What is Viral Marketing? Is It a Viable Tactic


Viable is something of an enigma. We’ve all seen examples of it: Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign, the “Squatty Potty” unicorn ad, or heck, even the “Selfies on iPhone X” video.


We can all see the results of viral marketing: millions of views, countless likes and shares, media buzz and, most importantly, lots of additional sales.

But what is viral marketing? Is it actually a viable marketing strategy?

Or, as my friend Daniel Harmon (one of the creators of the “Squatty Potty” ad) likes to put it, is virality like “catching lightning in a bottle”? Let’s take a look.

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What is Viral Marketing?

The term “viral marketing” stems from the way that viruses (the germs responsible for illnesses like chicken pox, the flu and AIDS) spread.

Unlike bacteria or fungi, which can also cause infections, viruses are self-replicating machines. They’re not even technically alive. A bacteria find a hospitable environment, eats and reproduces like a good little living thing.

How Does Viral Marketing Work?

The idea behind viral marketing is pretty simple. Ideally, you create a piece of marketing content and show it to Person #1. Person #1 loves the content so much that they share it with 5 people. Those 5 people love the content so much that they each share it with 5 people, and pretty soon, everyone’s seen your content.

The appeal of viral marketing is pretty obvious. Conventional marketing is like bacterial replication—it takes a lot of time, effort and a hospitable environment to make it work.

With viral marketing, however, other people do the work for you. Once something becomes truly “viral”, it becomes a self-propagating system. You don’t have to put time or money into spreading your message. All you have to do is sit back and collect the profits.

For example, remember Hotmail? Hotmail was actually one of the first viral marketing strategies to succeed online.

Back in 1995, web-based email was kind of a new thing. So, to help spread the word, Hotmail made their service free…with one caveat. At the bottom of each email, Hotmail added a message that said “Get your private, free email at http://www.hotmail.com.”

Today, the tactic seems pretty obvious, but a quarter of a century ago, it was marketing gold. Pretty soon, people were signing up for Hotmail in droves…and all for the price of a simple piece of code.

Where Did Viral Marketing Come From?

Of course, the idea of “viral marketing” is hardly new. Marketers have been “creating a buzz”, “network marketing” and “leveraging the media” since, well, the beginning of marketing.

The difference between conventional word-of-mouth marketing and viral marketing is the internet.

Fueled by the reach and accessibility of the internet, viral content can reach millions of people overnight. For example, in the early nineties, the Chewbacca woman video wouldn’t have been anything more than a favorite family home video.

“Going Viral” vs “Viral Marketing”

Unfortunately, viral hits like the Chewbacca Woman have created a lot of confusion over what viral marketing truly is. These days, when most business owners or marketers say “I want to do viral marketing”, what they really mean is “I want to go viral”.

However, these are two fundamentally different ideas.

“Going viral” is usually the result of a complex blend of factors—many of which are impossible to predict or control—that make something a cultural phenomenon. Sometimes that’s a piece of marketing content, but if it is, it’s more random chance than anything else.

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How to Do Viral Marketing

So, if “going viral” isn’t a feasible goal, is viral marketing even a worthwhile marketing tactic? Absolutely.

Viral marketing is all about creating value for your target audience. Most marketing is like cafeteria food: bland, predictable and safe. And, people enjoy most marketing just about as much as they enjoy cafeteria food.

Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t tired of marketing—they’re just tired of cafeteria-style marketing. They want something fresh, interesting and exciting. Give them that and they’ll be happy to pay attention. More importantly, if they like your content enough, they’ll share it with their friends.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at 4 key elements of effective viral marketing. Even if your goal isn’t to “go viral”, viral marketing can still be tricky, so you’ll need to take all of these elements into account as you plan out your marketing strategy.