What is Viral Marketing and How To Use Viral Marketing to Help Your Business

Successful viral marketing campaigns rely on getting viral content out at the right time to get the highest possible engagement rate on social media.

Have you heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge? The Pineapple Pen song? Fidget spinners? The blue and black dress?

These are all things that have gone viral in recent years. Virality is a pretty recent phenomenon, amplified by the power of social media. All it takes is for a chain of shares to grow exponentially, and a piece of content can reach thousands to millions of people within a short amount of time.

But the above examples seem to be purely for entertainment. So how can businesses and brands harness virality for a more targeted, promotional purpose?

What is viral marketing?

Viral marketing is when a brand’s content or ads catch the attention of their target audience so well that they feel compelled to share it with others.

A campaign is usually deemed to have reached viral status when it is being shared by the public at large, if it gets mentioned or covered in the news, or if it reaches a global audience.

The goal of the best viral marketing campaigns is to have the brand’s message or content become such a trending topic that your brand awareness reaches exponential growth. As viral campaigns are organic, this is one of the most cost-effective ways for a business to reach new audiences and generate potential leads.

But take note: there are two sides to the viral marketing coin.

Once a campaign goes viral, your brand loses control of how people perceive or interact with your message. This means that things can also "go viral" in a negative way, and just as viral marketing can amplify awareness, it can also amplify backlash.

What are some successful viral advertising and viral marketing campaign examples?

While there are many international campaign examples – like the ones by IHOP and Old Spice – here are some viral social media campaigns and viral content examples from Singapore to inspire your own.

Singapore Be Steady! by Gov.sg

In 2020, the Singapore government released a couple of videos featuring one of the country’s most beloved icons, Phua Chu Kang (PCK). In rap format, PCK educates viewers on what they should and should not do to stay safe from COVID-19. To date, the music video has been viewed over 1.4 million times, and the informational video has been viewed over 721,000 times on YouTube.

A huge reason for its virality is that the videos bore a striking similarity to a previous campaign done during the SARS epidemic in 2003, also featuring PCK humorously scolding the audience into social responsibility. The throwback nature of the campaign struck a nostalgic chord with its audience, amplifying its reach and message.

Ramadan by McDonald’s Singapore

A McDonald’s Singapore ad went viral for its intimate and touching depiction of a day in the life of a McDonald’s delivery driver during Ramadan. The ad was shared internationally, reaching even viewers in America, and was picked up in an article by Buzzfeed. The video has since been viewed over 1.2 million times on YouTube.

#3DollarBaller Circles.Life

This example is pretty unique because it was a combined digital and out-of-home (OOH) effort. The telco Circles.Life launched a viral campaign in 2018 called #3DollarBaller, which saw ‘vending machines’ dispensing S$50 bills in exchange for S$3 – basically, they were giving away free money.

The vending machines were placed in strategic locations along Singapore’s main shopping strip and CBD area for maximum foot traffic, and crowds got so big that the police had to shut the event down.

How to run a viral marketing campaign for your brand

Viral marketing is high risk, high reward. The truth is, you can never guarantee that a campaign will go viral, but you can optimize it for the best possible chance. Here are three things you can do, based on our analysis of how and why other viral campaigns have worked.

Be timely

The internet is a fast-moving place, and trends come and go in the blink of an eye. The audience is constantly on the lookout for the next meme, topic, or trend.

That’s why successful viral campaigns tend to happen quickly in reaction to current events to achieve that first-mover advantage. Repeating old trends or exhausting existing ones are doomed to failure – can you imagine a brand putting out a campaign today that still references Baby Yoda or the “Woman Yelling at Cat” meme?

When a scandal broke on the morning of 20 June 2018 about Instagram-famous photographer Daryl Aiden Low’s plagiarism of buying stock photos and passing them off as his own, Scoot released a parody post on their Facebook page that very afternoon. Their impressively short response time resulted in the post receiving record levels of engagement and shares. If they had done it much later, after everyone else had put out their responses, the audience reaction might not have been as huge.

Scoot's viral marketing campaign poked fun at Daryl Aiden Low's apparent habit of photoshopping himself into stock images.
Scoot's Facebook post referencing the photography scandal received 5.5 thousand reactions, 1.4 thousand comments and 3.1 thousand shares.

Be authentic

The thing about viral campaigns is that they’re all organic. That means you need to rely on people to want to share your content.

And one of the best ways to do that is to elicit a laugh, spark a constructive conversation, or create an emotional connection with them.

It’s also important to be culturally relevant – putting out content like Singapore’s PCK social distancing video wouldn’t resonate as strongly with audiences outside of Singapore. On the other hand, McDonald’s viral Ramadan ad was able to go international because it was culturally relevant to Muslim audiences in other countries.

The McDonald's ad was also undoubtedly authentic to their brand – the company's message has been the same for years: that food is about bringing people together and sharing happiness. Think Chinese New Year reunion dinner ads, ads featuring nostalgic Sunday Happy Meals with parents and grandparents, and football season ads with promo sharing boxes.

Be socially conscious

Running a successful viral marketing campaign is about treading the fine line between ‘yay!’ and ‘yuck!’. Keeping a viral campaign tactful can be tricky because what is deemed appropriate can vary based on times and taste.

For example, homeware brand IUIGA thought it would be a good idea to name a line of products after Inuka the polar bear after it passed away in 2018 as a tribute. Unfortunately, the audience saw the campaign as tone-deaf, and a blatant capitalization of a tragic event to boost sales, and IUIGA ended up receiving serious flak for it.

The brand later came out to say that it would be donating all proceeds from sales of the Inuka series to Polar Bears International, a nonprofit that advocates conservation for the polar bear’s natural habitat. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done.

FAQs about viral marketing

What is viral marketing?

Viral marketing is when a brand or business releases content or ads that capture their audience's attention so well that they end up sharing it. That chain of shares grows so exponentially that thousands or millions of people end up seeing that content within a short period.

Viral marketing is always organic, making it one of the most cost-efficient ways to promote your brand and get people talking about your business.

How can viral marketing benefit a brand?

The top business benefits of viral marketing are low to no advertising costs, exceptionally fast growth of brand visibility and awareness, and potentially higher lead generation and conversions from that publicity.

However, viral marketing can also backfire if not done correctly. Culturally insensitive or inappropriate content can go viral for the wrong reasons and cause damage to your brand reputation.

And remember that there is no guarantee that something will go viral, so spending a big budget on a campaign and banking on it to go viral is very much a high-risk (and unadvisable) strategy.

What makes a viral marketing campaign successful?

Although the content and specifics may vary wildly from industry to industry, successful viral campaigns tend to share a few traits in general: they are timely, authentic, and bold while staying socially and culturally conscious.

How can I create a successful viral marketing campaign?

Before you start thinking about creating a viral marketing campaign, you need to know your audience so well that you understand what will make them laugh, cry, or generally feel compelled to share your content.

Each market can have nuanced but significant differences that need to be accounted for – what may be a positive experience for some may be a negative experience for others based solely on their socioeconomic environment.

Plan and execute your viral marketing campaign with Shopify

Viral marketing is much like catching lightning in a bottle – everyone wants to achieve it, but in reality, only very few do. That rare and elusive brilliance is what makes viral marketing so powerful in the first place.

So when it comes to planning your social media strategy, keeping the principles of viral marketing in mind will do you good, but your ambition to achieve virality should not overshadow other marketing methods that have been proven to deliver reliable and consistent results.

Regardless of your final marketing strategy, you can easily plan, execute, and manage your digital and social media campaigns with Shopify’s Marketing Activity and Sales Attribution reports. There are also lots of marketing apps that you can integrate seamlessly into your store, including analytics apps that can help you better understand your customers’ behavior – a necessary part in developing your own viral marketing campaign.


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