How Does Viral Marketing Work?

The infamous bank robber Willie Sutton, when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, supposedly answered “Because that’s where the money is.” Despite this Sutton later denied having said it but the common-sense reasoning  of the quote has allowed it to survive for decades as it fits so many situations. The answer for why a marketer would want their content to go viral is obvious: because that’s where the people are. Facebook has more than two billion active users, YouTube has 1.5 billion users, and Instagram and Twitter have “only” 700 million users and 328 million users, respectively. The potential audience on social media platforms is immense for anyone lucky enough to have a post or video go viral.

However, viral marketing requires much more than luck. Online sharing has been around long enough for experts to understand which types of content are most likely to be shared. And marketers are now designing videos and images whose sole purpose is to go viral.

 

How Viral Marketing Works

The basics of viral marketing are simple. You create material which is so compelling that those who see it will immediately want to share it with their friends, family and randoms that they met at 5am two years ago. And you provide a mechanism (share buttons, for example) that makes it easy for them to share your content. After that, many people believe, the work is done. As more and more viewers share the material, the greater the audience becomes and views increase exponentially. There’s a reason why its called viral: it “spreads” from person to person and you usually have fun whilst you’re getting it, it’s like university halls but on a global scale. The final step: sit back and enjoy the benefits of your worldwide exposure.

Hold off on that last step, though. The sheer volume of online videos, photos, cartoons, infographics, posts and other easily-sharable material is so enormous that it’s unlikely for any single piece of content to go viral. Just as one example, 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute! Your video has to be really special to stand out enough to garner even a handful of views. Most companies will acknowledge that the primary goal of their viral marketing campaigns isn’t to directly sell products, although sales can be a welcome byproduct. The biggest benefits of virality are increasing brand awareness and creating “buzz.” Marketing experts consider those to be crucial elements for building a brand’s trust and loyalty, and essential for companies which want to dominate a market or niche.

As you can imagine with something like this, viral marketing usually isn’t cheap. But it’s a lot less expensive to create a video that goes viral than it is to run expensive, continuous ad flights on network TV. There’s an additional benefit to viral marketing: it allows an advertiser to target a specific demographic at a relatively low cost.

For instance, males between the ages of 18 and 34 are the greatest consumers of energy drinks, masculinity isn’t the only toxic thing affecting young men! Monster or Red Bull, knowing that millennials will usually share content with friends the same age, could effectively increase brand awareness in their target market by creating videos that 18-34 year old males would be likely to share. If successful, that’s much less expensive – and effective – than running huge mainstream ad campaigns.

 

Researching and Planning a Viral Marketing Campaign

One caution before we go further: the marketing research firm Millward Brown has found that only 15% of the ads specifically created to go viral online, actually do. Successful viral marketing is an art, and more importantly, a science. With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the steps required.

 

1.Research your intended market.

All good marketers know the value of research, and it shouldn’t be ignored just because the aim is to create a viral video instead of a commercial. Companies often make a big mistake by thinking of their viral marketing as simply producing cute or funny videos.

In truth, understanding the intended market is even more important for creating virality than it is for mainstream ad campaigns. Viral content normally doesn’t appeal to all audiences equally, meaning the target is likely to be a demographic segment or niche. Understand what the targeted consumers like and don’t like, what they need and what they want. Most importantly, understand which emotions motivate them to take action; in viral marketing the desired action will be sharing your content, and research has shown that the decision to share is almost always based on emotional responses to content.

2. Decide on a goal and message 

Only one primary message is delivered by viral content. Be sure it’s the message you want to send and that it will accomplish the goal you have in mind. Otherwise, material that goes viral could have a negative effect on your brand and product. The greatest benefits of virality are brand awareness and trust, but those could also be at risk if audience reactions to your campaign are negative.

One of the best (or worst) examples is 2016’s Mountain Dew’s #PuppyMonkeyBaby campaign, which featured a dancing creature with the head of a puppy, the upper body of a monkey and the lower body of a baby. It was viewed more than 22 million times on YouTube and the hashtag was mentioned nearly 100,000 times. Unfortunately, more than half of the mentions were negative and the Mountain Dew brand became mostly an afterthought, with “terrified” the most common audience reaction to the ads.


3. Write and produce the content, with emotional engagement in mind

The primary motivations for people to click “share” buttons are the emotions evoked by viral content; the role that various emotions play in content sharing would require an entire article to discuss in depth. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: content which stimulates positive emotions like admiration and happiness, along with an element of surprise, creates the most effective path to shares and likes.

If you must use more negative content, it’s best to include a happy or inspiring element or ending, along with the element of surprise we’ve just mentioned. Surprise is the number one emotion that induces sharing.

4. Time for more research

Just because you and your team have produced what you believe is sensational content that’s worth sharing, that doesn’t mean the intended audience will agree. Focus groups or similar types of research will let you know whether you have something which your target market will readily share, or whether you have to go back to the drawing board. While you’re doing this research, also determine which social platforms your intended audience uses most. Remember only old people use Facebook anymore and thanks to one Tweet by Kylie Jenner Snapchat’s stock has plummeted.

5. Deploy – and then research some more

It’s fun to watch your views and links grow, but once you’ve launched a viral marketing campaign you need better information than just those raw numbers. Social media reporting tools like Hootsuite, Zoho Social, Synthesio and Sprout Social not only manage your content, but provide in-depth looks at audience engagement, reach, competitive brand analysis and much more.Those are the numbers that are really fun to watch if your viral campaign is a hit. Just as importantly, they provide insights that allow you to refine your successful viral marketing efforts – or help you understand what you need to better on your next attempt.

 

Hopefully counting the numbers is what you’ll be doing after reading our helpful guide, but as has been made clear, the internet is an unpredictable tundra of menacing memes and idiosyncratic influencers that will test even the most strategic and creative ideas.

 

 

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