Viral Marketing – Definition

Cite this article as:"Viral Marketing – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated May 16, 2019, last accessed December 4, 2020,


Viral Marketing Definition

Viral marketing, also referred to as viral advertising, is a marketing strategy or technique to increase brand awareness by inspiring people to accept a message and share the same message with others voluntarily via the internet or by word of mouth. The goal of viral marketing is to create a “buzz” and reach as many people as possible by developing a motivational or emotional appeal.

However, viral marketing has been criticized as a form of stealth marketing that lures unsuspecting audience into a brands ideology without them knowing it is marketing. This is because marketing messages that often go “viral” are not too promotional,and are carefully embedded with a message that pushes for a brand in an inconspicuous manner. Most of the time it may appear as an entertainment piece rather than a marketing piece

A Little More on what is Viral Marketing

The term “Viral”, is inspired by how a viral infection self-replicates in others and spreads quickly from persons to person. The term “marketing”, on the other hand, is a contraction of two words; ‘market’ and ‘getting’ – more like getting a brand into the market a gaining customers. Viral marketing is different from traditional marketing.

Therefore, one can think of Viral marketing as an analogy of a viral epidemic disease. The strategy is to be contagious (to trend) and “infect”  many people, by each infected individual (Inspired) sharing the brand’s message to a single or group of other individuals (target market) and consequently causing a viral epidemic (Market buzz).Also, Viral marketing can be compared with an analogy to the spread of a computer virus.

Viral marketing resembles an exponential curve; as long as  a recipient passes the marketing message from one individual to another, the marketing campaign is considered active and can continue to grow until a large potential audience has been reached. Eventually, going forward, and typical with viral content, the campaign will  later not receive much attention and may generate less interest from the target group.

A Little More on What is Viral Marketing

Viral Marketing requires the creation of an engaging, entertaining, unique and relevant content that can be an instant hit on the World Wide Web. Whereas, the company associated with the brand sponsors the creation of the content, the company doesn’t necessarily have to pay for its distribution. Consumers are the one who download or copy the content and distribute the same due to its appeal.

The viral content may be formatted into video clips, interactive Flash games, images with embedded text messages, email messages as well as web pages with interesting content including an infographic among others. The format of the campaign message should be very easy for consumers to share with friends, fans or followers and consequently contribute to brand awareness via quality social networking.

The viral effect of content can spread through many different channels with social component including:

  • Word-of-mouth
  • Blogs, websites, and newsletters
  • Email; Gmail, Ymail, Hotmail, etc
  • Social networking sites ; Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc
  • Video sharing sites; YouTube, Vimeo, etc
  • Messenger services; WhatsApp, Palmchat, Facebook messenger, etc
  • Web forums; Reddit, yahoo, etc

So, what content format has the highest ‘viral potential’? The second most popular form of social content online while articles take the top spot. However, despite videos being second best, when it comes to viral potential, they are number one. This is largely due to both audio and visual sensory elements of video clips which makes them to capture more attention than images or texts that have only one sensory element of interaction.

Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that  all video clips produced to propagate a message or brand ideology will go viral. It sometimes just boils down to luck. Anyways, the sponsoring company still needs well curated content or material that is  so compelling that it demands to be shared. Additionally,an effective marketing strategy or promotional plans that resonates best with the target audience.

Components of a Successful Viral Content

Below are some suggestions to create a compelling video clips that drive the target market audience to take action and share the video:

  • Incorporate humor

Most people enjoy a good laugh, and a funny clip often trends. However, the comic quality should be original from what people are used to seeing and hearing. Don’t copy other funny clips and use the copied concept since clumsy advertising messages rarely have viral potential because they lack authenticity. Try to be innovative with your presentation and ensure you appeal to a specific humor. Additionally, if you want your video to be more visually attractive, then you might opt for an animated clip instead.

  • Relevant topic

The video should cover a topic that is current and which people are interested in engaging and talking about but also one that resonates with the brand. Researching for trending topics that people are more inclined to comment on in social platforms is a good starting point.

For instance, one can check Facebook: Most Talked About, Popular Now, and Today’s Spotlight Videos. Google: Google News and Google Trends. YouTube: Trending, Twitter: Moments and trending. Instagram: Explore, Reddit: Homepage (Hottest) and Top Scoring Links. However, it is important to avoid topics on politics or religion that illicit sharp debates and can easily flop the entire campaign.

  • Be provocative

Viral marketing isn’t about trying to please everyone at once. You need to provoke strong reactions from your viewer or reader, and that often means taking a stance. Focus on company values by trying to make audiences think about something differently and then compel them to share because they can’t believe what they’ve just seen. While your provocative campaign content may spur some negative backlash, proper research into your target market should ensure that most of the responses are positive.

  • Make an emotional connection

The most successful viral video clips pull on people’s heart strings and move them making them cry or laugh. So ensure that while working on your content, the element of emotional connection with the target audience is well articulated. Such content get high share rate among friends because people love to share emotion, it is in our human nature. Remember, while most viral marketing focuses on leveraging positive emotions, you can also have just as much of a significant impact, although with caution, when using negative emotions like fear, anger or disgust.

  • Give value

According to BuzzSumo people are likely to share video that make them look good to an online audience. Therefore, people are likely to share content that delivers value to their online circle of friends. For instance, content that offer advice, warn people of potential dangers or the ones that will amuse their close family members.

Also, viral content doesn’t have to always be funny or provocative, it can also be a suggestion on how to solve certain problems, offer solutions, and answer popular questions that people find hard to answer. However, it’s essential to ensure that the value you’re offering is unique and original too. Even valuable ideas lose their worth the target audience have already seen or heard  of it before. Make sure that creative team is either looking at a new idea or exploring an old concept from a novel angle.


  • Produce short quality content

Generally, most viral content in the past were highly raw in presentation as a way to strike a genuine feel with the target audience. However, nowadays many viewers pay more attention to high quality and well produced content accompanied with good screenplay, music, sound as well as video edits that make the content pleasing to watch.

Also, ensure that the video clip is short as most viral videos are viewed on mobile devices. Every component of the video content needs an effective crisp presentation in line with the branding idea and to ensure that the messages create a lasting impression on the viewer’s minds.Therefore, focus exclusively in creating a good and interesting story, rather than focusing on you, your product or service and your company.

Viral Articles

As mentioned earlier, articles are the most popular content online and just because videos are more preferred don’t mean that articles don’t go viral too. There are some success tips that if considered will increase the probability of an article getting more shares online:

  • Longer posts have a higher share rate – This is very controversial considering that it would be presumed that many people access the internet on mobile devices and people have short attention span. However, Research by BuzzSumo reports that articles that are more than 2500 long are shared more often than articles that are less than 1000 words. The reason being that longer articles are more detailed and provide value and answers readers’ questions a factor that compels readers to share.
  • Insert an Image – pictures provide a metaphoric clue to what an article will be about in a thousand ways that only an image can provide. Statistically, blog post with pictures have a  share rate of about 65 out of every 100 reader, whereas, on the other hand, blog post without any accompanying image have a an average of 28 share out of every 100 readers.
  • Include Thumbnails – This refers to a smaller representation of a larger image that is also a link. For intake when you visit website one see small images of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Pinterest among others, when you click on the image you share the article that one you’ve just read to your social media page. Statistically, articles with a thumbnail have a share rate of 56 out of 100 while those without thumbnails trail with 17 shares out of 100 readers.
  • Capture emotions – Just like in video clips intended for marketing, article also should incorporate feeling into the creation process. For an article one should stick with positive emotion which is considers share-worthy and has an optimistic touch. Also, ensure the emotion capture the heart of the company. For instance, an energy drink can write about a story of athletic success which is an emotion of joy.
  • Infographic are the best – these are images that provide a graphic summary of an article post main ideas. It advisable to include infographic to articles that are longer the 3500 and a link that allows readers to share the infographic with a link that links back to the articles medium. The information in an infographic should be well organized with colorful graphics and catch titles with accompanying eye grabbing illustrations.
  • Use numbers in headings – For instance, 23 ways to clean your hair, and give compelling methods while silently marketing for the company’s hair shampoo. The goal is to tell a story and so instead of recommending you may want to explain why use this product in procedure “XYZ “so at it doesn’t look like an advertisement. It is argued that the numbers 10, 16, 23, and 24 are more attractive.
  • Tuesday is the best day to post – the stock market has the January effect characterized by increased traffic in terms of activities. Well, the online readership has its own anomaly and it happens on every Tuesday. According to Google analytics Tuesday is the day of the week that websites and blogs experience increased traffic and this presents a higher probability of getting more shares.

Viral Marketing Strategies

After preparing the content, effective digital marketing strategies are needed to push the message and get the content to go viral. Some possible suggestions include:

  • Use Hashtags

The best starting point to hack the trends is to use “#hashstags” for your campaign. Twitter and Instagram trending topics are synonymous with hash tags. For instance, on Instagram and twitter, the “#TBT” for throw back Thursdays is a huge trend. Most people be it celebrities or ordinary citizens pays attention to the trending “#TBT”.

As you post your content you can create your own hash tags while also mentioning popular hashtags to drive attention to your content that you want web users to pick up and share. For instance, Nike has the “#Justdoit” which resonates with its philosophy on athleticism.

  • Don’t be too promotional

Many marketing campaign intended to go viral struggle because the sponsoring company is too focused on pushing for their product and services. Viral videos or articles rarely talk about benefits, prices, or features of a product. Instead, they tell stories and propagate ideas that help the Audience (customers) understand a brand and its values and mission on a deeper level.

Accepting the message is what triggers a message going viral. Viewers will rarely share promotional content. So it is better to post the content on social medial multiple times than to promote it via paid promotion on the same platform. Traditional marketing strategy can be promotional but the purpose of viral marketing is to propagate the brand ideology and gain loyal customers.

  • Recruit Influencers

This are typically persons with huge following on social media platforms since what they post has a huge influence on people’s lives and have earned trust in the public eyes. Influence is one of the most valuable things companies yearn for since it subsequently creates loyalty.

Getting influencers to endorse a campaign without looking like an advertisement is a popular trick employed by companies. Beside, as long as the content is genuinely worth sharing an influencer will have provided a big boost to a campaign going viral. One of America’s biggest influencers is Deejay Khaled.

  • Offer valuable product or service for free –

Most viral marketing approach like amazon affiliates program which is commonly shared online is because there is something valuable offered for inviting people. Wilson’s second Law of internet Marketing is “The Law of Giving and Selling”; it means once you provide the target consumer with freebies the sales traction sky rockets.

This is because most of the time the free gift or service is attached to a purchase. In viral marketing it can be attached to successfully sharing links to content. It’s about the audience and making them feel appreciated for supporting the brand marketing strategies.

  • Enable sharing, embedding and downloading –

The content should have permission for any person to down load it for free, people should be able to easily embed the link to the content on the social platform as well as blogs. Also, the content should be formatted well enough that it is easy to share from one platform to another.

In short, one is giving control over distribution of the content to the public. Further, the content should use easy to understand everyday language free from jargons or many vocabularies. This strategy will make the campaign much easier and with minimal effort.

Advantages of Viral Marketing


  • Cuts cost and is relatively cheap compared to other forms of marketing and advertising.
  • The message has a great potential reach as people continue to share.
  • They are non-invasive compared to traditional marketing. It generates interest.
  • Brand boost awareness and reputation since consumers will associate positive values presented in the marketing message.
  • Viral marketing is one of very few tactics that can create explosive growth in very little time.
  • The company is able to generate traffic and an engagement with potential customers that may not otherwise hear your brand message without physically contacting them.
  • It adds creativity to the marketing effort and may inspire new ways to market a product as the marketing team will be up on their toes always in order to stand out.
  •  A brand is able to gain a large marketing list since there might be more people liking the social media handle which translates to new advertising audience.
  • The strategy can lead to building stronger relationships which and consequently build consumer loyalty and gives an opportunity to increased revenue.

Disadvantages of Viral Marketing·

  • It is difficult to measure its impact despite a marketing message going viral.
  • The content may be misinterpreted and parodied and the brand will not have control over it and practically impossible to get the campaign completely off the internet.
  • Not every inspired consumer will share the message with friends or family members.
  • Online scammers may take advantage of the widely distributed content to spam potential customers damaging a brands reputation.
  • Once it’s clear to the target audience that the message is commercial, attention will waver considerably.
  • Success is not guaranteed despite spending resources to create a high quality content.

References for Viral Marketing

Academic Research on Viral Marketing

The dynamics of viral marketing, Leskovec, J., Adamic, L. A., & Huberman, B. A. (2007). ACM Transactions on the Web (TWEB), 1(1), 5.

Scalable influence maximization for prevalent viral marketing in large-scale social networks, Chen, W., Wang, C., & Wang, Y. (2010, July). In Proceedings of the 16th ACM SIGKDD international conference on Knowledge discovery and data mining (pp. 1029-1038). ACM.

The six simple principles of viral marketing, Wilson, R. F. (2000). Web marketing today, 70(1), 232.

What exactly is viral marketing, Jurvetson, S. (2000).Red Herring, 78, 110-112.

A multi-stage model of word-of-mouth influence through viral marketing, De Bruyn, A., & Lilien, G. L. (2008). International journal of research in marketing, 25(3), 151-163.

Viral marketing: Motivations to forward online content, Ho, J. Y., & Dempsey, M. (2010). Journal of Business research, 63(9-10), 1000-1006.

Viral marketing or electronic word-of-mouth advertising: Examining consumer responses and motivations to pass along email, Phelps, J. E., Lewis, R., Mobilio, L., Perry, D., & Raman, N. (2004). Journal of advertising research, 44(4), 333-348.

Viral marketing-establishing customer relationships by’word-of-mouse’, Helm, S. (2000). Electronic markets, 10(3), 158-161.

Seeding strategies for viral marketing: An empirical comparison, Hinz, O., Skiera, B., Barrot, C., & Becker, J. U. (2011). Journal of Marketing, 75(6), 55-71.

Mining social networks for viral marketing, Domingos, P. (2005). IEEE Intelligent Systems, 20(1), 80-82.

Word of mouth and viral marketing: taking the temperature of the hottest trends in marketing, Ferguson, R. (2008). Journal of consumer marketing, 25(3), 179-182.

The effects of the social structure of digital networks on viral marketing performance, Bampo, M., Ewing, M. T., Mather, D. R., Stewart, D., & Wallace, M. (2008). Information systems research, 19(3), 273-290.

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