Chances are you’ve probably seen that funny looking cat by now.
Every month there seems to be a new viral video or meme. If you’re a marketer, I’m sure you’ve dreamed of working on a piece of viral content. After all, it could be your claim to fame. We all have our favorites, branded or not, that just stick with you. But what makes a piece of content a viral marketing hit? Is it all just dumb luck and a bit of creativity?
I’ll admit, it does take a little bit of both, but behind every piece of viral content is a solid marketing strategy. For this very reason, I’ve added a “takeaway” section to some of my favorite viral campaigns below. However, before we dive into the examples, let’s take some time to break down viral marketing and its advantages and disadvantages.
What’s viral marketing?
Viral marketing is any marketing tactic that encourages rapid natural online sharing and accelerated word of mouth. Content, usually generated by a brand, spreads from user to user like a virus and subtly drops its marketing message along the way.
Social media is the perfect breeding ground for this type of marketing after all their platforms are built for sharing. Harnessing this power is like wielding a double edge sword. You have to remember for this to work, a lot of the power falls in the hands of the users. While you could win big, your campaign might be misinterpreted and cause more harm than good.
Why viral marketing is worth the risk
The exposure pays for itself: What makes a campaign viral is the use of word of mouth. Sure, you might have to spend a little money, in the beginning, to get things moving. But once it starts working and referrals start flowing in, you can cut back on your advertising spend.
Plus, the next time you run a campaign, you’re more likely to reach a larger audience thanks to the brand awareness built during your viral campaign.
A viral campaign is branded but doesn’t feel like an ad: With most viral campaigns, the intention is never to hard sell. Instead, it’s usually about driving brand awareness and giving people something to talk about. The decision to like or share comes down to the user, so it never comes across as invasive.
Viral marketing is trusted, thanks to peer-to-peer sharing: We all know the power of referral marketing, and it’s no different when it comes to viral content. The simple fact that a friend is sharing it with them increases their chances of viewing your brand in a positive light.
Viral marketing is the quickest way to build brand awareness: While we typically focus on sales with advertising, there’s no denying the benefits of viral marketing in terms of lead generation. It’s true, most people won’t be ready to buy from you, but they will certainly keep you in mind when the time comes.
The downside to viral marketing
If poorly executed, you can go viral in the wrong way: What may be a positive and fun experience for some, could be a negative experience for others. You never know how some people could take your message or sense of humor. Once your campaign is released, it will take on a life of its own and could be impossible to handle.
Viral marketing might not result in long-term loyal customers: Sure, if your piece of viral content is around a product, you might see a huge spike in sales. But more times than not, these new users are just riding the trend and might not even be your ideal customers.
Viral marketing is not very consistent, and you never know how long it will last: It’s hard to create viral content, let alone replicate it time and time again. Sure, there’s been companies in the past that have done so, like Old Spice or Axe. But there’s no way to tell how long a trend will last — making it hard to build a scalable strategy around.
It can be tough to measure the results of viral marketing: If you want to scale your marketing efforts properly, you must always measure your results. Since viral marketing can be very hit or miss, there’s no real way to tell what your ROI will be. Some campaigns may catch fire right away, while others could take months even to sizzle. And some won’t gain any traction at all.
Even if you manage to go viral, just the nature of the engagement can be hard to measure. After all, how many people just watched your video on their friend’s phone? There’s no way to track that.
How to equip yourself to go viral in the right way?
While some of that might sound scary, you should be glad to know that there are viral marketing tools tactics out there, and agencies such as the Harmon Brothers busting out hit after hit gives us hope that we too can master the process. Listed below are a few key things to keep in mind while building your campaign.
- Know your target audience: Understanding your audience is marketing 101, but for a piece of content to spread, you have to get it in front of the right people. It’s all about creating content that speaks to your audience and connects with them on an emotional level.
- Make sharing easy: You shouldn’t create content and just pray someone will share it. Instead, you should be proactive and make sharing your content built into your campaign. It can be something as simple as a referral program or adding share buttons to your blog post.
- Know your goals, and keep them at the forefront: Why are you creating this campaign or trying to go viral? Is it to increase your following, drive awareness for a case, strengthen your SEO, or maybe it’s to promote a special event. The moment your attention is apparent, you can start analyzing and optimizing each step of the process.
- Keep your message clear: Keeping content simple and easy to absorb is a crucial element for any marketing campaign. The content you create should get to the point quickly before you lose your audience’s attention. Remember, you only have a few seconds to make an impression.
- Viral content pieces aren’t the norm: They’re the unicorns of marketing. However, they all share similar characteristics that increase their chances of going viral. Let’s take a deep dive into some of my favorite examples and highlight the underlying marketing strategy that made them so effective.
Blair Witch Project (viral marketing before social media)
Quite possibly, the only viral marketing campaign of the ’90s. The Blair Witch Project left people questioning what was real and make-believe. I remember the shock and awe I felt when I found out that it was all a hoax after believing it was real for months. But that was intended, and the premise was simple. They pitched the movie as a documentary, not a horror film.
“In 1994, three students vanished while filming a documentary near the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. One year later. Their video was found, but no bodies were recovered…”
But with a budget of only $60,000, no one could have ever imagined that the film would go on to gross $248 million. The low budget movie couldn’t rely on special effects or traditional marketing strategies, like their Hollywood counterparts. Instead, they leaned into the story and relied on the newfound popularity of the world wide web. (Remember, this was 1999.)
They created a dedicated website that was more about the urban legend than it was about the movie. This tactic paid off and built credibility that the myth about an evil witch living in the woods of rural Maryland was true long before the film hit screens. They went as far as creating dedicated pages outlining all the significant events in the Blair Witch’s history, and provided background on the missing students, including interviews with the victims’ families lamenting their untimely disappearance. They even started dripping information into threads on forums dedicated to “urban legends.”
They fooled so many people that the actors playing the main characters (who used their real names) were actually presumed to be missing or even worse dead. Some people even sent sympathy cards and money to the actors’ families as a show of support in their time of need.
While everyone might not agree with their approach, their strategy certainly worked with their website, receiving 20 million page views before the film was even released. And this was back when half the people on the internet were still using dialup.
It’s highly unlikely that this strategy would work today with the rise of social media and people becoming more aware of fake news. But their use of storytelling most certainly does. A great way to connect with any persona is through a story.
Storytelling has been around forever, and for a good reason. It’s how we connect with one another. For users to form a personal connection with your brand, your company’s story must be authentic, creative, and inspirational. By giving you products/services a voice, you can take your target audience on a journey they yearn to experience.
Visible’s “Free Massages”
Sometimes viral marketing is all about being relatable. We all have that one friend who likes to act as if they work for the grammar police, and low-cost cell phone service provider Visible was counting on it. Visible could possibly be the most recent viral marketing campaign (at the time this was written), and it was executed beautifully.
Visible knew if they were going to thrive in an overcrowded marketplace, they would have to find a way to cut through the noise and connect with their customers in a more personal way. To do so, the team came up with a cheeky idea and ran several billboards throughout its headquarters city of Denver, Colorado. The billboards read loud and clear, “Unlimited massages, minutes and data on Visible’s $40/mo phone service.” If you’re like most people, you’ve probably made this mistake in the past, or auto-correct did it for you.
Instantly, the typo started getting called out on social media. People were suggesting that Visible should fire their marketing team, or at least hire a new copywriter. Of course, it was all a plan to drive brand awareness, and a couple of marketers chimed in that they got the joke.
A few weeks after launching the billboards, Visible started dropping little hints on social media that they had a surprise planned. They announced that the typo was intentional on Twitter and informed their followers that they would indeed be offering unlimited massages on September 21 in Denver’s Union Station. By doing so, Visible was able to introduce a cheeky brand voice, while making good on their promise.
After all, the average sales cycle for customers planning on switching cell phone providers is about three months. So Visible knew if they were going to drive sales, they would have to pull off a stunt that would stick with a prospect for at least three months.
While it’s hard to put a metric on this type of brand awareness, in terms of KPIs, lead generation and service sign-ups topped the list – proving that sometimes it’s best to be transparent. After all, we make typos.
I don’t think putting a typo in your ad will help your business. However, I do believe being more transparent will. It might not seem like it, but that was honestly the goal with Visible’s viral marketing stunt. They wanted to show that they are human and make mistakes like everyone else, but they own them. By being more transparent with your brand, you can help build trust with your customers, drive innovation in-house, breed honesty among staff, and open yourself up to receive more customer feedback.
Wendy’s is known for three things: square burgers, the Frosty, and roasting people on Twitter.
At the heart of the burger chain’s branding strategy is one central tenet: the people at Wendy’s are serious about their food, but not themselves. From releasing a hip-hop mixtape and flirting with celebrities to relentlessly roasting McDonald’s and Burger King on Twitter. Wendy’s is the witty snark friend of the fast-food industry, and there seems to be no limit to their sass.
At the beginning of 2017, Wendy’s had just over 1 million Twitter followers. The brand added 1.2 million new followers by the end of the year, bringing its fan count to 2.24 million.
It all started with a simple tweet from Carter Wilkerson that read: “Yo @Wendys, how many retweets for a year of free chicken nuggets?”
Wendy’s reply was meant to be sarcastic: “18 million.” Figuring he wouldn’t even dare try.
But Wilkerson gladly accepted the challenge and started reaching out for support online, asking people if they would retweet to help him win his prize. His tweet ended up spreading like wildfire as more and more people started retweeting. They were even getting some news sources to join the fun.
While he didn’t reach 18 million, he did do way better than Wendy’s ever thought possible, getting over 3 million retweets and becoming the most retweeted, tweet, in Twitter’s history. Don’t worry. He was well deserving of the prize in Wendy’s eyes. After all, this single tweet became a massive win for the fast-food brand, at absolutely no cost to them.
Well, besides the free nuggets.
Your brand’s voice comes down to your business’s tone and identity. However, each social media platform has its own unique purpose, and users will have different expectations on each platform. While your brand’s identity must remain consistent across all channels, you should tweak your message and tone depending on the platform you’re targeting. You should view different social media channels as an opportunity to experiment and show off various aspects of your company’s personality.
Will it Blend? (BlendTec videos)
Will it blend or not blend? That is the question.
“Will It Blend?” is a YouTube series that is meant to be an infomercial parity demonstrating the power of the Total Blender — created and hosted by Blendtec founder Tom Dickson. Who attempts to blend random everyday items to show off the power of his blender.
And just to be clear, we’re not talking about smoothies here. Tom blends everything from magic markers to iPhones and even an Amazon Echo.
I know what you’re thinking. WHY?
The answer is simple. How do you make a boring product fun? You make it do something unexpected. Most people only buy a blend once every five years, and with every blender company using the same pitch, that their blender can “unlock the hidden taste of your food” or something like that. This only leads to more consumers relying on price over features.
Seeing this trend, Blendtec decided to go in a completely different direction, utilizing their unique idea, which almost has nothing to do with traditional blender selling points. Blendtec has been able to build brand awareness in an otherwise nameless market. And in regards to content marketing, Blendtec is by far the most successful company of its kind.
Blendtec has topped the charts for kitchen appliances with more than 190,000 Facebook followers, 35,000 Twitter followers, and 877,000 YouTube subscribers.
That’s a tremendous following for any business, let alone a blender.
One thing every startup can learn from Blendtec is how to find your unique selling proposition (USP). If someone asked you what makes Blendtec so good or unique? The answer would be simple. Their blender can blend anything. (trust me, I’ve seen it)
But for countless startups, this question isn’t so simple. The secret to unlocking your USP is understanding what your ideal customer wants and making sure you can deliver on what you promise. Sounds simple enough, right? But don’t be fooled – this exercise is harder than you think. It takes a lot of work, brainstorming, and some trial and error (A/B testing) to see what works.
Here are some ideas to help get the juices flowing:
- Narrow your target market
- Solve a problem
- Convenience / Usability
- Be innovative
Old Spice (“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign)
One of the most defining moments in digital marketing history was back in 2010 when Old Spice hired an ex-football star, Isaiah Mustafa, for a YouTube ad. The video convinced other mainstream advertisers to push the boundaries if they wanted to connect with the younger generation. Even heavily influencing a few different viral marketing campaigns on our list.
The video starts with Isaiah stepping out of the shower, wrapped in a towel holding a bottle of Old Spice body wash. Isaiah goes on to perform a series of tasks that would make any women blush. From taking her on a boat to turning an oyster into a handful of diamonds. And even getting her tickets to that thing she cares so much about. The point of it was that your man wasn’t him, but he could smell like him if he stopped using women’s scented body wash and started using Old Spice.