What Is Viral Marketing?

Viral marketing seeks to spread information about a product or service from person to person by word of mouth or sharing via the internet or email. The goal of viral marketing is to inspire individuals to share a marketing message to friends, family and other individuals to create exponential growth in the number of its recipients. 

Key Takeaways

  • Viral marketing is a sales technique that involves organic or word-of-mouth information about a product or service to spread at an ever-increasing rate.
  • The internet and the advent of social media has greatly increased the amount of viral messages in the form of memes, shares, likes, and forwards.
  • Some marketing campaigns try to trigger virality, however many times just exactly what goes viral remains a mystery.
  • Once something does go viral, it is an easy and cheap way for a message to gain popularity.

Understanding Viral Marketing

In the case of viral marketing, "viral" refers to something that spreads quickly and widely across its audience. Viral marketing is a deliberate enterprise, though the distribution of a message happens organically. As such, social media provides the perfect ecosystem for viral marketing, though it has its roots in traditional word-of-mouth marketing. While the practice was much more widely used in the early to mid-2000s, as new internet businesses were being created in extreme numbers, it is still common among internet-based business-to-consumer (B-to-C) companies. The widespread adoption of social networks, including YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, has enabled modern viral marketing efforts and increased their efficacy. 

Viral Marketing Example

A frequently used example of early viral marketing is Hotmail, the free web-based email service launched in 1996 that included in its users' outgoing messages an embedded advertisement and direct link inviting recipients to sign up for an account. This practice led to the fastest growth among user-based media companies at the time. Another example that illustrates how varied viral marketing can be is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The ice bucket challenge existed before The ALS Association utilized it to raise awareness and generate donations, but the massive dissemination on social media of ALS Ice Bucket videos created a worldwide sensation that not only increased ALS awareness tremendously, but also raised $115 million in donations to the Association in the summer of 2014 alone.

Viral Marketing Characteristics

All viral marketing examples — deliberate or accidental — have three things in common: the message, the messenger and the environment. Each part must be leveraged to create a successful viral marketing campaign. Viral marketing campaigns may be created by any size of business and can stand alone or be a part of a larger traditional campaign. The campaigns themselves may utilize a number of tools, such as videos, games, images, email and text messaging, free products, appealing to the emotions of users or viewers, raising awareness to a worthy cause, and making such products, ideas or media easy to consume and share. Viral marketing often relies on the help of an influencer, who has a large network of followers.

Viral marketing can be less expensive than traditional marketing campaigns, yet grow faster — especially with the help of social networks as a "force multiplier." Since it can receive so much traffic in a short time, it can also lead to mainstream media attention. Social media can also cause viral marketing efforts to misfire, as messages are altered, misconstrued, considered spam or called out for missing the mark. Viral marketing success can also be hard to measure.