What is Viral Marketing: How to Become an Overnight Success

viral marketing

Do you want to reach new customers by promoting your online store’s best products? One of the hottest ways to reach more of your target audience is through viral marketing. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as adding cute animals to your marketing message, hoping that a kitten sitting on top of camping gear is enough to get your website link spread to the masses. But we’ll breakdown what steps you can take to help you inch closer to success. In this post, we’re going to look at how businesses can skyrocket sales through viral marketing.

What is Viral Marketing?

Viral marketing is any tactic that results in the rapid spread of a business’s marketing message on or offline. Think of big brand campaigns like Dove’s “Real Beauty.” People who don’t even use Dove products shared these brand campaign videos based on the emotional connection they created or the entertainment they offered for the general public.

The Business Benefits of Viral Marketing

The main goal for a viral marketing campaign is typically to increase brand awareness. Awareness about the existence of a business and the products it has to offer. In a perfect world, your business would find or create content about your products – content so appealing that large numbers of people want to share it. From those shares, new potential customers are introduced to your business and products in a memorable way.

A great piece of viral content – whether it’s a news article, image, GIF, video, podcast, or other – will either sell the customer on your product or create a memory so unique in your ideal customer’s mind that, the next time they think about purchasing products you sell, they’ll think of your online store first.

Examples of Viral Marketing

There are many different types of viral content, but they can be lumped into three categories – content created by a business about their products, content created by others about a business’s products, and content that businesses pay influencers to create about their products through advertising and sponsorship.

Viral content reaches people in different ways, depending on the platform they are using. YouTube users, for example, can browse trending videos. According to YouTube Help, YouTube evaluates signals such as the video’s view count, rate of growth in views, where the views originate from (i.e., YouTube search results vs. an embedded video in a blog post), and when the video was published.viral marketing

These are not the only signals that help a video ascend to the trending charts for the day, however. YouTube collects additional engagement data for videos including like and dislike counts, comments, and – most importantly – how long users watch the video. They specifically state that, “…the video with the highest view count on a given day may not be #1 on Trending, and videos with more views may be shown below videos with fewer views.”

The result? Product commercials and reviews from businesses, media, and consumers appear amongst videos about current events, entertainment news, and other trending topics personalized to the YouTube user’s interests.

viral marketing

Facebook’s native video platform has a similar ability to serve Facebook users the most popular content about general and personal interests in the news feed and in the trending videos section of the Facebook website or app.  

viral marketingFacebook’s algorithm determines the types of content that an individual user sees, and according to Facebook, the goal in 2018 is to give users “…less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media.” This typically results in less trending content from businesses, but rather content from publications and individuals. Of course, when a product gets featured in trending content on Facebook, it gets a lot of attention.

viral marketing

Instagram, also owned by Facebook, may use similar algorithms to determine the types of trending content appearing in a user’s news feed or Explore tab in the Instagram app. Smaller businesses appear to have a better ability to trend on Instagram using viral content compared to Facebook, although publishers and individuals may begin to take the lead there as well.

Viral content doesn’t just generate traffic from the top social networks. It can give you a leg up in SERPs – Search Engine Results Pages. In Google search results, for example, if you can’t rank for a high-competition keyword, you may be able to get your product featured in content from a publisher that can do so through Google News. Google News’ algorithm focuses on the content’s diversity, freshness, textual relevance to the search, and originality.

Hence, a link to your online store from a publication like Wired in a product review could be the type of viral content that results in a lot of referral traffic to your website.

viral marketing

News networks like Reddit connect people to the top stories based on upvotes from reputable Reddit users.

viral marketingThe most popular posts typically consist of media (photos, GIFs, and videos) from similar sites like Imgur.

viral marketingImgur, like Reddit, also ranks posts on the homepage based on amount of social media engagement the post receives from Imgur users. The result? Trending on both networks could get your products in front of a combined audience of over 2 billion visitors per month.

Viral Marketing vs Advertising

There are two ways to get to the top of any social network’s most popular content list. One is to create or find a piece of content and promote it until it goes viral. The other is to pay for advertising. Businesses can create ads that mimic viral content for social networks like Facebook to help put their products in the news feed of targeted Facebook consumers.


While ad content can become viral using promotion through social media advertising, paying for social media advertising does guarantee that content will go viral. It only guarantees you have a better chance at reaching your target customer with your content in the news feed.

Three Elements of a Successful Viral Marketing Campaign

Viral marketing doesn’t have to be complicated. Anyone from a solopreneur online store owner to a big brand can create a successful viral marketing campaign if they follow these steps.

Step #1: Research

The first thing you need to familiarize yourself with is the type of content that resonates best with the consumers of the products you sell and the people most likely to share viral content to those consumers about your product. First, you will want to start with the most viral content on the top social networks.

You can conduct your research using the trending content pages for respective social networks, search engines, and news networks. These will give you a general feel for the types of content that are appealing to a general audience. It will also give you a peek into the types of viral content that help promote products to the masses.  

Depending on the product(s) you sell, you may have to get more specific to find the most viral content most appealing to your target customer base. The fastest way to do some topic-specific viral content research is using hashtags or keyword searches on each respective network. Instagram, for example, will give you the top posts for the specific Instagram hashtags, followed by the most recent posts.

viral marketing

YouTube orders keyword search results by relevance, then by popularity. Verified YouTube channels will typically lead the pack if they have any applicable videos.

viral marketing

Twitter sorts keyword and hashtag search results by relevance and popularity, with posts from verified Twitter users leading the pack.

viral marketing

These searches and similar on other top networks will show you what people see on each network when they search for keywords or hashtags related to the products your business sells. If you can create viral content for those networks, you stand a good chance at coming up in searches made by your target customers. As you analyze the trending content, be sure to note specific details, such as the following.

  • What format is the viral content? Article, ebook, podcast, image, GIF, etc.
  • How was the content shared? Link to a website, link to a YouTube video, directly uploaded content, etc.
  • How long was the content? 500 words, 50 pages, 2 minutes, 50 minutes, etc.
  • Who published the content? A business / brand, a publication, a customer, a reviewer, an influencer, etc.

Let’s say that you sell motorcycle parts. You may find that your customers like videos showing motorcycles in action on Instagram and Facebook, part review videos on YouTube, articles about the latest technology on Twitter, and GIFs made from your Instagram and Facebook videos for Imgur and Reddit.  In short, you’ll need to make some videos to get your products embedded into viral content.

#2: Discover or Create

The next step in viral marketing is to discover or create a piece of content that has the potential to be viral, and that piece of content must feature a product you sell. Let’s say you discovered the colored pencils GIF that went viral on both Reddit and Imgur during your research.

viral marketing

If you were Prismacolor, you would promote this GIF because the more viral it becomes, the more chances it has of reaching an artist who may be interested in buying colored pencils for themselves or as a gift. And the more likely that artist is to choose Prismacolor if the viral image of their pencils inspired them to make the purchase. As the vendor, Prismacolor wants to increase sales of their products from all vendors.

If you offered Prismacolor pencils in your online store, you have the option of promoting the GIF through your own social channels in an attempt to get engagement from your own audience using a piece of content that is proven to be viral with general audiences. Depending on the creator of the content, you may be able to upload the content to your channels directly to share or you may need to re-share the content from the creator’s original social post, YouTube channel, website, or other direct link. Your post (or re-share) would include a link to Prismacolor pencils for sale in your online store.

Can’t find viral content for your products? Then create it! Use the notes from your research in the first step to determine what network(s) you want to go viral on and the type of content that will help you achieve that result. Then publish that content, or get the content published on a source that can help you go viral. Again, refer to your research to see what elements create the best viral content for your target audience.

#3: Promote

The most critical part of any viral marketing campaign is the promotion of your piece of potentially viral content. While some types of content will take off naturally, such as a review of a product you sell on a popular publication, other types of content need a push to go viral.

As mentioned earlier, most platforms have an algorithm in place to determine the type of content that gets marked as viral, trending, popular, or hot content. In most cases, these algorithms look for engagement a piece of content receives in relation to the time that piece of content was published or in a specific timeframe. Let’s say that your viral marketing goal was to create a video that made the Trending charts on YouTube. Your video would have a shot if:

  • A lot of people engaged with the video (viewed, liked, commented, and shared) within the first 24 hours of publishing it.
  • A lot of people engaged with the video in a short period time, regardless of when the video was published.

To ensure that your viral content has the chance to go viral on the top social channels, make sure that the majority of your promotion efforts are executed immediately after the content has been published. This will ensure that you have recency on your side when it comes to algorithms for trending content. From there, you just need engagement with your content on as many platforms possible to help it reach critical mass.

Creating a checklist in advance of the big promotion day will make your promotion process more efficient. Your checklist of promotion methods should include the following.

  • Social Media Posts – Share your content on your branded social media channels using the most relevant hashtags.
  • Employee Advocacy – Encourage employees to share your content by re-sharing posts from your branded social media channels.
  • Email Marketing – Create an email blast or newsletter for your customer database that includes your content.
  • Influencer Outreach – Connect with the most popular people in your industry to see if they would be interested in sharing your content with their audience.
  • Paid Promotion – Reach specific audiences with search and social media advertising as soon as the content is published.
  • Groups and Forums – Get active in social media groups, forums, and Q&A networks where your content could get additional reach.

Businesses that start with a large audience are more likely to reach viral content fame organically (without paid tactics) because their audience propels their content forward. Businesses that are starting with a smaller audience may want to invest in paid promotion methods to ensure that their content reaches the most people possible to help it spread quickly.

In Conclusion

Viral marketing can generate a lot of interest in your business and its products when done correctly. When you create amazing content that you know your customers will love, you empower people to with the tools they need to create amazing word of mouth virtual traffic for your business. Or at the very least, it will put your business name on the minds of those who will need to buy the products you sell in the future.

Want to learn more?

What’s been your most viral piece of content? Let us know in the comments!

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