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If you’re at a dinner party and someone asks everyone at the table to name their favorite ad, you might hear some common examples. Maybe it’s Old Spice’s “The Smell Your Man Could Smell Like”, The Evian baby, Always #likeagirl, Oreo’s timely Super Bowl tweet, or one of the tear-jerkers John Lewis Christmas spots.
Each of these campaigns went viral and remains memorable today. Your marketing campaign can have a similar long-lasting effect if you understand what makes content go viral, what trends power virality in 2023, and what makes sense for your brand.
What Is Viral Marketing, Exactly?
Viral marketing involves creating content that rapidly spreads online through sharing and word of mouth, leading to widespread exposure and engagement. Today that might look like hundreds of thousands of retweets, views, likes, or “Have you seen this ad?” messages in your company’s Slack channel.
But viral marketing wasn’t always on TikTok or YouTube. One of the first viral marketing examples was Hotmail back in the 90s. (You know, a time when some of us remember having a complete meltdown when someone called the house phone because it kicked us off our Limewire download or AIM chatroom.)
Hotmail leveraged a web-based email campaign that led to wild adoption rates. A year after launching, Hotmail acquired more than 8 million users. What was one of the successful methods they used? Just ten words. They added “P.S. I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail.” to the end of every email sent.
Why Go Viral? Is It Worth It?
As a marketer, you want to create viral content, but you might experience pushback from leadership to take a conservative approach. Consider the impact of a viral marketing campaign could have:
Boosted brand recognition
Rapid audience growth
Wider reach to diverse audiences
While there are a lot of factors you can’t control, going viral doesn’t have to be a pipe dream. After all, there is a science to going viral.
How to Go Viral
As Michael Seibel, Partner at YC and Managing Director of YC Early Stage, once said, “Founders always say, ‘I’m going to ‘make my thing go viral’ – that doesn’t mean just adding a share button.”
So, you want to know how to go viral? Consider these strategies when crafting a campaign.
Create an Emotional Response
Content that stimulates high-intensity, positive emotions (such as awe) or negative emotions (such as anxiety) tends to be more viral, according to research. If you’re choosing between one or the other, the same study also found that positive content tends to be more viral than negative.
Hit on a Timely Moment
Consider employing newsjacking, a strategy that adds value in the context of current events. A recent example is the Dunkin’ Donuts ad with Ben Affleck, capitalizing on his rekindled romance with JLo.
Be Subtle About Your Brand
Clever marketers know to subtly integrate the brand image into their content versus making it all about the brand. According to Harvard Business Review, “Experiments have shown that this can increase viewership by as much as 20%.”
Reduce Friction to Share
Your content will not go viral if it’s not as simple to share as possible. Otherwise, the barrier for people to share it will be too high. To avoid this, provide different sharing paths, steer clear of gating your content, ask questions to get people talking, or consider a hashtag to invite user-generated content (think the viral #MannequinChallenge in 2017).
James Currier, a five-time founder, and angel investor, writes in a post that “a lot of what we share online has to do with the fact that we want to get a boost, believe we are good, believe we’re smart or believe we’re worthy.” He gives examples of how people readily share personality test results because they seek validity. (On this, consider BuzzFeed quizzes as another solid content example.)
Keep it Human
You don’t have to overthink it to go viral. Most viral content hits on real human experiences (like social content from TSA). People want to relate to or aspire to ads, and you can give them that.
When in Doubt, Make People Laugh
It feels good to laugh. You know it. I know it. The internet and its many cat videos know it. You know who else knows it? Colin Nissan, the author of this viral 2009 article, still got viral shares eight years later. Media company Cracked also knows it. According to a post from Neil Patel, this humorous article about the Middle Ages has been viewed about 1.5 million times.
What Does Viral Marketing Look Like in 2023? [10 Examples]
See viral elements in practice in some of the trendiest, viral marketing campaigns on the internet in 2023. As you peruse, challenge yourself to notice which elements these campaigns helped them go viral.
🏆 Related Reading: The Story So Far: 4 of the Best Content Marketing Campaigns of 2023
Viral Video Marketing
I don’t know about you, but I could not help laughing out loud when I saw this ridiculous blind taste test. Lobster bearnaise sauce? Beluga caviar? The hilarity of the ad made it instantly shareable. And they now have a Gold Webby to prove that it worked.
Oh my, this video ad for Peloton captured people’s attention by using a (seemingly nude) Christopher Meloni to honor National Nude Day. Not only did the video garner tons of views, but it was also picked up by numerous press outlets, including those outside advertising trades like TODAY, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
You may hear this jingle in your nightmares, with more than 11 million views, Burger King’s hit jingle stuck in people’s heads—and will stick around. While this ad can be found on televisions across the country, the sound has gone viral on various social media platforms. As one of the comments says, “This commercial is going to be one of those nostalgic commercials in 5+ years.” Now that’s a long-term impact.
Mcdonald’s and Burger King often duke it out for marketing clout, so it’s only fair for McDonald’s to have their viral moment with their “Raise Your Arches” campaign. The brand recognized an unspoken association between McDonald’s arches and a simple, knowing look (a raise of the eyebrows).
People answered the call worldwide and began raising their arches on social media, inspiring 2.5 million “Raise Your Arches” videos on TikTok. Oh, and the campaign led to a 7.1% increase in sales. Not too shabby.
Viral Digital Marketing
Chances are you’re eagerly awaiting Spotify’s 2023 Wrapped or already tuning in by the time you read this. What makes this campaign especially stand out is that it comes back—successfully—year after year by tuning into timely trends and, well, pairing it with your favorite tunes.
🎶 Related Reading: Spotify’s First Pop-Up Cafe Connected Gen Z Fans With Creators IRL
Here’s a fun example (and Cannes Lions winner) of viral digital marketing from Argentina. While FIFA World Cup champions were returning to Argentina with the trophy, PedidosYa sent out a mock delivery notification to half of Argentina with the message ‘Your order is on its way,’ initially causing people to freak out about hacking. When users clicked, they accessed a real-time map tracking the Argentina team’s flight home. (Leading the brand to get more mentions than the national team AND Lionel Messi.)
Viral Social Marketing
Where were you in the summer of 2023, and why was it seeing Barbie at the theater? Because the virality of the movie’s marketing was out of this world. And even before the big release, the team made a huge splash on social media with the Barbie Selfie Generator, racking up more than 13 million users.
🎀 Related Reading: It’s Barbie’s World and Consumers Are Living in It
The fast food chain is known for being witty and timely with its marketing. Their competition with Chick-fil-A, and this viral tweet from 2019, has been said to have “changed the restaurant industry.” This year, they’re taking that newsjacking approach by leaning into viral trends like “Girl Dinner.” Hello, newsjacking.
Viral OOH Marketing
Amazon took over NYC to promote the fifth and final season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The one-day event stretched along Fifth Avenue—from 46th Street to 56th Street—paired with a mile-long pink carpet. They also added brand ambassadors dressed in Mrs. Maisel-approved 1960s attire to guide and offer people a map detailing the filming spots of the show in the city.
I am a sucker for good stunts, and apparently, so are the 40 million poeple who watched as Wednesday released ‘Thing Addams’ into NYC. Netflix’s hit show followed up with this hit viral ad that terrified onlookers but delighted online viewers.
Create Your Viral Moment
Now that you’ve got a solid grasp of the mechanics of going viral and have these examples as inspiration, you can consider creating your brand’s viral moment.
But remember — the strategies above are for the goal of going viral. If the goal of your campaign is pure lead generation, some of these tactics may not be for you.
That being said, if virality is the goal, keep your content authentic for your brand. Stay true to your brand’s tone, leverage appropriate media channels, and get to know your customers to know what they’ll react to. But, at the same time, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. (It’s usually where the best ideas are.)
And, when you do, who knows, you might be one viral video away from becoming a viral brand.