What Is Viral Marketing? A Guide for Business Owners

As a business owner, viral marketing gets you mass exposure, more followers, and even more sales. But what is viral marketing exactly? At its core, viral marketing relies on two key components: creating content that resonates with your target audience and getting them to share it with their friends.

Although there’s no clear science to going viral, you can implement techniques to better your chances of creating viral content and achieving exponential growth. Keep reading to learn the recipe for a successful viral strategy.

Key Takeaways

  • Viral marketing is a type of word-of-mouth marketing that relies on users to spread content across social channels, increasing brand awareness and engagement.
  • To create successful viral messages, marketers must understand their target market and make sure the content is relatable, well-timed, bold, or unusual and humorous, inspiring, or emotionally evocative.
  • Benefits of viral marketing include that it can be more affordable than other tactics, it has high brand awareness and reach, and can lead to rapid growth.
  • Disadvantages include negative word-of-mouth, inability to control the message, and no guarantee of going viral.
  • Examples of successful viral marketing campaigns include Hotmail Ads, Spotify Wrapped, Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS Association, Always’ #LikeAGirl video, and Popeyes Chicken Sandwich.
what is viral marketing

What Does Viral Marketing Mean?

Viral marketing is a marketing method where the target audience consciously or unconsciously promotes your products or services on various social media platforms via word of mouth or sharing on the web.

This strategy focuses on creating content that consumers find interesting and shareable in order to spread the word about a company or its products. This type of marketing has become increasingly popular over the past few years due to its ability to reach a large audience quickly, affordably, and effectively.

Social media followers share promotional posts or videos with their social media networks, which increases brand awareness and engagement dramatically on a local or global scale. Viral content can be posts, Instagram Reels, TikTok clips, videos, graphics, infographics, articles, blog posts, or even tweets.

Marketers hope that people will share this content enough via their mobile devices, giving the brand more exposure and making the marketing campaign more successful. Because other people are doing the work, viral marketing campaigns can be more affordable than other tactics. However, large brands can still spend thousands of dollars on campaigns. Smaller brands can use smartphones, memes, and other low-budget content creation tools to create a smaller-scale campaign.

What Makes up the Best Viral Marketing Campaigns?

The distribution of viral videos and content may be organic, but you can and should be strategic about its production. To launch a successful viral marketing campaign, you must first understand what makes content engaging. Understanding the reason is arguably more important than convincing viewers to invest in your product or service.

When you look at past content that’s gone viral, you’ll notice that they all share a mix of the following characteristics:


To go viral, your content must relate to your target audience’s interests and experiences — bonus points if you can do this in a funny, inspiring, or emotion-evoking way. The emotional appeal and relatability drive shares. For instance, does your product or service solve a unique or usual problem for your audience, tapping into their pain points, fulfilling their needs, and making them aware of how their experience is shared with many others?

In an established brand, you can refer to past and current social media analytics to understand your target demographic. Several metrics can help, including keyword traffic, engagement levels, social interactions, clicks, and impressions. If you have a new business, you can create campaigns specifically for data collection and use A/B testing on your promotional material to assess engagement levels.


Timing is essential to your viral marketing strategy. If you’re piggybacking off a popular trend, meme, incident, or anything else, your campaign needs to be released before your target audience has moved on to something else.

You’ll also want to consider when your audience is most active on social media. You may find that your audience is out and about on weekends, which means they’d be less likely to see your campaign. Whereas, on weekdays, they unwind after a day’s work at home with their phones. To learn about your audience’s peak times, your existing statistics will show any influxes or downward spirals of likes, follows, and views.

Additionally, consider which type of content suits your posting time. Typically, quick content that catches the audience’s attention is best for workdays, as people might want a short break. Weekdays are when you should post longer-form essays and articles.

Bold or Unusual

Dedicate your viral marketing efforts to making creative and bold content. If it isn’t unique or interesting, there’s almost no chance of it becoming a viral video or piece of content. So, what makes your content stand out? There are many pieces on social media platforms about self-confidence and low self-esteem, but the Dove Real Beauty Sketches were truly unique.

In it, a person sits behind a curtain, and an artist who can’t see them draws them based on their description of themselves. Then, the curtain is lifted, and the artist draws another portrait of the subject based on a stranger’s account of their looks. When comparing the two sketches, the second is a more accurate depiction of the person than the first. It became a viral campaign because it showed how harshly people view themselves and the emotional reaction they had to how differently — and much more kindly — others view them.


Humor is an essential ingredient of a successful viral marketing campaign. With a universal appeal that’s infinitely shareable across social platforms, humor can help you gain reach. Consider Ryan Reynolds’ Mint Mobile’s commercials. The company capitalized on the trending topic of artificial intelligence and ChatGPT by using the AI platform to write an ad for the company. The result was a quick and humorous video that got millions of views.

Viral marketing seeks to evoke feelings, such as joy, happiness, and laughter, which gives your content a shareable quality.

Benefits of Viral Marketing

viral marketing

Successful viral campaigns offer several perks, including:


Low marketing cost is one of the main advantages of viral marketing. After all, you rely on users to spread your content, which means you don’t have to invest in traditional marketing strategies or collaborate with celebrities and social media stars for an influencer marketing campaign to promote your products.

Unless you are hiring talent or need to hire a graphic designer, the only costs you’ll incur revolve around the content creation process, and you can easily film high-quality videos and take professional shots on a smartphone. With advertising being practically free, a viral campaign is excellent for start-ups and new businesses that can’t afford traditional campaigns.

However, large brands still spend anywhere from $100,000 to over a million to get their ads to go viral (and there’s still no guarantee), so keep your expectations in line with your budget.

High Brand Awareness and Reach

When strategies for viral marketing work, they trigger viral responses, exposing your brand to tens of millions of potential customers. Although it may not market your product or service directly or automatically translate to sales, these viral moments expand your reach, boost your engagement, and save you tons of money on brand exposure.

For that reason, a viral marketing campaign may appeal to small businesses and self-employed individuals who are looking to launch their brands with modest budgets and excellent products.

Rapid Growth

Simply put, you can increase sales and get increased lead generation and rapid growth via viral marketing campaigns. After all, your viral content will raise awareness about your brand, services, and products, getting people who already know about your business or haven’t heard of it interested. Done right, viral content can give small businesses their big breaks and allow big enterprises to stay relevant.

Disadvantages of Viral Marketing

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to a viral marketing campaign that you should watch out for, including:

Negative Word-of-Mouth

Negative news tends to spread faster than positive, eliciting stronger emotional reactions and driving people to take action (like sharing the content on their social media channels). As mentioned, virality depends on users spreading information on social platforms, so businesses have almost no control over the quality of this information. Also, they may suffer tremendously from the negative buzz and find it hard to recover from it.

Inability to Control Message

While some marketers revel in the idea of their ideas “going viral,” they often overlook one key issue: loss of control over brand messaging and reputation management. Once content has been shared widely throughout social media channels, there is no guarantee that viewers won’t misinterpret messages or create negative associations with a brand’s message without any oversight from those responsible for creating that message in the first place.

No Guarantee of Going Viral

Despite its name, “viral” doesn’t necessarily mean a campaign will reach everyone (or anyone) — in fact, most campaigns tend to remain largely within the same demographic groups (those who like similar content) instead of expanding beyond them. This means that your campaign may not actually reach much more beyond your current social media followers — which defeats the purpose.

Examples of Viral Marketing

Now that we’ve dissected viral marketing, let’s look at some viral marketing campaign examples.

Hotmail Ads

We’re going way back to 1996 for this viral marketing example. The free web-based email service Hotmail knew that the best way to get more people to sign up for an account would be by targeting the friends and family of those who already used their platform. As such, Hotmail included a message in the footer of every sent email with a link to sign up for a free email account.

This technique was enough to grant Hotmail rapid growth. As one of the oldest viral marketing examples on our list, it remains an impressive look at how a lesser-known company used a low-cost tactic to go viral and get thousands of new customers.

Spotify Wrapped

Spotify Unwrapped
Source: Spotify

Spotify Wrapped is a fantastic example of a more recent viral marketing campaign. The extremely shareable annual overview gives users a look at their yearly listening activity. This report includes their top artists, favorite songs, and more. Because users are always eager to share their musical tastes on their social media accounts, From TikTok to Instagram, Spotify Wrapped content goes viral almost every year. To keep things fresh, the platform keeps adding new statistics and fun twists. So it’s no surprise that over 120 million engaged with the program in 2021.

Ice Bucket Challenge

Although the organization didn’t create it, the ALS Association used this challenge to collect donations and raise awareness. In it, people poured ice-cold water over themselves and nominated others to join the challenge. The ALS ice bucket challenge became a worldwide phenomenon, increasing awareness for the debilitating disease and raising $115 million for the cause. It made sense for this digital marketing campaign to go viral because it was fun to watch, and it had a moving marketing message behind it.

Always’ #LikeAGirl Campaign

Always Like a Girl campaign
Source: Always

In a past viral video, Always had adults and children display what it meant to “run like a girl” or “fight like a girl.” Everyone based their movements on stereotypes of what it meant to do something “like a girl” — except for the young girls. While the other groups used flimsy punches or exaggerated motions, which made “like a girl” seem like an insult, the young girls exuded determination, strength, and confidence. This tear-jerking video forced viewers to look at how we use female-oriented speech as insults when they’re far from it, and it received over 65 million hits on YouTube.

Popeyes Chicken Sandwich

When Popeyes created a new sandwich, people drew comparisons between it and the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. This situation could’ve become detrimental to the fried chicken chain, but it used the public debate to its advantage. Popeyes team contributed to online discussions with humor about the comparison, getting their new sandwich more attention. Thanks to the hot debate, Popeyes sold out of the sandwich for two months. They re-launched it on a Sunday, which was chosen specifically because it’s when Chick-fil-A is closed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Viral Marketing a Myth?

No, viral marketing is real, but it is virality that people are doubtful of. You can’t predict which content will go viral, but there are some patterns across viral content you can emulate for a higher chance of virality.

Is Viral Marketing the Same as Social Media Marketing?

Social media marketing and viral marketing aren’t the same, but they’re similar in the fact that they generate sales and spread brand awareness using social platforms. With viral marketing, you are creating content that is meant to evoke joy, laughter, inspiration, or happiness in order to inspire users to share it. In comparison, social media marketing uses the same platform as viral marketing, but could be anything from a behind-the-scenes look at your product creation process, a post that contains customer service information, or news about an upcoming sale.

How Much Does a Viral Marketing Campaign Cost?

If you have a large brand and want to invest in viral marketing techniques, you can expect to pay anything from $100,000 to several million dollars. However, smaller brands and individuals have gone viral with funny videos shot on smartphones, memes, and tweets, which cost them nothing. Creativity and humor are huge factors in making something go viral without spending much (or anything) in the process. While this is a desirable outcome, it is extremely challenging to go viral and it doesn’t happen to most who attempt it.

What Companies Use Viral Marketing?

It’d be impossible to list them all, but a few notable examples are Spotify, Popeyes, ALS Association, Always, GoPro, Burger King, the cosmetics company e.l.f., and Ryan Reynolds’ Mint Mobile.

Wrapping Up

Overall, viral marketing is a cost-effective visual strategy for expanding your brand reach, heightening brand awareness, and driving sales in a short time over various media platforms. It delegates brand promotion to a large audience.

There’s no doubt that viral marketing campaigns have immense potential for businesses looking for new ways to promote themselves online without having to break their budget. However, when implemented correctly, these campaigns can bring great success in terms of engagement as well as brand loyalty from customers who may have never heard about the company before.

Now that you know what viral marketing is, you can create a campaign for your business. If you don’t know where to start and have a small budget, try posting humorous content on your accounts that is relevant to what you sell, like a meme, funny saying, or graphic. You can see what works with your audience this way before spending more on an actual campaign.