How to: Be Viral

In this how-to I'll be outlining the fundamentals of a successful viral campaign and the pitfalls many marketers fall into that make their supposedly viral campaigns worse than useless. 

I was reminded recently of the power of a good virus when I received a link to an amusing picture from three totally unconnected people within the space of an hour. Whilst this wasn't a commercial push it demonstrated yet again that if you craft a message carefully, package it with the right offers, and link it to a real product/service then it is possible to take a campaign from first thoughts to results within a matter of days.

In this article I'll be outlining the elements for a successful viral campaign and the pitfalls many marketers fall into that make their supposedly viral campaigns worse than useless. The elements apply equally to e-mail based campaigns, campaigns that use any of the social media platforms and campaigns that use both (as most should).

A reminder: What is Viral Marketing?

In the past I've described viral marketing as 'referrals on steroids'. It is simply word-of-mouth marketing enhanced by the speed and reach of the internet and the informal networks of contacts that internet users have built up.

With viral marketing, the customer (or prime communicator) becomes an advocate of the product or service by passing news of that product/service to friends and contacts. Anyone with a traditional marketing background will know that the best leads you can get come via referrals, as the prospect has already been partly convinced of the 
worthiness of your offer by a trusted source.

Elements of a Viral Campaign

It exploits common motivations or behaviours

Greed: Offering a discount to the recipient if people they subsequently pass the message on to people who subsequently buy. Amazon have used this to great effect over the years.

The need to be 'cool': By passing on news of a great site, product or service, your prime communicator is able to display his or her knowledge to good advantage to friends.

The desire to be popular/loved: By passing on a fun message, your prime communicator is trying to demonstrate that they are fun, by passing on a caring message (perhaps for a charity), that they are caring.

In summary, make your message funny or visually stunning and people won't be able to resist passing it on. Tug on their heartstrings and they'll feel obliged to pass it on, give them financial incentives and greed will make them pass it on.

It spreads itself

By utilising existing communication networks your message generates its own distribution network. By plugging your message into an existing communications nexus (such as a relevant newsgroup, discussion forum, e-zine, website) and letting visitors do the work you should have to do relatively little to ensure the spread of the message.

But remember that viral marketing isn't a work shortcut, you'll still have to put a lot of work into fulfilment.

Research the common nexus points for your audience, cool websites with active forums, newsgroups with heated discussions or, if you're lucky enough, your own e-zine. A word of warning, with public discussion places such as newsgroups and forums, make yourself known as a contributor some weeks before you publicise your offer and be subtle. Mention your offer, don't advertise it or it'll be dismissed as spam.

It gives something for nothing

'Free' is one of the most powerful words a marketer can offer. Most often used in connection with a free product/service that is either functionally limited in comparison to the paid for version or whose use leads directly to a need or desire for the accompanying revenue generating product.

Free products are easier for people to recommend to their friends but remember that even free products have to be of real use to succeed. Is your free product or service of real use to your target audience? You're more likely to damage than enhance your reputation by giving people something they could not possibly have a need for. Test by imagining someone giving you this free item, are you happy?

It scales easily

A successful viral message scales easily from small to large. Once released, viruses keep replicating and can spread exponentially. You cannot stop the virus from spreading, only a lack of interest will do that so make sure you're be able to rapidly add more of whatever you'll need to satisfy customers.

Don't use viral marketing to promote a time limited offer (unless its obvious, such as a Christmas offer) - if demand outstrips supply you'll be creating bad news and we all know that bad news spreads faster than good.

Do you have enough employees to service demand, fast enough servers to cope with success, enough real product to give away?


Breeding Spam

Never reward someone on the basis of the number of times the message is forwarded or the  number of people it's forwarded to. Its OK to reward someone based on actual sales but if all they have to do is forward or re-tweet a message or supply someone's e-mail address in order to gain, you'll risk encouraging the passing of your valuable message to people who'll actively resent it (by email) or re-tweeting under inappropriate hashtags. By 'actively resent' I mean that they'll spread bad news about you faster than your good news.

Being your own supporter

If your offer appears in a public forum never try to  re-enforce it by pretending to be an independent witness. The temptation to say something along the lines of 'I've tried this product and its great' will backfire nine times out of ten. You'll either sound false or you'll make a technical mistake that enables some clever chap to trace your supporting message back to the same company that created the original offer. Either way the credibility of you and your product will be badly damaged.


How many unwanted messages offering get rich quick schemes do you get each day? My guess is lots, with lots more in your future. Increasingly people are only paying attention to messages that come from a trusted source, such as a friend or colleague. If you can find a way to tap into this trend, viral marketing could become one of your most important tools.