The Ultimate Guide to Viral Marketing

lil dicky viral marketing
I'm a marketing guy, a pizza enthusiast and San Francisco resident. Also, I started this blog, Growth Marketing Pro and built it into a 6-figure passive income business in just 18 months. Before that, I was the Head of Marketing for a startup called PlushCare, which sold for $450 million.

What is Viral Marketing?

Viral marketing is the holy grail of marketing. Imagine a campaign that requires a small upfront investment and achieves massive success, purely because consumers share the campaign.

viral marketing

My former roommate is a guy by the name of Dave Burd aka Lil Dicky. Dave loves music and particularly rap Рhe has been making music practically his whole life. In 2012 and early 2013, Dave started taking his craft very seriously and made a series of funny music videos to accompany his songs.

He released the first one, called Ex-Boyfriend on April 23, 2013. By that afternoon it was on the front page of Reddit and had garnered over 1 million views. Today, the view count sits at nearly 29 million.

lil dicky viral marketing

Watching Dave’s success made me think a lot about viral marketing and how the rest of us, namely non-comedic rappers, can emulate that success.

Jonah Berger, marketing professor at Wharton School of Business says in an Entrepreneur article about viral marketing, “there is a science behind why people share. It’s not chance, and it’s not random. If you understand the underlying science of human behavior, you can predict what people are going to pass on, and you can craft your own contagious content.”

But how? Berger says the six key vehicles of virality are:

  1. Social currency: sharing things that make people look good
  2. Triggers: it’s likelier an activation is successful if the content addresses something that is top of mind¬†like current events
  3. Emotion: does the campaign create an emotional reaction?
  4. Public: imitating what we see others do
  5. Practical value: things people can use
  6. Stories: information that is in the form of a story and can be shared by chitchat

We will unpack viral marketing much more below. Learn about guerilla marketing here.

The Mathematical Definition of Viral Marketing

k factor

When we’re talking about viral marketing effectiveness, we’re talking about k-factor. K-factor describes the growth rate of a campaign, app or product. It really has no relevance in creating viral content, but it will help you speak more fluently about the topic.

K = i * c 

In this formula, k is the number of invites or shares sent by a user and i are the percentage of invited users that convert or take the desired action.

10 Viral Marketing Examples

Viral marketing can come in many shapes and sizes, though many examples take the form of video content. Below are some of my favorite examples of viral marketing, many have nothing to do with video and some may be helpful in your brainstorms.

  1. Chubbies: Chubbies is a clothing brand that specializes in men’s short shorts. While it’s pretty niche, they have grown into a company that does¬†millions in monthly revenue. I discuss more about them in my post about ecommerce growth hacks. Chubbies did something that I think is important for any company or marketer to understand: they built virality into their product. Because of the absurdly short inseams of their shorts, their customers become walking flag bearers for the company. Of course, not everyone buys into the trend, but maybe that’s not so bad. An article about viral marketing on Kissmetrics makes the point that you should “stop being neutral.” Inspire strong emotions, even if they aren’t positive emotions for¬†everyone.¬†Your business becomes way easier to market if you inject virality into the product.¬†viral marketing
  2. Hotmail: The Hotmail viral growth hack is part of digital marketing lore at this point. What if a small product marketing feature could help your business explode in just a year or two? Hotmail spent basically no money on advertising and captured the lion’s share of email users in the early days of the internet. How? In the signature line of every Hotmail users’ email was a hyperlinked line that read, “PS: I love you. Get your free e-mail at Hotmail.” Of course, the recipient could click the link and would be taken to Hotmail’s website to create an email account. Virality can be very simple and you should use your product wherever possible to promote virality. At my company, RealtyShares, all 110 employees have our customer referral program link in their email signature – inspired by Hotmail. ¬†viral marketing
  3. Patagonia: Eco-conscious clothing brand, Patagonia had a splashy Black Friday in 2011. Patagonia took out an ad in the New York Times with a picture of its product and¬†the tagline, “Don’t Buy this Jacket.”¬†patagonia viral marketingAs it was right before Black Friday weekend, you can imagine the stir it caused. While other companies advertised discounts, Patagonia actively told customers to buck Black Friday consumerism and not buy its products. As an eco-retailer, this message resonated with consumers. Patagonia’s sales grew 40% in the following year.
  4. HelloFlo: HelloFlo rewrote the rules of feminine hygiene advertising when it released its “Camp Gyno” video series. For just $6,000, the video has garnered 12 million views to-date. Camp Gyno features a young girl at summer camp who experiences her first period. She becomes laughing stock of fellow campers until the arrival of a HelloFlo care package¬†containing tampons, pantyliners and candy. The message: be different and capitalize¬†on a human emotion in a unique way. While I can’t relate to getting a period for the first time, 50% of the population certainly can.helloflo viral marketing
  5. EliteDaily: Do you remember EliteDaily? I haven’t seen them flooding my social media in a while, but back in 2014, I couldn’t look at my Facebook newsfeed without seeing an article about, “The 10 Best Places to Make Out in San Francisco” or “Your Next Breakup will be Soon Unless you do these 5 things.” EliteDaily made a killing with user-generated news “for and by millenials,” eventually selling to DMG Media for $50 million. For them,¬†viral marketing was built into their business model. Instead of paying traditional writers, EliteDaily let everyday people¬†apply to write for the publication. Doing this had a two-fold effect: not only did they avoid¬†paying for real writers, but by enlisting a fleet of social media-consuming 20somethings to write,¬†they were the beneficiary of a¬†huge amount of social sharing. Imagine you are a senior in college and you just wrote a piece that a national online publication picked up. Wouldn’t you share that on your Facebook? EliteDaily was not quality journalism by any means, but they did have a viral coefficient that makes them worth mentioning.
  6. Farmville: Farmville was a viral success that was tough to miss if you were a Facebook user around 2011. Their Facebook page has over 34 million likes today.¬†farmville viral marketingFarmville capitalized on Facebook’s social element in a way that¬†no other game had before. Earlier Facebook games and apps took advantage of the app workflow – forcing you to invite friends before playing, Farmville pulled your friends into the universe of the game. They did this by rewarding you for adding neighbors (your Facebook friends) or by helping your Facebook friends by fertilizing their crops. The difference in the viral mechanism was subtle, but hugely impactful as Farmville¬†was acquired by Zynga for a sum in the hundreds of millions.
  7. Beats by Dre: Straight Outta Compton is¬†a 2015 movie that I would give an 80% on my personal RottenTomatoes. But I’d give their viral marketing ploy with Beats by Dre a 100%. Taking advantage of the time leading up to the movie release, Beats by Dre took an opportunity to cobrand a viral meme. They created a website ‚ÄúStraight Outta Somewhere” which was a meme generator whereby a user could put “Straight Outta ….” on top of their own photo. The meme generator inspired people to fill in the blank with their hometown. In a week and a half, the website saw 7 million visitors and #straightoutta was tweeted at 15,000 times per second at one point during the campaign! The message: be creative and take advantage of current events. ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†viral growth marketing
  8. Netflix: Netflix knows the first world problems its binge users face. Sometimes we fall asleep while watching our favorite shows, right? Netflix made “smart socks,” which they gave to influencers and Netflix customers. The socks were connected with the viewers’ Netflix account and when the wearer of the socks fell asleep, an accelerometer took notice, which would trigger the show to pause. In this way, the wearer would never miss a moment of their show! Over the three weeks of the campaign, the socks were mentioned on average 49 times per hour on Twitter.¬†netlfix viral marketing
  9. Warby Parker: The hipster eyewear brand¬†is quite adept at growth marketing. Warby Parker is worth over $1 billion today and when quoted in 2015,¬†they were acquiring¬†more than 50% of their users through organic social media channels (unpaid). In 2014, they ran their third¬†“Warby Parker Year in Review.” They activated their email list by sending them to a custom HTML5 page that was basically a “choose your own adventure” year in review. By answering a series of cheeky questions, Warby Parker would spit out a custom URL with your year in review, fully equipped with social sharing buttons. I can’t find a great image¬†of the 2015 Year in Review, but this is the first version of this activation from 2011.¬†warby parker growth marketing
  10. The internship searching website scored a huge viral marketing campaign when they capitalized on Charlie Sheen’s year long Twitter ranting in 2011. They partnered with Charlie to create the ultimate job: Charlie Sheen’s Social Media Intern. I’m not sure if the winner actually got to take control of his Twitter, but saw 1 million unique visitors during the campaign and 74,000 people actually applied for the position in the first 48 hours.¬†viral marketing stunt

How to Make a Viral Marketing Campaign

I’ll spoil the surprise: reading this will not make you a viral marketing expert. But if your goal is to create a viral marketing campaign, I think the steps below will create a framework¬†for doing so and may even increase your¬†likelihood of success.

Don’t be neutral: Whether good or bad, we live in a world that likes hyperbole. Today, we consume media¬†fast and ravenously, like me in a Burger King.¬†

To stand apart you need to take a stance that is different. Reporters call all their sources looking for the most contrarian viewpoint to share with their readership. Consumers of social media are¬†similar. In fact, 90% of all news is “negative news.”

One way to harness this fact when brainstorming is to think about the opposite of what is expected. Chubbies makes shorts that are absurdly short and Patagonia told people not to buy their clothing in a Black Friday advertisement.

Find relatable things to say: Even better, find relatable things to say that nobody else has ever said! Lil Dicky did this. He tapped into a genre that was traditionally hyper-masculine and in most cases, very serious and made music that is relatable to the everyman.

Humans have a lot of the same emotions and we experience many of the same things. Tap into those truisms. HelloFlo’s “Camp Gyno” video did exactly this. Look for ways your brand or company can say something profoundly relatable.

Giveaways: Giveaway marketing works. There are even software solutions like KingSumo that embed giveaway widgets on your website.

Chubbies increased their virality by going to tailgates to hand out croakies and beer koozies. Energy drink companies like Red Bull drive around college campuses and sporting events to give away product.

giveaway marketing

If you are going to do giveaways, really think about the product and what response you want to elicit – a giveaway without a plan is like throwing cash out of a moving car.

But if you think it will work, don’t be afraid of being a little bizarre. At my ecommerce company, BeGood we sent¬†pies to anyone who spent more than $150 on Thanksgiving day.¬†We ended up having to buy a lot of pies.

Encourage sharing: Make your activation shareable! You may not hit it huge, but any viral success you find will be amplified with a sharable link or social sharing buttons tied to it.

Also remember that anything user-generated or flattering is even more sharable. We all like a good humble brag on social media.

growth marketing pro

Amplify your efforts with sequels:¬†If it works once, you’ll have an audience for activation #2 and #3. Warby Parker’s “Year in Review” has been running for six years. As long as you have made incremental improvements, your audience won’t find the¬†activation to be stale.

Did I miss something? Let me know below.

If you enjoyed this, you should read about guerilla marketing here.

One Comments

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