Key takeaways

  • Viral marketing is any marketing tactic that encourages rapid natural online sharing and accelerated word of mouth.
  • Viral marketing harnesses the power of referral marketing, generating leads and driving brand awareness.
  • Launching your own viral marketing entails knowing your target audience, making sharing easy, knowing your goals, and keeping your message clear.

Every month there seems to be a new viral video or meme. If you’re a marketer, you’ve likely dreamed of working on a piece of viral content—after all, it could be your claim to fame. But what makes a piece of content a viral marketing hit? Is it all just dumb luck and a bit of creativity?

Admittedly, it does take a little bit of both, but behind every piece of viral content is a solid marketing strategy. 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-edged 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. 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 increases the chances of your brand being viewed 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. While there have been companies in the past that have done so, like Old Spice or Axe, there’s no way to tell how long a trend will last, making it hard to build a scalable strategy around.

It can also be tough to measure the results of viral marketing, a necessity in scaling your marketing efforts. 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, 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 the downsides are real, there are viral marketing tools and tactics out there that can help you 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 build the sharing of your content into your campaign. It can be something as simple as a referral program or adding share buttons to your blog post.
  • Know your goals: 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 promote a special event? Knowing your endgame will make it easier to analyze and optimize 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. 

The best viral marketing examples

Let’s take a deep dive into some of my favorite examples and highlight the underlying marketing strategy that made them so effective.

The Blair Witch Project 

Quite possibly the only viral marketing campaign of the ’90s, The Blair Witch Project left people questioning what was real and what was 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.

Missing persons poster from the movie The Blair Witch Project, part of the movie's viral marketing strategy

With a budget of only $60,000, no one could have 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 its 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 even started dripping information into threads on forums dedicated to “urban legends.”

While everyone might not agree with their approach, the website strategy certainly worked, receiving 20 million page views before the film was even released. 


It’s highly unlikely that this strategy would work today, given the rise of social media and people becoming more aware of fake news. But their use of storytelling most certainly would. A great way to connect with any person is through a story. For users to form a personal connection with your brand, your company’s story must be authentic, creative, and inspirational. By giving your 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 acts like the grammar police, and low-cost cell phone service provider Visible was counting on it. 

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 autocorrect 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.

 A social media post from brand Visible letting users know that they would be offering free massages

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.


While putting a typo in your ad won’t necessarily help your business, being more transparent will. It might not seem like it, but that was ultimately 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 Tweets

Wendy’s is known for three things: square burgers, the Frosty, and roasting people on X (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 online, Wendy’s is the witty 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.” 

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.

A screenshot of the Twitter conversation between Wendy's and Carter Wilkinson regarding the promise of a year's worth of chicken nuggets

While he didn’t reach 18 million, he still did better than Wendy’s ever thought possible, getting over 3 million retweets and becoming the most retweeted tweet in history.


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?”

Will it blend or not blend? That is the question.

“Will It Blend?” is a YouTube series meant to be an infomercial parody 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.


The reasoning behind this seemingly crazy concept is simply making a boring product fun by doing the unexpected. Most people only buy a blender once every five years, and every blender company uses the same pitch—that their blender can “unlock the hidden taste of your food” or something like that. This only leads to consumers relying on price over features.

Seeing this trend, Blendtec decided to go in a completely different direction, utilizing their unique idea, which has almost 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 X (Twitter) followers, and 850,000 YouTube subscribers.


One thing every start-up 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. 

But for countless start-ups, 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, as 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
  • Reliability/Dependability
  • Be innovative

Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign

One of the most defining moments in digital marketing history was 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 bodywash. Isaiah goes on to perform a series of tasks that would make any woman blush, from taking her on a boat to turning an oyster into a handful of diamonds. The point of it was that your man wasn’t him, but he could smell like him if he stopped using women’s scented bodywash and started using Old Spice.

Image of ex-football player Isaiah Mustafa on a motorcycle for Old Spice's "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign

Their audience absolutely loved it, garnering it over 5.9 million YouTube views on its first day, and over 56 million views almost ten years later.

What made its success all the more astonishing was that the campaign was for Old Spice, a neglected Procter & Gamble brand that had lost ground to more hip rivals such as Axe Body Spray. But with a 70-year heritage, surely the brand could not be better positioned to be an expert on masculinity.

While the video might seem random, Old Spice was brilliant and extremely thorough when it came to targeting their audience for the video. It may seem like they are going for pure shock value or humor, but that’s not the case. The ad was tailored for who was buying the product at the time, which was women purchasing the product for their loved ones. 

Old Spice was able to do something very difficult: create content that not only stands out but is funny and appealing to their audience’s values. 


If you want to create a piece of viral content, avoid the hard sell! Still sell your product, but take a page from Old Spice’s book and invoke some kind of emotion in your campaign, whether that’s joy and laughter (like Old Spice’s ad) or fear, anger, sadness, or disgust.

Squatty Potty’s unicorn video

By now, you’ve probably heard of Squatty Potty, a.k.a. “the stool for better stools,” which is a small, white, inconspicuous stool that rests around your toilet. But no matter how many jokes you crack at it, talking about bathroom humor, let alone the actual process of using the restroom more efficiently, can be a hard sell.

But Squatty Potty, with help from the Harmon Brothers, was able to create a viral video about ice cream, Squatty Potty, and a unicorn. Instead of talking about poop, they talked about soft-serve ice cream, turning poop jokes into marketing gold

The result of the joke was the infamous Squatty Potty unicorn ad, in which a tiny magical unicorn explores the benefits of the product while expelling rainbow sherbert ice cream. Without getting into the graphic specifics, it’s goofy, witty, and compelling all at once. The main point of the ad is that the unicorn is excellent at pooping, but you aren’t.

According to the Harmon Brothers, the campaign generated a 400% increase in retail sales, garnered a 600% increase in online orders, and acquired SquattyPotty over a million Facebook shares within the first quarter of launching. By now, the video has over 37 million YouTube views, and still to this day continues to climb.

No matter the industry you’re in, a little sense of humor can go a long way.If you take a look around social media, it’s never the soulless infomercials that get shared. It’s the funny videos or the ones that stir emotions.


While humor won’t work for every business, for those with products that you’re trying to make more relatable, there’s no better tool. But you have to stay consistent in your marketing, and make sure it fits your brand. Humor doesn’t work as well if you only use it in one ad.

RobinHood app

While most of the companies we’ve spoken about so far have created some crazy and unique content, Robinhood kicked it old school and focused on designing a seamless referral marketing campaign. Robinhood was about to build their beta list to nearly one million users before launch.

That’s one million users eagerly waiting to use their product.

While I can’t guarantee that you will gain a million potential users, you can certainly expand your pre-launch reach or waiting list by implementing some of Robinhood’s techniques.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is one of the oldest and most powerful marketing tactics out there. Instead of inviting users to sign up for a mailing list, Robinhood made the waiting list invite only, appealing to its early adopters’ desire to be the first to benefit from their product/offering.

After all, it was a fantastic deal: “$0 commission stock trading. Stop paying up to $10 for every trade.” And the process was simple; when a potential user arrived on their landing page, all they had to do was enter their email address to opt in.

After signing up, you were put on the waiting list. The higher on the list, the sooner you got to try the app. Right after entering your email, you were taken to a page that showed your position on the waiting list. 

Conveniently placed underneath the waiting list was a reward-based invitation to share RobinHood with just one click. The more people you shared with and signed up, the higher you climbed on the waiting list. The higher your rank on the waiting list, the sooner you would gain access. This scoring system drove countless people to spread the word about RobinHood and share their link as often as possible.

Since their referral program worked so well, RobinHood continued it in a different form after launch: referrers earned a share of surprise free stock when their friends joined the platform, and gave a surprise free share to their friends as well. The element of surprise created its own viral effect, as users were excited to share when they earned higher-value stock.

Image from Robinhood's app advertising the benefits of inviting friends to the app


While referral marketing is one of the most effective ways to drive word of mouth and can be implemented in just about any business, Robinhood took it a step further by creating a referral loop. Referral loops incentivize customers to refer as many people as possible by offering a reward for each new customer that successfully signs up via invite.

Robinhood did this through the gamification process, by giving early access to those who referred more (and later, by giving out the surprise free stock). Countless businesses have used referral rewards and gamification to create a viral effect.

Australia Tourism’s Dundee ad

By far the most expensive viral campaign we’ll be covering today, Tourism Australia spent over 36 million on a campaign to make Americans want to visit down under—and broke a lot of Crocodile Dundee fans’ hearts while doing it.

YouTube trailers for the new Crocodile Dundee reboot Dundee: The Son Of A Legend Returns had viewers laughing and confused. What was Danny McBride, the star of Eastbound And Down, doing playing the son of Crocodile Dundee alongside Australian A-listers Margot Robbie, Russell Crowe, Chris Hemsworth, and Hugh Jackman?

Screenshot of YouTube video of ad created for Australia Tourism for the Super Bowl that made a parody Crocodile Dundee reboot movie

The teaser trailer even went as far as acting as if it were a real movie, announcing it was coming to theaters near you in 2018. Admittedly, Tourism Australia said it was pretty hard to keep the hoax a secret leading up to its big reveal during the Super Bowl.

The ad was part of a strategy to target upper-class, big-spending travelers rather than targeting the mass market.

But did it work?


Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. While it’s hard to tell if the campaign accomplished the goal of driving high-valued travelers, one thing is certain: Their ad did drive a lot of exposure.

According to the advertising agency Amobee, Tourism Australia’s digital mentions increased by 675% in January of 2018, finishing second for global digital engagement in regards to Super Bowl–related content. 

Down under, 50% of Super Bowl ad-related engagement mentioned Tourism Australia. Leading up to the Super Bowl, Amobee found only an 11% difference between engagement for Crocodile Dundee and Tourism Australia, suggesting that the gag trailer drove much of its popularity.

If possible, always try and align your content with other trending or popular topics. It’s a great way to give your content a boost and piggyback off of other’s engagement.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

I’m sure you remember back in 2014 when you couldn’t hop on social media without seeing a ton of Ice Bucket Challenges.

In case you were living under a rock, the challenge involved people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads, sharing a video of them doing it, and nominating friends and family to give it a try to help build awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive disease that causes nerve cells to deteriorate over time and eventually leads to total paralysis and quite often death.

A combination of social currency, challenge, and emotion gave this campaign a life of its own. It’s been compared to a duel, with participants calling out friends and family, making it very hard for them to say no. Social media applied peer pressure to the challenge, convincing more people to step up and participate. 

Video still of MLB Baseball players performing the Ice Bucket Challenge, with one person having a bucket of water poured over their head

Ego aside, the Ice Bucket Challenge was for a good cause—making it even harder to say no.

But while millions participated around the world, the challenge received some backlash, with many people questioning how many participants actually donated money or even took the time to understand the disease better. Others said that while the cause was good, it took attention from other worthy causes, and some environmentalists criticized that it was a waste of water.

While those might be some real concerns, the numbers speak for themselves.

The Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $115 million in donations that year, compared to its previous year of $2.1 million.


While it’s hard to fathom what kind of engagement metrics the Ice Bucket Challenge generated, one driving force that is often overlooked is the challenge. Everyone loves a good challenge—or at least they hate being called out. Throwing that challenge on social media almost makes it impossible to say no. But while you won’t see this tactic very often in B2B or e-commerce, you will see it often in the gaming industry. (Think about posting your high score, or challenging a friend to a game.)

IHOP/IHOb name change

When IHOP announced that they were changing their name to IHOb, without explanation, people were left scratching their heads. Overnight, people started throwing out ideas of what the change could mean. Very few people guessed that the “b” stood for burgers.

While not everyone was excited about the big reveal, IHOP felt it was the only way to let people know they take their burgers just as seriously as their pancakes.

 Updated IHOP logo to IHOb with the words "burgers" next to it to explain the change

Love it or hate it, one thing is for sure: The campaign got people talking.

While IHOP provided no information on if the marketing ploy increased sales or foot traffic, after the marketing stunt, more people will now likely associate IHOP with burgers than if they just did a simple menu change.


Sometimes secrets drive word of mouth. Anticipation and mystery are two of the oldest marketing tactics.

Burger King’s bullying and net neutrality videos

Wendy’s might own X (Twitter), but Burger King rules YouTube.

Unlike their competition’s use of Twitter as a standup routine, Burger King treats YouTube as their soapbox for providing the masses with funny public service announcements (PSAs). Their first viral PSA was back in 2017, with the launch of their “Bully Jr” campaign, in honor of National Bullying Prevention Month.

The video portrays an alleged social experiment to see how customers would react to the staged bullying of a teenager versus the “bullying” of their Whopper Jr. In the restaurant, a teenage actor was bullied by three other teenagers, while in the back, a Burger King employee bullied their Whoppers (he was punching them).

A still from Burger King's "bullying" video, showing a man dressed as a Burger King employee

Sadly, 95% of customers complained about their burger, which employees asked if they wanted “bullied or unbullied.” Only 12% of customers stood up to the teenage bullies.

A year later, Burger King launched another viral PSA, this time to inform the masses about another issue: threats to net neutrality. The reason this video was so compelling was that Burger King wasn’t trying to sell more burgers or market a new product. They were trying to prove a point to the US government about net neutrality, and did a better job explaining it than Congress.

Once again, Burger King set up hidden cameras and hired actors to teach Whopper buyers a valuable lesson. In the video, patrons are charged more for the same quick service they’ve come to love. But customers who only wanted to pay the regular price of $4.19 would have to wait twice as long for their food. Burger King employees would even intentionally hold their food until the time was up—down to the very last second.

Video still from Burger King's "Whopper Neutrality" viral PSA video

A few patrons looked baffled, while some cursed, and a few even snatched the bag from the employee’s hands. 

They even had a pricing board that showed customer MBPS, referring to “making burgers per second,” which was a joke referring to megabits per second in web speak.

While the “Whopper Neutrality” campaign wasn’t quite as inspiring as the “Bullying Jr” campaign, they both certainly put the issue in the simplest, most relatable terms for everyday people. Burger King’s viral campaigns have never been about driving sales, just driving awareness, and that’s what makes them so great.


Burger King uses the most relevant topics of the day to create their PSAs. By using topics that are already relevant/trending in the news, Burger King can capitalize on the engagement generated by an already prevalent issue.

If you’re focused on growing your business and maximizing traffic to your site, you should create a content calendar that blends both evergreen content—articles that are always relevant—with timely releases that capitalize on another trending topic. While evergreen content is excellent, more popular topics tend to acquire more unique backlinks, which in most cases will only strengthen your site link profile (if from a reliable source), providing you—and your website—a solid foundation for growth.


While I hope this information got your creative juices flowing, one thing to always remember is that viral marketing isn’t for every business. If you’re just starting your company, I would recommend holding off on it. It’s better for smaller and newer companies to use referrals for growth, rather than turning to a social media campaign or ad and hoping it goes viral.

Some of the viral marketing examples above seem like the stars aligned, and they got a lucky break. But that simply isn’t true—every company listed above put a lot of time and effort into building a solid marketing foundation before attempting their viral stunt.

Reach out to Referral Rock today to start increasing your marketing and referrals, building the foundation for the day you launch your own viral marketing campaign.