Social Media, Viral Marketing

The Art of Viral Marketing: Is It Really Just Luck?

Viral campaigns seem the stuff of legend in the digital marketing world; allusive, highly sought after and rarely experienced. Backed by the power of social media, it’s hard to pinpoint a theme or common thread between some of the most well-known viral sensations, just think of the blue/black/gold/white dress debacle which many a company jumped on the band wagon of. Just one simple tweet which sparked a furious debate and millions of shares, comments and retweets.


But really, what does it take to go viral? When it’s so hard to seemingly determine the right way to go about it, how can marketers predict the impact a campaign will have? Well first, it’s best to look at where most marketers get it wrong.

Why Your Viral Campaign Isn’t Working

While many companies are happy to jump on the back of a trend or viral discussion to reach a wider audience, many set out to become viral themselves. According to Seth Godin–who has one of the best marketing blogs going around–this is where most companies tend to go wrong. They think a viral campaign may help slumping sales, attract a new, younger audience or increase brand exposure; but really, viral campaigns are made by mistake, not design. Godin so aptly puts most companies viral strategy like this:

They slap some goofy viral thing on top of it and wait for it to spread. And if it doesn’t spread, they create a faux controversy or engage a PR firm or some bloggers and then it still doesn’t work.”

– Seth Godin, Marketing Legend

In a world where advertising is filled with paid endorsements, influencers and false promises, consumers are becoming all-too aware of forced attempts to resonate, and that’s where many tend to go wrong in this highly-lucrative marketing strategy. Throwing money won’t make a campaign spread faster, if anything, it will cause it to die out even faster.

How Stuff Spreads: The Dynamics of ‘Virality’

I’ve read a lot of material, papers, reports and more around marketing, but by far one of my favourites, is the scientific approach Pulsar, a social data company, took to understanding how content goes viral. This two part paper is really worth checking out, and gives some great insights into just how stuff spreads and goes viral, especially on social media. For the sake of keeping this short and sweet, I’ll focus on their research into video content.

The Sensations

The study focused on tracking how four very different viral campaigns spread on social networks. They were:

  1. Commander Hadfield singing Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ on the International Space Station– Viral on Twitter

2. Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’

3. Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal- Vine Compilation – Mobile and serialised narrative

4. Anti-Government Protest in Izmir, Turkey– Trending News Topic (2016)

The Aim

To determine the way viral content is shared on social media, and by whom. With four very different viral topics, the idea was to see if sharing followed a common pattern.

The Findings

The circle shows the total spread of the content on Twitter.

Blue = Tweeters
Yellow = Retweeters
Size of a ‘node’ = Tweeter’s estimated reach, or number of followers

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 11.20.24 pmScreen Shot 2018-08-12 at 11.20.33 pm


These images show four very different ways of spreading, or virality. But how can we use this information? First, let’s look at what it shows us:

  1. The size, or following, of the original tweeters and influencers are very important
  2. The majority–with the exception of the Turkish protests–of ‘viral power’ stems from only a dozen or so major tweeters with a decent following
  3. Dove, Commander Hadfield and Turkish protesters all had important messages to share, however, Ryan Gosling’s video was shared thousands more, by smaller retweeters
  4. Dove was the only company in the mix and form the nucleus of their viral campaign

These four can be classified into two themes: a resonating message (as seen with Dove, Turkish protests and Commander Hadfield) and a broad, humour-centric focus (Ryan Gosling video, often seen in viral content). What’s also interesting, is how long these four viral campaigns actually remained viral:

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 11.29.08 pm.png



All but one viral video peaked within the first 3 days after release/ discovery. 

So, How to Manage Viral Campaigns?

If you want to really make content go viral, there’s definitely an art to it. It’s as much about the design as it is the execution. What the above study shows us is this: your entire campaign hangs on what you do in the first day of release. If it doesn’t resonate, or generate then, it’ll most likely flop. Not only does the content have to bring some type of emotion or connection with the audience; but it has to be done in a way that works similar to word of mouth. Create something different, so that when someone watches it, they automatically determine it’s important enough for others to want to see. Whether you use humour, or emotional appeal, go broad, or go home. The world is a globalised community thanks to social media, the aim is to generate something that’s meaningful the world over.

And lastly, plan well in advance the influencer tactics you’re going to have in place well before you execute. What’s clear in all four scenarios above was that the majority of spread originated from the first dozen or so tweeters. Work out who’s likely to share your content, and ensure it gets to them very early on if you want to make your video or content campaign go viral.

At the end of the day, viral marketing is to an extent a guessing game. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead and develop a campaign with the intention to go viral. Just like with any aspect of digital marketing, you want maximum reach, all viral marketing really is, is this process just in overdrive.



5 thoughts on “The Art of Viral Marketing: Is It Really Just Luck?”

  1. Might I just firstly say this was such a well written blog post.
    I think the spontaneity in a viral post is what can truly makes it go ‘viral’ and it is difficult to engineer. Although there are some brands who are getting savvy with it, today I learnt about the ‘Call a Swede’ campaign which was done by Sweden Tourism industry. That created a heavy online footprint with massive online interaction. I’m sure they wanted it to go viral, but it really is up to the consumer whether or not they will let it. I think because I find a passion in marketing I am always critiquing the ‘viral’ posts and sometimes don’t want to share them just because I know it’s what the brand wants – i’m the worst I know but I can’t help it. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Katie, I really appreciate your feedback and glad you liked the article! I’ll have to have a look at that viral campaign you mentioned, it’s always so interesting to see what goes global and try and work out exactly why that is. I also completely agree, I tend to stay away from the business posts on social that seem forced, it just shows that they don’t understand their audience that well!



  2. Such a great read Amber! I really found it interesting looking at what helped those four campaigns to go viral and the differences between them. I was quite surprised by the fact that 3 out of the 4 viral campaigns only had a minimal amount of shares by a person with a major following because i personally see a lot of celebrities or ‘influencer’s’ jumping on board with viral campaigns and always assumed that the more exposure through someone with a larger following the better! However, by looking at the Turkish Protests I can see this isn’t the case at all. But like you said, it’s a bit of a guessing game and what works for one viral campaign may not necessarily be successful for the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Elysse, I love to hear other’s thoughts in this topic, it’s a real blind spot for most marketers in digital at the moment. I was really surprised by the results as well, I guess it really depends on the content of the viral sensation and how much influence it needs behind it to really cause an impact on social media. At the end of the day, who really knows what’s going to take off and what will just flop!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This blog post has everything! Informative, engaging and the use of great relative examples! Thanks for such an amazing read.

    The findings on Twitter really says something. It was a great example to use!

    For me, a viral video that still resonates with me it the Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ as it uses real emotion and a message that still stays with you. I believe this is a successful viral campaign as it related to most women in today’s society. As you say if a campaign wants the success of going viral if it doesn’t resonate, or generate then, it’ll most likely ‘flop’!


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