Harnessing the Power of Viral Marketing

“Going viral” is not something you usually want, that is, unless it’s about the marketing of your company.

Viral marketing is the dream for most businesses. You have probably witnessed it in action already when a story, meme or even a product spreads like wildfire throughout social media.

Techtarget defines viral marketing as:

“…any marketing technique that induces websites or users to pass on a marketing message to other sites or users, creating a potentially exponential growth in the message’s visibility and effect.”

As people share information with their friends and contacts, they help you increase the footprint of your brand. The thing with virality is, it’s not just a few shares, it’s the snowball effect of consistent share after share.

How can your brand harness the power of viral marketing? Is it as simple as deciding “we’re going viral?” Let’s take a look:

Why you want viral marketing

To answer that last question first, you can’t really “decide” that viral marketing will be your strategy as Andrew Chen explains:

“Successful viral products don’t have viral marketing bolted on once the product has been developed. It’s not a marketing strategy. Instead, it’s designed into the product from the very beginning as part of the fundamental architecture of the experience.”

What is this architecture? As Chen further explains, no single product feature is going to determine virality; instead, it is part of a “viral loop” that “connects a disparate set of functions into a cohesive motivation for the user to tell their friends.” A viral loop is comprised of the stages which a person goes through before feeling compelled to invite or share with others.

You can see a depiction of this viral loop from Fractl below:

As you can see, a viral loop is perpetuated when each person shares your product or service with at least one other person. It may be too late to grasp the concept of virality if you’ve waited until your product has been developed, although there may be another way to harness viral marketing, through side products.

The bottom line of why you would want your product or service to go viral is that users market it for you. It’s a multiplier for the efforts that you put into marketing and has the potential to reach more people for less marketing dollar.

Social networks are a good example – most were able to grow with minimum marketing spend because each person who signed up would end up inviting at least one other person. Organic growth saved them millions of dollars in marketing spend.

Another benefit of having fans and users do your marketing for you is that people tend to trust recommendations from friends. A share can be seen as a mark of approval, as a form of “social proof”. Research from Neilsen indicates that recommendations from friends is the most credible form of advertising among consumers.

The key is giving them something they want to share…

What makes people share?

There has been a lot of discussion around what exactly makes people share, particularly as content marketing is so popular and sharing is a key part of what makes it work.

Salesforce interviewed Dr. Susan Weinschenk, Psychologist and Author of How to Get People to Do Stuff, who made the following points for what makes people share:

  • We tend to have a built-in compulsion for gossip, particularly with things like “who’s at the top of the hierarchy and who’s on their way down?”
  • We like to share things that are surprising or pack an emotional punch. That might be valuable, entertaining or just plain emotional for others.
  • We share things that reflect our own stories or beliefs. It’s a way of defining ourselves with others.

The New York Times Customer Insight Group in conjunction with Latitude Research wrote an article titled The Psychology of Sharing: Why Do People Share Online which also found:

  • We share things in order to grow and nourish relationships. Sharing might help us to stay connected.
  • We share because we care about a brand or cause and want to support them.
  • We share for self-fulfillment and to make a contribution to the world.

For brands, what does all of this mean? The bottom line is that you have to deliver value that is so good that it compels people to share, particularly if we’re talking about sharing your product.

In terms of content, it could answer to any of the points above, it might even be controversial. Whatever it is, it should be in line with your branding and values, not just a gimmick in an attempt to gain virality. If you attempt a stunt like that, you’re not likely to gain the types of followers or customers who fit in with your overall goals.

“Fundamentally, people have to spread your product because they like it.” – David Sacks

How to harness viral marketing

The “how” is the difficult part. As great as your product may be, true viral growth is unlikely, although there are strategies you can build in which will help to drive virality.

We mentioned earlier that “going viral” isn’t a strategy you can just decide on once you have a product, it is something that should be built into your product considering the viral loop. The obvious first step is that you must have a product that solves a problem well for users and delivers incredible value. Your product and brand must be worthy of loyalty and sharing.

Beyond having a credible product or service, you need to be able to motivate people to not only try it, but to share it with others. This is the hard part, remember those reasons why we share above? If your product isn’t changing the world or your brand isn’t endearing people to support it, you need to come up with something else.

Viral marketing consists of growing your customer base by encouraging your customers to refer other customers, or getting your content, idea or story to spread. Let’s look at some examples:

#1. Content virality

Viral content is possibly the best-known strategy for brands, although it may be the most difficult to pull off. Remember, there is a huge amount of content out there already, so you have to be very savvy, possibly even lucky to get your content going viral.

There are many examples of content marketing efforts that have gone viral, although notably, these often go to the big brands. Bigger budgets can mean more ability to market and create a following, forming the base from which to send a viral campaign.

Here are some examples:

  • Old Spice with effective use of humour and of course, a dash of sex appeal, created a video advertisement that went viral. You can check out the “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign on YouTube here. The brand has since had several other ads go viral and are known for having a slightly offbeat humour.
  • Oreo infamously “won” the Superbowl in 2013 with a timely tweet. When the lights went out during the game, they tweeted the following message:

Timely messages like this are a strategy known as “newsjacking,” which if done well, can help to send content viral.

  • Bodyform created a humorous response to being trolled about “the reality of periods” on their Facebook page. Instead of directly responding in the comments, they created a video that cleverly addressed the issues the poster had raised with a satirical view that soon went viral. You can see their video response here.

While the Oreo tweet wouldn’t be costly to make, it does involve having a marketing team ready, just waiting to pounce on a timely and relevant news opportunity. This wouldn’t be impossible for smaller brands though, although Oreo’s status as a well-known and loved brand gives them a kick-start.

Videos like those from Old Spice and Bodyform are expensive to produce, although as visual content, video tends to get high engagement. For each example, you can see how they might answer a tenet of “why people share.”

The bigger brands tend to dominate the viral content space with sizeable production budgets and wide platforms to begin with. That is not to say any smaller brands should give up on trying to create shareable content, but this should be just one possible aspect of a strategy to gain virality.

#2. Product/Service virality

We feel that this is potentially easier for brands to pull off and should be given due consideration from the development of the product or service. The thing with product or service virality is that you can build it in – you can somehow compel people to get the word out for you and there are a number of ways in which to pull this off.

Andrew Chen says:

“In some of these cases, the virality has been “built-in” to the system – for example. Chain letters explicitly promise you something in return for sending on a letter, as do Multi-Level Marketing systems like Tupperware. These incentives and systematic design are originated with the intent to propagate a viral process.”

How can you build-in this virality? Here are some examples:

  • One of the earliest examples online is the growth of Hotmail in the mid-nineties. They added a tagline onto the bottom of all emails, “get your free email at Hotmail,” which netted them rapid growth as soon as they included it. Now, anytime a user sent an email, the person receiving it would see that message and could create their own account in this new world of webmail.
  • Dropbox is well-known for not only providing an excellent product, but encouraging users to share it widely. Users can earn more free space just by referring friends.
  • Facebook and Twitter both got people to invite friends, as have other social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. It makes sense – you need to have friends using the platform in order to get value from it as a user.

In their book Traction, Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares point out that inherent virality occurs when you can only get value from a product by inviting other users. Whatsapp is useless to you if your friends don’t also use it, as are platforms like Skype or Snapchat. They each become much more valuable as the user’s network of other users widens.

Collaboration might be another way to encourage in-built virality. It could be that it is possible to use a product or service on it’s own, but the value of using it increases if the user can collaborate with others. Google Docs is an example of this.

Now for a point we hinted at earlier – when you already have a developed product and you can’t see a way to help it to go viral. One strategy you could try is to create a valuable “side product,” one that will be sufficiently popular (and free) so that people naturally want to share it to help out their friends. This side product should naturally relate to your core product so that you gain more users as a natural consequence.

#3. Word of mouth

Seth Godin argues that viral marketing doesn’t equate word of mouth, but we would argue that it doesn’t exclude it either. If a product or service is compelling enough, it’s definitely possible that word of mouth can become a powerful way to spread the message.

Andrew Chen’s explanation makes sense:

“When I think of word of mouth, however, I specifically think of consumers telling other consumers about a product just because they like it, rather than there being a direct incentive to do so. This feels more organic or natural to me, and perhaps, it’s what people usually think of as your passionate influencers propelling your company forward.”

How have brands successfully leveraged viral word-of-mouth marketing? Slack is a great example. They “soft launched” to some teams and worked on gathering and implementing feedback. When they eventually wanted to launch a Beta (which they did not announce as a Beta for fear of giving the impression that they might have flakey service), they had 15,000 signups within two weeks.

They attribute about 20% of those to traditional press releases, but say the other 80% was from people sharing their story. As for that user feedback, it’s still a big part of what makes them tick and helps to ensure that they remain a beloved, viral-worthy brand.

#4. Types of virality

Here’s a quick summary of the ways in which you can harness virality for your brand:

Type Description
Word of mouth Great brands that people love to talk about. Common features include: excellent product/service, simple name (e.g. Evernote) and original name so that it comes up easily in an app store search.
Incentivised word of mouth Usually best when it’s tied to the product. For example, Uber and Lyft offer free rides for referring friends.
Demonstration virality People who receive the output from the product can see how it was made, for example “designed using X” or “made by Y.” Video and graphic apps are good examples of this.
Infectious virality Where both the user and their referral get extra value from the referral being made. A good example is LinkedIn invitations, which highlight how growing their network is valuable for both.
Outbreak virality This is difficult to manufacture and tends to be a combination of right place, right time and cool (often very innovative) product. Pokemon Go is a good example.

Next Steps

Viral marketing is not an easy strategy to harness, but it sure can deliver results. You can follow some strategies that give your own product or service a better chance at virality.

To get started, here are a couple of resources we recommend:

Download our checklist for increasing your virality.
Check out our recommended reading, the book ‘Viral Loop: The Power of Pass It On’

Stuart Brameld

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