humorous comparison of their man to the men who use Old Spice.  This 30 second video has garnered almost 50 million views.

However, it’s not just humor that can bring success to your viral efforts.  In their article titled Research: The Emotions that Make Marketing Campaigns Go Viral for the Harvard Business Review authors Libert and Tynski concluded that certain emotions were extremely common in highly viral content.  These emotions included curiosity, amazement, interest, astonishment, uncertainty and admiration (Libert & Tynski, 2013).

Frictionless sharing

3-16-2014 12-54-56 PMIn order for Scott’s word-of-mouse to take off, sharing of your compelling content must be simple.  Thankfully, most social media platforms already incorporate sharing features into their products.  For those creating their own content on blogs or websites, sharing widgets are ubiquitous.  Leaders in the widget arena are AddThis and ShareThis.  In addition to providing the sharing buttons used across sites, these companies are providing knowledge on the use of social media as well as more detailed analysis of the effectiveness of sharing across the connected globe.  With social media usage expected to number in excess of 2 billion users in the next year, simplified sharing increases the likelihood your viral initiative will reach these users.

Dove, in their Beauty Sketches viral campaign, perfectly implemented frictionless sharing across their site and videos.  They endeavored to make the content easily sharable and engaging.  To assist them with that, they engaged the best and brightest from Google and YouTube.  The YouTube platform made it easy to comment on (over 17,000 posted to date) and to share across other platforms (see image below):

3-13-2014 2-32-00 PMAs noted above, this was a serious effort to improve brand awareness.  In a Google case study, Dove’s Global Brand Development Vice President Fernando Machado notes that “the intent [of the campaign] was to create brand love and then translate that into a longer term relationship between audience and the brand”.  Based upon the number of views and shares, it is clear Dove successfully implemented their viral marketing campaign.

Mobile friendly

Why is mobile friendliness an important characteristic you should ensure your viral program employs?  The primary reason comes down to numbers.  One prediction estimates that by 2014 mobile usage will overtake desktop Internet usage (Warden, n.d.).  With that many users on mobile devices, your content must be viewable and sharable across phones and tablet devices.  For viral marketers that push their initiatives across popular social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook, there is little to worry about as those providers have robust mobile clients available.  However, for those creating their own content for distribution on corporate websites or blogs, they do need to worry about the experience they provide visitors on mobile devices.  Utilizing responsive designs is one way to ensure mobile users get the full experience.  Another area where content producers need to be especially careful is when it comes to videos.  Until the Apple/Adobe cold war ends, Flash videos will not play on Apple iPhones and iPads so choose wisely in the formats you make your videos available.


Larry Weintraub, CEO of Fanscape, notes that relevance is incredibly important as “what works today or in 3 months may not work next year. There is never a guarantee to going viral, only ways to improve your odds” (Torkildson, 2012).  For this reason, marketers need to ensure that what they are promoting is relevant to the times.  Although compelling content goes a long way in kick starting your viral campaign, that content must be topical and represent the current sentiment of their viewers.

3-16-2014 7-51-20 PMAlthough there are numerous examples of highly relevant campaigns (e.g. Obama’s use of social media to win the 2008 election), sadly there are more examples of where relevance was not used and led to true disasters for the organization.  One such case of this comes from 2009 when Quiznos created a porn-themed web-based initiative entitled “2 Girls 1 Sub”, a play on words of truly disgusting porn film entitled “2 girls 1 cup”.  Moneywatch writer, Jim Edwards, writes that “it is a mystery why either Quiznos or Playboy would want their brand associated with that” (Edwards, 2009).  Clearly, this type of initiative was not relevant to the brand and likely led to a decline in sales with families.  It should be of little surprise that an organization that made brand associations like that filed for bankruptcy in March 2014.

Better to follow the advice of Cindy Cordon, Vice President of New Media and Marketing Relationships with Universal Orlando Resorts, “the main thing is to be different and relevant with your brand and when you have that, the sheer power of the internet can accelerate your brand” (Scott, 2008).


One of the better viral campaigns of all time comes from the Metro Trains Melbourne in Australia.   The program’s success can be attributed to the fact that they have incorporated all of our top 5 characteristics required for a successful viral campaign.  Incorporating this 5th characteristic of interactivity is where many campaigns fail, but not Metro Melborne.  Building upon the success of the 3 minute YouTube video entitled Dumb Ways To Die that has had 75 million views, they went on to explore areas of interactivity that would further drive the message of the video.

3-16-2014 10-20-42 AMThe team began building upon the video and created outside billboards that allowed children to stand up against and take photos.  They were then encouraged to upload those photos to Instagram and Twitter.  Interactivity did not stop there, as they went on to introduce downloadable music of the soundtrack used in the video.  The song has hit the charts in 28 different countries, as high as number 3 in Hong Kong.  Then came the mobile app which held the top position in over 18 countries, and possibly more important that it made the top 1,000 in 148 countries showing the global reach of this viral campaign.  Lastly, they created education books using the same characters from the video that can be purchased on Amazon (Pathak, 2013).

Creating campaigns that have these 5 characteristics and utilize the tools provided in this post can simplify the viral marketing requirements for success.  It will not be easy, but it certainly has to be easier than the complexities of viral marketing that Hines warned us about at the outset of this post.

3-16-2014 8-13-57 PM



Edwards, J. (2009). Retrieved March 16, 2014 from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/quiznos-continues-porn-themed-advertising-with-2-girls-1-sub-playboy-tie-in/

eMarketer. (2013). Retrieved March 16, 2014 from http://www.emarketer.com/Article/Social-Networking-Reaches-Nearly-One-Four-Around-World/1009976

Libert, K. & Tynsk, K. (2013). Retrieved March 15, 2014 from http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/10/research-the-emotions-that-make-marketing-campaigns-go-viral/

Pathak, S. (2013). Retrieved March 16, 2014 from http://adage.com/article/special-report-music-and-marketing/numbers-mccann-s-dumb-ways-die-campaign/244455/

Scott, D. (2008).  Retrieved March 13, 2014 from http://www.davidmeermanscott.com/documents/Viral_Marketing.pdf

Torkildson, A. (2012). Retrieved March 15, 2014 from http://socialmediatoday.com/adam-torkildson/1038526/top-22-viral-marketing-tactics-you-need-2013

Warden, C. (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2014 from http://www.convinceandconvert.com/mobile/7-mobile-marketing-stats-that-will-blow-your-mind/


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