Viral marketing: How does it work?

Viral social content has become the holy grail of digital marketing. The right content, in the right place, at the right time can go stratospheric through the power of audience sharing – so without any additional spend, your content can reach a huge number of people, spreading your brand and its message far and wide.

There are 3.6 billion social media users worldwide, and we all want a slice of the pie.

Why is viral marketing so powerful?

One of the key benefits of viral marketing is that the user is in control, rather than the brand, which makes the whole interaction more authentic and therefore, more impactful. But that very benefit is also the drawback: how do you go viral when you have no control over whether it happens?

It’s a case of designing your marketing activity to give it the best chance of success, while ensuring that the content has value whether or not it hits the big time (it’s worth managing stakeholder expectations, just in case). If any marketing agency or freelancer promises you viral success, be cautious, if not downright cynical!

What makes content go viral?

Content that goes viral does follow a basic formula – get this right, and you’re maximising the likelihood of viral marketing success. Viral content usually:

  • taps into the Zeitgeist (for example, Gregg’s vegan sausage roll tapped into the wave of popularity enjoyed by the meat-free movement, so the brand’s tweets really resonated)
  • feels relevant to the audience (for example, ice cream brand Little Moons saw how popular ASMR videos were on TikTok, so squishing and cutting their mochi product was a key element of their viral videos)
  • offers value (for example, the #ALSicebucketchallenge offered people the chance to get involved with a worthy cause just by having a go, and sharing the outcome on Facebook)

There might not be a sure-fire way of ensuring a piece of content will go viral – especially given the sheer volume of content out there – but with an acute awareness of your audience, and an intimate knowledge of what interests and attracts them, you can give your content the best chance.

Should viral marketing be part of my social media strategy?It’s worth keeping your eyes peeled for popular memes that can be repurposed, or trends in social that you can join in with. However, rather than put too much emphasis on viral success, it’s better to incorporate these efforts as part of a well-balanced and effective social media strategy. Think of it as social content being the vanilla sponge and buttercream, while viral posts are the cherry on top (the cake still satisfies, either way).

“Going viral is not an outcome; it’s a happening. Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn’t. Just remember, fans are vanity and sales are sanity.”

Lori Taylor, Social Caffeine

Are there risks in viral marketing?

We can all think of times when, in an effort to go viral, a brand has pushed out messaging that has backfired. For example, recently Burger King tweeted (on International Women’s Day no less) that ‘women belong in the kitchen’, in an attempt to promote its new scholarships for female chefs. Intended to challenge the male-dominated catering, the brand faced an immediate backlash for being tone-deaf. The initial tweet was followed up with a full explanation of the programme, but it was already too late.

Somebody once said that ‘all PR is good PR’, but that’s clearly not the case. Content does need to be edgy to capture imaginations, so there may well need to be an element of risk, but it should be a calculated one. The brand damage caused by going viral for all the wrong reasons can be devastating.

Summary: how to help content go viral

There are a few ways in which you can optimise your social content for possible viral success. Our tips include:

  • Figure out why you want to go viral. Brand awareness? More social followers? There’s not much point in viral marketing that doesn’t achieve the objectives that are important.
  • Do some social listening. What are your target audience sharing?
  • Make it easy to share your content – perhaps even offer an incentive or create a competition that involves sharing as the entry mechanism.
  • Use hashtags to make your content more discoverable by more people.
  • Keep an eye open for viral trends you can piggyback on, such as memes or video challenges.
  • Make it authentic and personable – nobody wants to share content with a commercial slant.

Want to know more about viral marketing? Do not hesitate to get in touch with our team. Call us on 01206 912914 or email [email protected] to find out more about the power of social media