Viral marketing is a lie, but still something to learn from.

The term viral marketing gets thrown around a lot in marketing briefings these days. Every single time that I hear it I really can’t keep from rolling my eyes. Viral has become the latest marketing ‘buzz-word’ and, in truth, it’s a bit of a lie. Yes, viral is a working concept but planning for a viral campaign is a misleading idea.

First of all, let’s look at what a viral marketing campaign really is. A viral campaign is a perfect storm of communications that are so intriguing that people share it over and over again. Viral campaigns vary. They can be call-to-action campaigns, such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, that asks people to get involved in either a nominal/real sense or they can be straight marketing and brand equity tools (such as the Bud Light Up for Whatever Commercials).

The problem with allowing viral to exist as a strategy is simply that clients believe that large mass scale campaigns can be delivered for little or no funding. Viral is something that happens in the perfect conditions and it’s not always a free campaign. Look at the Bud Light Commercials; Up for Whatever first aired during the Superbowl where average broadcasting costs are about USD $1 Million per 30 seconds of airtime. That’s certainly not cheap! Bud Light succeeded because they had the perfect message released with textbook timing by the perfect ambassadors and everything released so quickly that people were taken in and had to share everything to make sure no one missed out. The perfect storm…

If you’re going to take anything away from this article then understand this:

‘There is no perfect recipe for a viral campaign’

Probabilities and profiles, whilst immeasurably valuable, cannot predict the success of a viral campaign. You can put all the pieces in the exact same places and try to replicate the Bud Light or ALS Ice Bucket campaigns (and believe me agencies have tried), but like a snowball rolling down a hill, a viral campaign will either take off or fail. Viral is often systemic of luck more than good decision-making. That being said, people love viral campaigns for a very good reason and these are some of the good tips we can take out of them:

1) Give your consumers the experience they need and #Keepitreal

Your customers have needs. It’s simple salesmanship 101. To make a viral campaign work you need to give people an experience they can remember. Give people a call to action that inspires movement then creates both associative and elitist memories that diversify the brand.

Don’t assume success factors, understand your audience and make sure your marketing hits the right spot!

2) Personalisation

Making an experience memorable doesn’t necessarily mean making something extravagant. Make your campaign own-able! If you can develop a campaign that allows people to customise it in their own way (think back to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge again), then they own a shareable piece of your campaign. This also means that the longer that your campaign lasts the stronger it becomes as it starts to develop its own content.

Carl Jung created a series of personality archetypes that you can use to understand people and their motivations. With this tool you can develop a greater understanding of how people will personalise their content, which means that you can tailor the call-to-action to appeal to everyone.

Another great example of personalisation is Dove’s campaign Real Women, Real Rewards. It’s personalised because it allows women who identify with the Real Beauty Sketches to take ownership of the brand in their own way.

3) Emotional Content

People are emotional. In order to make something truly memorable you need to evoke an emotional response within people. It’s all about creating resonance, which leads to memorability.

GoPro’s Hero Campaign, Fireman Saves Kitten, is a fantastic example of how to generate a little compassion in your consumers.

4) Share-Ability

Your viral campaign comes down to how many times people can share and spread your message. You don’t share and you’re not going viral.

Sharing is a simple keystone to successful marketing campaigns! If we are to learn from viral then Share-ability is clearly boosted through gamification, live action (experiences) and content-based marketing.

5) Transcend Limitations

Successful viral campaigns don’t exclude anyone. They should have a primary target, but their secondary target should not eliminate anyone from participating and/or sharing.


The most important thing to learn from successful viral campaigns – Keep it simple, stupid! Not the most polite anagram but it’s completely relevant. Complicated messages leave too much to be interpreted by the consumer.

When heading into your next marketing briefing, please don’t ask for a viral campaign. Just ask for a simple, fantastic, relevant message that can be personalised, develops emotions and can be easily experienced and/or shared by anyone. Don’t ask for something as unreasonable as a viral campaign!


Yudesh Moodliar

IL Consultancy

Project Manager