Definition

viral marketing

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: IT channel sales and marketing strategy for the digital era
Contributor(s): Karolina Kiwak

Viral marketing is any marketing technique that induces websites or users to pass on a marketing message to other sites or users, creating a potentially exponential growth in the message's visibility and effect. A popular example of successful viral marketing is Hotmail, a company now owned by Microsoft, that promoted its services and its own advertisers' messages in every user's email notes.

Types of viral marketing techniques 

There are three criteria for basic viral marketing; the messenger, the message and the environment. All three must be effectively executed in order for a viral message to be successful.

Some techniques for effective marketing include targeting the appropriate audience and channels, creating videos, offering a valuable service or product for free, creating an emotional appeal, social outreach and enabling easy sharing and downloading.

Who uses it 

Viral marketing can be effective as a stand-alone tool or as part of a larger marketing campaign. It can be used by both large and small companies, but can be especially attractive to smaller business, as it can be more cost-effective than traditional marketing efforts.

Viral marketing has been used by energy drink companies, movies and even political campaigns to generate marketing buzz.

Role of social media 

The expansion of various social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, has contributed to the effectiveness of viral marketing. As users grow, and as the time they spend on social media sites exceeds their time spent emailing, more users are viewing news and forwarding it through their preferred social networks. This requires marketing campaigns to shift focus from more traditional email campaigns to more creative social campaigns.

Advantages and disadvantages

There are various advantages and disadvantages for viral marketing. The advantages include lower advertising costs, fast growth, mainstream media exposure and rapid lead generation.

The disadvantages to consider with viral marketing include the nuisance factor. Due to the large amount of email people receive daily, viral marketing messages may be viewed as spam. Another consideration is negative marketing buzz. A message may not be construed as intended, and could be discussed in a negative manner. Viral marketing can also be hard to measure. 

This was last updated in January 2017

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What is the most effective viral marketing campaign you have seen?
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Thanks for sharing such a nice informative post about viral marketing. I appreciate your hard work. I think it will be helpful to all SEO guys.
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Note: While viral marketing can be helpful for SEO... the bad news is that studies show that most viral messages lay unread. When something goes 'viral', people feel social pressure to pass it on- but mostly neglect to read it.
So, if you're aiming for a specific response from online marketing, I'm sorry to say that the action you were hoping for may not happen if your content went viral. 
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I'm going to add in something that has yet to be said. You CANNOT plan to create a viral piece of content or viral marketing effort. The virality of information and messaging is subject DIRECTLY to the audience and how it sees, understands, shares and promotes this content. The major failing of any and all marketing departments and C-suite executives is that they request a viral video or viral image or viral tweet to help build the brand or promote an event. It. DOESN'T. WORK. YOU. CAN'T. DO. IT. If there were a true formula for creating viral content, it would be worth BILLIONS and only the most successful companies would own the patent on the strategy and methodology. Viral just happens and you thank your stars if it happens for your content or message. Now move along. Real marketing takes hard work and thoughtfulness.
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We respectfully disagree. While you can't guarantee a piece of content will go viral, you can certainly build in viral characteristics that dramatically improve your odds. At Viral Shot, we have created numerous pieces of content for clients that have gained significant traction, generated thousands of leads and helped spread brand awareness. We do have a fairly simple formula that works very well.
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