What Is Viral Marketing and How Does It Work?

What Is Viral Marketing?

Viral marketing seeks to spread information about a product or service from person to person by word of mouth or sharing via the internet or email.

The goal of viral marketing is to inspire individuals to share a marketing message with friends, family, and other individuals to create exponential growth in the number of its recipients. 


  • Viral marketing is a sales strategy in which organic or word-of-mouth information about a product or service spreads at an exponential rate.
  • The internet and the rise of social media have boosted the quantity of viral messages in the form of memes, shares, likes, and forward significantly.
  • Some marketing campaigns aim to cause virality, although the actual nature of what goes viral is frequently unknown.
  • When anything becomes viral, it is a simple and inexpensive way for a message to gain traction.
  • Viral marketing can help a firm expand its reach and, as a result, its consumer base.

Understanding Viral Marketing

“Viral” refers to something that spreads swiftly and widely among its target audience in viral marketing. Though the distribution of a message occurs organically, viral marketing is a deliberate operation.

As a result, despite its roots in traditional word-of-mouth marketing, social media provides the ideal environment for viral marketing. 

While the technique was considerably more widespread in the early to mid-2000s, when new internet firms were springing up in droves, it is still prevalent among internet-based business-to-consumer (B-to-C) organizations.

The extensive use of social media networks such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook has enabled and improved modern viral marketing operations. 

Examples of Viral Marketing

A well-known example of early viral marketing is Hotmail, a free web-based email service that started in 1996 and contained an integrated advertisement and direct link asking recipients to join up for an account. This method produced the fastest development among user-based media companies at the time.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is another example of how diverse viral marketing can be. The ice bucket challenge existed before The ALS Association utilized it to raise awareness and generate donations. 

However, the massive dissemination on social media of ALS Ice Bucket videos created a worldwide sensation that tremendously increased ALS awareness. 

$115 million

The number of donations raised from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Viral Marketing Characteristics

Whether intentional or unintentional, all viral marketing examples have three things in common: the message, the messenger, and the environment.

To create a successful viral marketing campaign, each component must be utilized. Viral marketing campaigns may be created by any size business and can stand alone or be a part of a larger traditional campaign.

These campaigns may use several tools (e.g., videos, games, images, email, text messaging, and free products) to appeal to the emotions of users or viewers, raise awareness of a worthy cause, and make it easier to consume and share.

Viral marketing frequently enlists the assistance of an influencer with a significant following. Viral marketing is faster and less expensive than traditional marketing initiatives thanks to the use of social media as a “force multiplier.”

Because it can receive so much traffic in such a short period of time, it has the potential to attract mainstream media attention. As communications are edited, misinterpreted, labeled spam, or called out for missing the mark on social media, viral marketing initiatives can backfire. Viral marketing success can be difficult to assess.

Viral Marketing’s Benefits and Drawbacks

Viral marketing enables businesses to better sell their products by reaching out to consumers who would not otherwise be reached by traditional marketing strategies. As a result of its expanded reach, the corporation can now enter new markets and perhaps extend its customer base.

Companies can spark viral responses when done creatively. In reaction to McDonald’s assertion that its burgers don’t degrade, Burger King sparked a stir by posting photos of their month-old, moldy Whopper.

Burger King claims to use only fresh ingredients and no preservatives, claiming that this results in a better and healthier product for customers. That assertion was obvious in its unappealing-looking burger.

The cost of viral marketing is a fraction of the expense of typical advertising efforts. When customers share their great experiences with a company’s products and services with others, promotion is practically free.

Viral marketing can generate exponential and rapid development since the internet allows content to be spread simply and quickly.

However, it is important to note that how quickly and easily content is shared is largely dependent on whether the company uses the right tools that make this possible. Sometimes, viral marketing sparks a response counter to what was intended.

Consumers tend to share negative news more often than positive news, and studies show that people have a stronger emotional response to negative news. Negative buzz can be detrimental to business and sometimes hard to recover from.

The effects of viral marketing are hard to measure as it is difficult to determine if a lead or sale resulted from it. And there is no consensus among businesses on how to measure their success.

If customers believe the viral campaign will compromise their privacy and security, they will likely not share. As a result, the company’s marketing mission fails, and its reputation may be tarnished. Future viral marketing campaigns may be adversely affected by previous unsuccessful attempts.


  • Wider reach
  • Faster and exponential growth
  • Lower costs


  • Negative word-of-mouth
  • Hard to measure
  • Low virality

Viral Marketing FAQs

How Do I Make My Brand Go Viral?

Here are some suggestions for making your brand go viral. Emotions are the primary force behind viral marketing, so pay attention to them. Rather than remaining neutral, choose a side and stick to it. Don’t make standard advertisements; instead, be inventive.

Be an excellent storyteller who tries to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Don’t just stop with one campaign; keep your audience interested.

Finally, make sure you develop a campaign that is simple to share and that allows people to provide feedback or ask questions.

How Do You Make Money If Your Video Goes Viral?

To make money on a viral video, you must monetize it, generally by requiring subscribers to pay to view or by allowing companies to advertise to your audience in exchange for a fee. Companies either pay the creator to mention their products or services or run company-created ads before, during, or after their videos.

There are other ways to make money from a viral video other than the ones mentioned. For example, creators can license their videos, allowing third parties to use their content.

Why Is Transparency So Important in Viral Marketing?

Being transparent means being honest and open about operations and motives. Transparency in viral marketing is important as consumers are more critical of traditional marketing campaigns and are holding companies accountable for their actions more often than before.

Approximately 94% of consumers are likely to be loyal to companies that are transparent in marketing.

What Does “Seeding” Mean in Relation to a Viral Marketing Campaign?

Seeding is a marketing technique in which companies purposefully distribute viral information or content to select users whom they think will effectively share the campaign.

Most often, social media influencers are chosen as seeds to spread the word and solicit feedback about a product.

What Are the Steps to Start a Viral Marketing Campaign?

First, identify the purpose of going viral. Are you seeking to improve your brand’s image or increase awareness? Then, find out more about your audience. Social media reporting is a good source of information about what is preferred by your target audience.

The content you want to go viral needs to be configured to where it can be easily and quickly shared. If not, the campaign will likely fail at the start.

Make sure that the content you want to be shared is organic and relatable. Lastly, use trends and hashtags to promote the content as they will capture the attention of your followers.

What Are Good Tools for Viral Marketing Campaigns?

There are many tools companies can use in their viral marketing campaigns. Companies can create and sponsor communities that can be tapped to promote their products or services.

Create and promote sweepstakes, contests, and rewards to generate buzz and capture a large audience. Other tools include sponsoring messages and chat blasts.

How Much Does a Viral Marketing Campaign Cost?

In general, a viral marketing campaign may cost anywhere from $100,000 to several million dollars.

The Bottom Line

Viral marketing is an inexpensive and effective technique for increasing awareness and promoting a brand or product. Companies depend on their audience or targeted users to share advertising campaigns and their positive experiences with others.

Successful campaigns can help the company grow, enter new markets, and increase revenues. Companies must choose the right platforms to advertise and format their content so that it can be easily shared.

If done poorly, it can produce unfavorable results that could erode earnings and tarnish a company’s reputation.

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