Marketing that spreads like a Virus



At its heart, viral marketing is simply the ‘spread of an idea’. When something goes viral, it means it travels from person to person quickly and genuinely. 

Think of a virus; once it’s in the public it can spread among populations through touch or contact. Something going ‘viral’ means the same thing (but hopefully without a contagion!)

Viral Marketing is material that goes viral, that then helps market your business or cause. It’s putting material out there that by its very nature attracts attention and discussion so people want to share it – not fast forward through it like other commercials. 


There are two kinds of viral marketing:

  • The original, in which the marketing is the product. A self-growing cycle occurs. Hotmail, for example, or YouTube. The more people use them, the more people see them. The more people see them, the more people use them.
  • The second kind has evolved over the last few years, and that’s a marketing campaign that spreads but isn’t the product itself. Take for example Shepard Fairey’s poster of Barrack Obama. It was everywhere, because people chose to spread it. It went viral (it spread) but it wasn’t marketing a product. Instead, it was an idea or a concept that spread. That idea was Obama.



A viral marketing campaign can consist of many elements.

  • Videos
  • Memes
  • Comments
  • Status Updates
  • Tweets
  • Blogs
  • Pins

It doesn’t matter what format it takes – they all result in one thing. An immediate burst of interest, generating mass curiosity that spreads like wildfire.

‘The Man your Man could smell like’ by Old Spice, for example, was a huge success. Not only did the ad campaign itself go viral, but that translated into sales.

The Man your Man could Smell like Campaign by Old Spice made body-wash sales jump 107% from the previous year — stats from Adweek magazine

The thing is though, there is no guarantee something will go viral. Listed below are some campaigns that companies paid big bucks for, that sputtered and died:

  • I Love you Beth Cooper – 20th Century Fox thought it would be fun to pay a real high school Valediction $1800 to profess her love to a real boy at a high school. The video only got a few thousand views and the school board was furious. The movie itself bombed, and only made $15 million back out of its $18 million dollar budget.
  • Anchorman 2 – Will Ferrell appeared in character as Ron Burgundy everywhere! Late night talk shows, local morning news programs and a ton of commercials. Despite all of this, the movie earned less in its opening weekend than the first one did.
  • Snakes on a Plane – most everyone knows about this one. The Famous fan made line that star Samuel L. Jackson said. “I’m sick of these **** on this *** plane.” Although the advertising for this movie did indeed go viral, it didn’t translate into people actually watching the movie. Eventually, the studio admitted the movie was a dud.

On the opposite end of that, take Carly Rae Jensen for an example. Her song ‘Call Me Maybe’ was a huge hit two summers ago. The song went viral, but since then, some would argue that she hasn’t had any more real successes.

Why did her first song become such a huge hit, while her marketers seem unable to repeat the results?

The simple answer – it wasn’t her that made it go viral!

Meet the Harvard Baseball Team circa 2012.

They were bored on the way to a game, so they recorded that video. This spawned a whole slew of copy cats

Compilation of 32 viral videos of Call Me Maybe

In short, viral marketing is like a river. You can try to predict which way it will go, but it really is impossible to fully control.


Now, Viral marketing isn’t always positive for the the company that is trying to engage in it. Remember, something going Viral means it is passed from person to person at a quick rate. That can be both negative or positive for the company that got involved.


The following happened just a month ago. Black Milk, a popular clothing company posted the following on May 4th, 2014 to celebrate StarWars day.

Blackmilk 1

Now, as can sometimes happen, some of their fans were upset by this posting. (Some people saw it as a body shaming campaign).

The Internet is a big place, and it isn’t uncommon for a campaign to be taken negatively by some viewers or fans. When this happens, the company removes the post, apologies and moves on.

What made the Black Milk situation go viral was not the picture itself, but how they commented on it afterwards.


That’s right. Instead of apologizing and deleting the post, Black Milk clothing started to call their own social media fans and followers sexist!

It only got worse from there. When users started posting comments expressing their anger about the Meme, Black Milk deleted their posts because they weren’t positive enough. Then they began banning their own users and fans!

Eventually, they did take the post down but never really apologized. In the end, this viral campaign had the opposite effect – Black Milk lost followers by the thousands, and essentially destroyed their own social media presence and reputation.


A plan by the New York Police Department to use Twitter to boost its image backfired in a huge way.

Users were asked to tweet a photo of themselves with officers and add the hashtag #myNYPD as part of a social media campaign.

They were hoping for photos like this

NYPD Tweet

Instead, they got photos like this


Rather than  a steady stream of friendly photos, the hashtag was quickly adopted by users posting images of possible police aggression. This is an example of something going viral without the intended outcome.


Curious about some successful campaigns that were intentional? Below are some of my personal favourites!

Mad Men Yourself


To help create buzz around the third season of Mad Men, the show created a ‘Man Men Yourself’ website. There, you would find an avatar creator that allowed you to make a stylized ’60s version of yourself.

The site received half a million visits in the first week it was up,and the Season 3 première saw record ratings.

The most impressive part about this campaign is it’s still going strong five years later, receiving updates with every new season.

Mad Men Yourself AMC

Paranormal Activity

One thing that viral marketing has done is allow small independent movies to get incredible marketing and profits for a very small price.

Paranormal activity was one such movie. A small independent film with a $15000 production budget became one of the most profitable movies of all time.

How did they do it?

The movie was initially released to a small number of cities. Then, Paramount decided to put the onus on the fans! After a chilling trailer, a call to action appeared prompting fans to ‘demand’ the movie play in their city.

Paranormal Activity Eventful

Paramount partnered up with Eventful (a digital media company) and created a petition system.  If a city reached a certain number of people demanding the movie, it would play in that city.

Batman – The Dark Knight Rises

Now THIS campaign was the first time I personally got involved in viral marketing – not as a marketer, but as a fan! I am a huge geek, and there is nothing I love more than feeling a part of the universe that I love.

How did this campaign start?
A fictional file for a criminal investigation was posted at the start of a week on It contained a warrant for the arrest of “John Doe aka The Batman,” who was in hiding after the end of The Dark Knight.

 The file included a press release explaining that Batman left graffiti drawings of bats around the world, asking the public to take pictures of the graffiti and submit photographic evidence by Twitter or email.

How did people find the graffiti?
Warner Brothers posted the exact street addresses of the more than 300 locations, including sites in Australia, China, Holland, and the U.S. After each piece of bat graffiti was located, a corresponding frame of the film’s trailer was posted on All of the frames were unlocked the same day the press release went out.

The campaign was a huge success! Fans were pumped and in a frenzy over getting the trailer. To me, this is viral marketing at its finest – merging fiction and reality to make the world seem a lot more fascinating than it sometimes seems to be.


Of course, Batman was a while ago. Never fear though – it seems like Viral Marketing might be here to stay. Below are some ‘starting points’ for some viral marketing campaigns that are running right now.

  • Transformers are Dangerous: Paramount has kicked off a viral marketing for Transformers: Age of Extinction. Check out the starting point below in the form of a public service announcement to ‘Stay Alert. Be Vigilant. Keep Earth Human. If you see something, say something Call 855.363.8392

  • Samsung- Galaxy 11 The Training: A viral marketing campaign for the Samsung Galaxy 11 has already reached 12, 958, 442 views worldwide. It ends with the cry that ‘Football will save the planet’ and a small hashtag with instructions on what viewers can do next.

  • Melbourne Metro Trains – Dumb Ways to Die: This one capitalizes on the ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ song and characters, to tell people to be safe around trains. The song is catchy – you’ll be humming ‘dumb ways to die’ for the rest of the day!


The thing is, you can’t really plan a viral campaign. That’s like a Hockey team saying ‘lets have a championship season and bring the Stanley Cup home.’

You can ‘plan’ to have a great season, but you won’t be a champion until you’re holding the cup above your head. The same goes for viral marketing.

A campaign isn’t viral until after it’s hugely successful and everyone is talking about it.


One comment

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