What is viral marketing (and does it work in 2023)?
If you work in social, chances are you’ve wondered or been asked how to go viral. It makes sense that so many businesses look at viral marketing as the ticket to social media superstardom. After all, who doesn’t want to get their brand and content in front of as many people as possible?
And the pressure is on. According to a Q4 2022 Sprout pulse survey, 72% of marketers cite “keeping up with changing social trends” as their biggest challenge heading into 2023.
So what is viral marketing today? And does chasing trends still make sense these days, or should brands focus on social as part of a bigger marketing funnel instead?
With the many changes social has experienced in recent years, the concept of viral marketing deserves to be revisited. Let’s get into it.
What is viral marketing today?
Viral marketing is a style of promotion that relies on an audience to organically generate and push the message of a product or service. On social media, marketing is considered “viral” when it’s being shared rapidly by the public at large (with a compounding effect) rather than just its target audience.
If achieved, your message will be in nearly everyone’s social media feed.
How does viral marketing work, though?
Modern viral marketing on social can be illustrated by the popularity of social media memes or trending TikTok sounds. Think about how seemingly random phenomena like Baby Yoda, the Milky Way meme or the “It’s Corn” trend take over your social feeds out of nowhere. Memes get shared and promoted like crazy because they resonate with people.
Be diligent and check your child's candy this year, just found an invasive silver carp shoved inside a Milky Way. No words. pic.twitter.com/4lxTErtQsX
— Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (@OKWildlifeDept) October 10, 2022
The same rules apply to viral marketing, when followers and customers share a brand’s content because it’s buzz-worthy. But while platforms like TikTok and formats like Instagram Reels have made viral marketing easier for brands, not all brands will achieve the universal reach they’re looking for.
Pro tip: When it comes to knowing what will resonate with your audience and beyond, you don’t need to start at square one. Just look at your data.
Find out what resonates with your audience with Sprout Analytics
Sprout’s analytics options provide presentation-ready insights that let you advocate for the power of social across your organization.
Dive even deeper into audience and content insights with our Advanced Analytics and Listening options.
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What are the pros and cons of viral marketing?
There’s no question that achieving at least one social media viral video is on many marketers’ bucket lists.
But, hot take: Going viral has its downsides.
A big reason why when clients say "let's get this viral" is a concern of mine… ummmm are you ready for what's to come??? https://t.co/8uAJ4Dooz7
— Codi (@Codishaa) June 22, 2022
Let’s look at the pros and cons of viral marketing:
- Increased brand awareness: When you go from 10-1,000 average engagements to 10,000,000, you’ve officially supercharged your brand awareness and potentially gained thousands of new fans or customers.
- Audience growth: More eyes on your brand inevitably leads to more fans and followers. For example, Shedd Aquarium’s viral “penguin field trips” campaign led to thousands of new followers gained in a matter of days.
Wellington, meet the belugas! 🐳 🐧 This weekend, Wellington visited Kayavak, Mauyak and baby Annik, who were very curious about this little rockhopper. Belugas are northern hemisphere animals, so they would likely never see a penguin! pic.twitter.com/XrpF3BlKnu
— Shedd Aquarium (@shedd_aquarium) March 30, 2020
- Increased sales: With more fans and brand awareness come more potential sales to be made.
- Becoming an “it” brand: Your name in Adweek, your posts in articles like this; viral marketing puts your brand, and your marketing team, on the map and positions you as an industry trendsetter. The aforementioned Shedd Aquarium is a local destination. But they reached people on all seven continents—yes, even Antarctica.
- The reception may not be what you expect: Viral campaigns are meant to create buzz. But sometimes, that buzz isn’t the positive response you’re hoping for.
- Losing control of your content and message: Once your content is out there, it’s out there. It can be re-posted and commented on by anyone else with a computer, and you cannot control what they do with it.
- More fans doesn’t always mean more customers: New followers and more commenters doesn’t always translate to more sales.
- The mountain of messages: When you go viral, it’s not unusual to have thousands of new messages in your inbox—every day, or even every hour. You need to stay on top of monitoring messages, without battling additional social media burnout. If you want to lean into viral marketing, using a tool like Sprout lets you capture all incoming messages across all your channels, filter and manage them in one central Smart Inbox hub.
What are some notable viral marketing examples?
One of our favorite viral marketing examples is the McDonald’s “can I get uhhhhhh” campaign—a commercial that played during The Big Game in 2022 (you know the one) and translated into wildly popular Tweets. By tapping into a relatable customer experience familiar to their audience, this campaign took off.
can i get uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
— McDonald's (@McDonalds) February 13, 2022
In 2022, Iceland tourism created a viral campaign that advertised their stunning scenery to potential travelers…with a touch of absurdism. They “trained” three horses to “respond” to visitors’ emails while they were away from work.
And one of the co-founders of break-out water brand “Liquid Death” credits viral marketing, in part, for the brand’s meteoric rise. In 2017, they launched a commercial on a minimal budget before they had a product. The commercial went viral, and their Facebook page racked up more followers than their major competitors in just a few months.
Since then, they’ve continued to tap into viral marketing campaigns that lean on humor and shock. In 2021, they sold a skateboard designed with paint mixed with Tony Hawk’s blood.
Although it could arguably make the world a better place, never ever use these boards to make clones of Tony Hawk.
— Liquid Death (@LiquidDeath) August 24, 2021
IHOP’s 2018 “IHOB” campaign, which saw the brand temporarily deem themselves the “International House of Burgers,” is another of the most notable viral marketing examples.
We’re giving away 60¢ short stacks on July 17 from 7a-7p for IHOP’s 60th birthday. That’s right, IHOP! We’d never turn our back on pancakes (except for that time we faked it to promote our new burgers) pic.twitter.com/KsbkMJhKuf
— IHOP (@IHOP) July 9, 2018
Although the brand saw some criticism for their bait-and-switch, the numbers from the campaign don’t lie.
.@IHOP CMO shares insights from the IHOB stunt:
1.2 M tweets in first 10 days
27,082 earned media articles
100+ brands/celebs join convo
42.6 B earned impressions
More burgers sold than pre-campaign
Finally, countless questions about what IHOP will do next #Brandweek pic.twitter.com/vF73Zsv4cs
— Adweek (@Adweek) February 7, 2019
Bear in mind that viral campaigns aren’t always humorous or light-hearted.
Popular campaigns like Always’ “Like a Girl,” the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and Gillette’s “Be a Man” ads tackle serious issues and stigmas. The popularity of these ads goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the need for authenticity on social and brands getting real.
What do most viral marketing campaigns have in common?
Although viral content varies wildly from business to business, there are three distinct elements that most campaigns share. Keep these in mind when trying to assess whether or not a campaign has the potential for serious buzz.
1. They’re organic
Reality check: Viral campaigns can’t be forced.
Content spreads organically. That’s how viral marketing works. Your audience ultimately decides what’s worth sharing.
Often, it’s about being at the right place at the right time (or rather, saying the right thing at the right time). You can’t really rationalize memes or crazes such as the “does pineapple belong on pizza” debate.
That said, marketers can set up their content for sharing by having a pulse on social trends (more on how you can achieve that later).
2. They’re timely
Trends come and go.
Although viral marketing campaigns have the potential to leave an impression on customers or the public, people have short attention spans for hot topics and trends. By the time one trend blows up, we’re often looking for the next craze.
Brands should be wary of trying to repeat viral campaigns or exhaust a popular trend. Just because something’s hot now doesn’t mean it’ll have staying power for years to come. It’s the reason why brands aren’t still parodying the “Harlem Shake” or “Gangnam Style.”
3. They’re bold
Bear in mind, there’s an inherent risk involved with viral marketing campaigns and tactics.
Going viral means doing something that grabs the public’s attention. That doesn’t happen by accident, nor does it happen by playing it safe.
For example, Liquid Death’s initial commercial and campaigns like their Tony Hawk collab are bold, and hard to scroll past.
Not all viral marketing campaigns are controversial, but they tend to be out of left field.
And with that, we uncover the big potential downside of viral marketing: going viral for the wrong reasons. Remember Kendall Jenner’s infamous 2017 Pepsi ad?
Where to start with viral marketing
As highlighted in our list of 2023 social media trends, marketers want concrete results from their investments in social media.
This means that going viral is a benefit—not a replacement for a scalable social strategy.
Even so, all brands can benefit from tapping into what audiences are buzzing about and reacting in a way that fits and furthers your brand identity.
If nothing else, all marketers should have a handle on what makes social content shareable.
Here are our six tips for marketers looking to produce viral, share-worthy content and increase their visibility on social.
1. Reflect on why you want to go viral in the first place
Are you looking for more mentions? Brand awareness? Trying to catch the eyes of customers?
Aligning your viral attempts with your overall goals will guide you toward creating meaningful content rather than just throwing something together and hoping that it sticks.
You need a plan of action with your content, and viral campaigns are no different. Years ago, marketers might have tried to argue that viral content has to catch on in whatever way possible.
Times have changed, though. Not all press is “good” press anymore.
2. Become a master of social media reporting
Remember what we said earlier about your audience playing a pivotal role in what gets shared?
Whether you’re looking to curate or create viral content, you need to know what resonates with your followers.
How do you figure that out? For starters, look at which pieces of content perform best by monitoring these social media metrics:
- Audience engagement
- Keyword traffic and performance
- Page impressions
- Clicks and reach
- Demographic data
Each of these social media metrics can give you insight into what has shareable potential.
Maybe it’s a video. Perhaps it’s a meme.
Regardless, social media analytics in Sprout can break down the performance of individual pieces of content and campaigns alike.
From there, you can start to build future campaigns based on what’s worked in the past.
3. Make sure your content is primed for sharing
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you have to make sure your content is optimized for quick and easy sharing.
For example, social campaigns shouldn’t be confined to your business’ main account. From blogs and newsletters to events in your network, consider how far you can spread your message.
Then, brainstorm the best social media channels for any promotion or piece of content. For example, image-based content is fair game for Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Viral videos are prime for YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.
It’s smart to make sharing as seamless as possible. You can make your audience have an easier time sharing your campaign by:
- Providing several different routes to share (like the above penguin video published on Twitter and TikTok)
- Giving away free products or services
- Finding the common motivations of your main audience
- Asking questions that get viewers or readers thinking and talking
- Never restricting or gating your content
4. Use hashtags to spread the word
Hashtags go hand in hand with more social shares.
For the sake of awareness and easy sharing, tacking a hashtag on any given campaign is a smart move to make it more visible and memorable to your audience.
Taking the time to create a hashtag is likewise worthwhile for tracking the success of your campaigns in terms of mentions and shares.
And with the help of hashtag analytics, you can uncover other relevant hashtags your audience is using while also measuring the performance of your own.
5. When in doubt, consider trendjacking
This is arguably the easiest way to raise brand awareness without going viral yourself. Trendjacking means piggybacking your brand onto a meme, relevant pop culture reference or viral trend. This has become one of the staple marketing practices for those trying to get a piece of the viral market.
Take the “It’s Corn” trend we’ve mentioned a few times. Compare the original to how several other brands—Sprout, Shedd Aquarium and Grammarly in this case—used this trending sound to tell their own story.
Through social listening, you can tap into these sorts of trends in real time and understand whether or not they’re relevant to your audience.
6. Humanize your content
This is a straightforward tip, but an important one.
A common thread between most pieces of viral content is that they’re human.
That is, they’re organic, personable and relatable. Authenticity is essential to reaching Gen Z and younger Millennials who are often the arbiters of what goes viral.
Brands tend to see a lot more shares when their content is humanized or appears genuine. Anything you can do to remove the corporate taste of your content is a plus.
Does viral marketing make sense for your brand?
Let’s be honest: going viral in the traditional sense is tough.
That said, there’s plenty to learn from the principles of viral marketing and what it takes to produce content that catches fire.
The tips above and technology like Sprout’s analytics and social listening tools can help you keep a constant pulse on what your audience wants, and which trends to watch.
Want to see how Sprout can help you as you develop viral content, and manage your viral success? Sign up for a free 30-day trial to see how our tools change the game.
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