Viral Marketing: What It Is, Whether You Need It and How to Create It

If you’ve been reading marketing advice online for very long, you’ve probably come across the word “viral.” Viral marketing is talked about like it’s the holy grail of building web audiences.

What is viral marketing exactly, and do you really need it to succeed online? If so, how do you create viral marketing? Read on for a definitive answer.

A Changing Definition

That word viral gets tossed around a lot and apparently means different things to different people. Our friend Glen Allsopp started his viral marketing blog ViperChill just last year, but the term viral marketing has been around since the mid-1990s.

Over the past decade, the term viral marketing has become so common as to describe almost any popular marketing campaign. But in it’s purest form, viral marketing does have a more specific definition.

Essentially, a viral marketing campaign is one that spreads on its own from one person who learns about the idea to another. The creators of the viral campaign release it to a seed group of people, and then the campaign spreads wildly until the group it targets has been saturated or exhausted.

This is sometimes also called a “viral loop.” The key is that every person who comes into contact with the idea or marketing message spreads it to at least one other person. Once that happens, the idea is self-replicating.

The rate at which the “virus” spreads depends on how many people on average each preceding person shares the idea with (a viral coefficient, if you will), and how long it takes until that next person also shares the idea.

Any sharing of a marketing message from one audience member to another might be considered viral marketing, whereas sharing by each member to at least one other member is known as a viral loop.

Think of viral marketing as a multiplier on your marketing efforts. If you achieve a viral loop, then that multiplier becomes as large as your total target audience.

Viral Marketing in Practice

All of the big social networks have been built using viral marketing. Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and any other social network you can think of wouldn’t be so huge without viral marketing.

Each person who signs up for a social network like that ends up inviting at least one other person. The networks then grow organically almost without any advertising spend.

Beyond the social networks, any online service that encourages you to invite other friends is relying on viral marketing for growth to some degree. It’s a simple principle really, like referrals in the offline world, but with the ease-of-use and huge potential to spread enabled by social media and email.

Individual content can also spread virally. You probably witness this to a small degree whenever you publish a blog post or see one shared on Twitter or Facebook.

A piece of content is shared with an initial group of audience members (usually blog subscribers and Twitter followers), and then a certain portion of those people also share the content with their followers, who in turn do the same. Some pieces of content will spread more rapidly among your target audience than others.

This is viral marketing, just with a smaller viral coefficient.

Advertisers now take advantage of viral marketing to multiply their efforts (or reduce their cost per impression, depending on how you look at it) as well.

Ads often take the form of online video or games or quizzes that can be easily shared from one person to another. Those ads are created in a way that encourages sharing (often with built-in “email a friend” or “share this on…” type features.

Do you need viral marketing to succeed online?

Do you need viral marketing to succeed online? The answer depends on which market and niche your business is in. In many cases the answer now is yes, unless you have deep pockets.

Chances are, your competitors are relying on viral marketing principles to lower their overall cost of advertising. In many cases, entire businesses are built with almost nothing spent on advertising. This is especially true of online services and startups.

So unless you can outspend your competitors, your business will probably need some degree of viral marketing to compete for customers. Lucky for you it doesn’t necessarily have to be as sophisticated as the recent Old Spice campaign.

For most businesses, simply creating compelling content that helps your audience will give you some viral marketing benefits.

By putting effort into helping your potential customers through your content (and encouraging or making it easy for them to share that content), they will likely reward you by sharing that content with their friends. Put some extra effort into learning how to create popular content, and your viral coefficient will increase.

Can viral marketing be engineered?

What about engineering viral marketing? Can you build a system that guarantees virality?

The short answer is yes. And there are plenty of examples to prove that you can engineer a viral marketing campaign.

In fact, there are marketing firms who work entirely on engineered viral campaigns. Mekanism (based in NY and SF) caught my attention recently with their Fast Company Influence project. You might have seen the project spreading around Twitter lately. Basically, it’s a popularity contest that encourages you to bring other people into the project to boost your own influence rankings. Useless really, but viral. The entire project is detailed in a recent Fast Company article about the firm.

So yes, virality can be engineered, but the effectiveness of this engineered form of viral marketing is a more important consideration. Sure, I might like the little game or quiz you sent me enough to share it with my friends, but does that mean I care about the brand or product you’re hawking? Maybe not.

Here are a couple of potentially more useful forms of engineered virality.

First, consider the recent work by internet marketer Frank Kern. Frank built and released something called the Good Karma List Machine a few months ago. The premise is simple. A visitor is given a free piece of content, and a second piece of content is available only after the visitor shares the first piece of content with X number of friends (via email).

Frank was using the system to grow his email list. How effective a system like that would be for you depends on the quality of your content (and probably on the reputation of your business or personal brand).

Second, there are SEO applications to viral marketing as well. But with SEO, the goal isn’t to gain direct traffic necessarily. The more important goal is to gain links.

Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal (formerly of SEOMoz) is a master of viral linkbait. Basically, he creates a quiz or utility application in widget form that other websites can install and share with their visitors for free. The widget contains a link to the website he’s doing SEO for, along with the keywords being optimizing. Then, as his widgets spread virally, his link popularity increases and ultimately results in dominating the search rankings.

The fundamentals of viral marketing always remain the same: create something that people will share with other people. The goals and methods however, change from year-to-year, depending on what’s working, and possibly depending on what’s legal or allowed by the search engines.

Have you had luck with viral marketing?

Have you used viral marketing with any of your online projects? Do you need to use viral marketing to be successful? What do you think of the advanced “engineered” virality techniques?

Let’s talk it up in the comments. If you have any questions about viral marketing, I’m happy to answer them.

photo by Whole Wheat Toast

Published by

Corbett Barr

Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.

38 thoughts on “Viral Marketing: What It Is, Whether You Need It and How to Create It”

  1. Hey Corbett. Another great article as usual.

    Viral marketing can make a person popular overnight, although most of the times this happens by luck. For example, Chance Grayson’s YouTube videos that surfaced just a month or two ago. It turned him from a normal middle school student into an overnight phenomenon.

    Viral marketing is probably the best thing a business can hope for. The hype generated through viral marketing is much more effective than any other methods of advertisement.

    1. I agree, most viral marketing ends up happening by luck. It’s more common for the big brands and agencies (or social software companies) to engineer viral marketing.

  2. There’s a company using a great viral campaing in the UK at the moment. They sell snacks, and every subscriber gets a code which a) saves them money (making them more likely to share) and b) gives new subscribers a free sample (making them more likely to set up).

    It just sums up how simple and effective viral marketing is.

  3. Hey Corbett,

    Really awesome Post. Spot on. These days i’m trying to learn more about viral marketing.
    I really like the idea of “engineered virality techniques”. Really Greatttt..!!

    Thanks for sharing this great Post. keep up the awesome work dude :).


  4. Great article, I guess in another words “Viral Marketing = Word of Mouth” and the best example is the stupid silly bandz, So why you wearing this band, I ask my little cousin, She said, because everybody else is. Kids, find crazy product do some viral marketing and you rich.

    1. Yeah, viral marketing and word-of-mouth are related, but not exactly the same thing. I’d say word-of-mouth implies that one person synthesizes some information and passes that information to another person using their own words or take on the subject. Viral marketing can rely on word-of-mouth or on other methods that don’t require the people who spread the message to necessarily care about or understand the message or underlying product.

  5. Hey Corbett,

    In an effort to make point, I’m commenting from my Flightster account. I would say that virally engineering things is absolutely possible. Sure we’d like it to be something that happens organically, but we can do certain things to get an effect. As you know I recently launched a campaign to hire a writer, which was very viral in nature. Even the launch of the blog was designed to be very viral. Here are a few of things I did

    1) Hire a team of bloggers who had established audiences who loved what they did. Colin Wright from Exile Lifestyle was the first writer I hired for the Flightster Blog.

    2) Get the writing team to promote the content (i.e. share on twitter, facebook, etc). Knowing that these people have the ability to get their content read made a huge difference. I find that corporate blogs typically suck because the content sucks. We have an unusually high volume of comments for a company blog IMO. I think there are certain companies like Hubspot that actually write compelling content, but for the most part corporate blogs are pretty awful.

    3) The Writing Campaign: The campaign itself was my first attempt at engineering something truly viral and so far after a week it’s resulted in close to 20 inbound links from highly relevant blogs. The facebook fan page has increased quite a bit and is growing everyday and we’re getting a ton of mentions on twitter.

    One of the things I tried to keep in mind is making it a win-win situation for all the participants. I did get nailed by a commenter yesterday who flamed us because we benefited more than the participants, but I personally think that it’s a fairly win-win situation considering we’re not asking bloggers to do much out of their daily routine and they end up getting a link back from us and an entry into the contest. Anyways, definitely lots of food for thought here.

    1. Awesome tips, Srinivas. Thanks so much for sharing. I know I’ve heard about your campaign a couple of times, so it seems like your message is getting around (although we tend to know the same people online).

      And I agree, most corporate blogs are pretty awful. Kudos to you (and your employer) for realizing the value of putting out interesting/useful stuff on a corporate blog.

  6. An enjoyable article! It makes me think that I should be using viral marketing more, or at least in the future!

    Thanks for reminding me!

  7. I’ve noticed from my experience with this that people are often incredibly happy to have found something new that engages them and provides them with something useful they can use. (Our content is on heart-based meditation, so it’s a unique niche.) I agree with the premise that providing quality content (and make sharing it easy) is a great way to go viral. We have an FB button with a counter on it, and I’ve been amazed by how quickly people share our posts (often much faster then we get comments). Of course, creating quality content isn’t exactly easy, but it’s in line with what we do in terms of education.

    1. I wish Facebook gave you more insight into who shares your content and when. I’ve been surprised myself at how many times that little counter says things have been “shared,” but I have little idea if that’s benefiting the blog yet.

  8. Mike Filsaime defines conditions for virality as 1. killer content, 2. shareable, 3. buzzworthy. Frank Kern really nails it under this definition.

    So far, my viral efforts have succeeded with #1, partly with #2, and #3 goes against my raisin’, so that’s a bit tougher.

    But I’m patient.

    1. Thanks for the reference, Dave. Beyond “sharable” there’s also the condition of making a service function better when a user shares it (in the case of social software).

  9. Good essential article on viral marketing, Corbett.

    I have never used it myself, and I have a couple of options I want to experiment with. I will focus on video more strongly in the future, because a short and sweet vid on youtube has viral potential – if I create one refers to my blog, then I’ll shoot my traffic into space. I like the oatmeal designer’s idea – that’s a grrreat way of spreading one’s influence.

  10. Corbett-

    A couple points –
    While Old Spice got tons of press, awards and general accolade for their recent commercials, it doesn’t seem to have helped their sales. In fact, according to this article, sales have been down –

    They got a lot of free “advertising” from the extra press notice they got, but I haven’t seen a lot of evidence on how effective of a “marketing” effort it was [note the difference between marketing & advertising–there is a difference].

    I think viral marketing can be engineered, but like Gary Vaynerchuk says, our BS detector is really finely tuned. Companies that try to game the system and “intentionally” try to make something viral usually flop pretty quick. The great thing about Matthew’s example is he consistently creates something that people want to share.

    The Fast Company example I haven’t been terribly impressed with. At first, I was intrigued, but I didn’t feel like tweeting about it so I could inflate my ego at the expense of my followers. Has it been that big of a success? I’ve only seen a few people talking about it…

    1. Joel, I’ve read that Wendy’s famous “Where’s the beef?” campaign was a net loss. I don’t have figures at my fingertips for that, but I’m curious if you (or Corbett) know anything about it.

    2. Dave-
      I’m not sure about that particular campaign.

      I think it is interesting to see how marketing campaigns can affect a culture in a marked manner while simultaneously not achieving it’s actual purpose.

      Also, it’s interesting to note that while the campaigns might not lead to direct ROI, they do create a “branding” image of the company that tends to linger even after the campaign has ended. How many sales eventually occurred because of the lasting appeal of the branding is harder to quantify…

      (I’ll try to look into the Wendy’s campaign for you).

    3. There’s no question that the campaign was a branding success.

      It’s probably not possible to answer the question “What if they had not run that campaign, would they have lost business instead of simply maintaining?”

  11. This immediately reminded me of a quote & a statistic I’m smitten with:

    “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another.” -Marva Collins


    “78% of consumers trust peer recommendations while only 14% trust advertisements”

    These feel like the essence of the world that is rapidly evolving right now. The power of big business and rehashed ideas is dwindling. The voice of the individual and her unique ideas is gaining clout. Compelling content FTW!

    In terms of marketing, I’ve seen success with customer reviews. Local businesses I’ve consulted for have put focus on getting their current customers to leave online reviews, and the results have been amazing. So many new customers cite an online review as their main reason for choosing that company.

    I’ve not created anything that has reached a “viral loop”… yet. I think the essence of any viral loop is expressing your true self. Letting that little spark of genius, that can sometimes seem so crazy, just fly… I’ll keep ya posted 😉


    1. Great quotes / stats, Lauren. I wish more people thought of teaching that way.

      I’m right with you when you say the voice of the individual is gaining clout. Cheers to that!

  12. Hi Corbett,
    ICQ had one of the most viral product: If you really wanted to enjoy ICQ (which was a messenger application), then you had to tell your friends to get it as well. Also, they had cool sounds, so if someone had ICQ in his office, and then he got a message with a sound, everyone around asked ‘what is it?’.

    1. Oh yeah, that’s right. I forgot all about ICQ. I’m guessing there’s a lot we could learn about “viral” marketing from historical products.

  13. true … great content goes viral, the only problem is that not all great content will be virally spread. I think an aspect of entertainment has to be in that piece of content because this is what people naturally want to spread..
    Good stuff, Corbett

  14. Just an opinion plus a question. Viral marketing is mainly driven by social proof, right? The more people subscribed or share something, the greater the marginal increase of people who are more likely to share it?

    I’m working on a blog now that seems to be at a dip and trying to devise a campaign that, as the earlier comment said, would help me get the word out there faster.

    1. Hey Caleb, that might be true to some extent, although things spread without evidence of social proof all the time. When you retweet something, for example, it is often without knowing how many people have also retweeted. Although you do know that someone you are following tweeted it in the first place, so that’s a form of social proof I suppose. So anyway, social proof can be a factor, but doesn’t have to be.

  15. I checked out the “How to Become the Next Paid Writer For the Flightster Blog” and that is indeed a very crative example of viral marketing. When I think of viral marketing, I tend to always think YouTube and I imagine myself posting something lame and boring. The idea of using some sort of contest to market virally intrigues me. Is that considered to be a succesful tactic?

    1. Hi Sherryl, yes, contests can definitely be a good tactic for encouraging people to spread the word about your site or content. I’ve used them myself successfully in the past. Just make sure the benefits to the reader are clear, and that you ask them to complete an action (Tweet, comment, etc.) to enter the contest.

    2. Yeah, it’s a manual process. I’m sure you could write some Javascript to help out, but I just rely on people to do the right thing, and verify the contest winner before awarding the prize.

  16. Hey Corbet

    A-plus stuff!!

    It really helped me a lot to figure out how to deal with many factors of a campaing-to-be I am dealing with now.

    I have a simple question: do you think a “cover” viral campaign (a campaign that does not look like marketing, but rather something real) that atracts the target group and, after becoming viral, unveils its true meaning…can be a bit of a dishearting for the target group??

    I am just really questioning myself: i think i have a great idea but i am affraid some people of the target group wuold feel somehow bothered…and i dunno if this is good for the campaign itself (anyway our goal is not “selling” anything but rather grab attention and raise awareness…pretty much a “social marketing” stuff).

    Aoww!! some insights would be helpful!

    Thanks in advance!


  17. Hi Corbett. I have been reading up on online marketing and viral campaigns and this one is by far the best. Awesome writing style. Daniel ( South Africa )

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