How to succeed in viral marketing? Focus on the message and the strategy!

Written by: Karel Sisovky




The aim of this paper is to illuminate the key attributes of successful viral marketing campaigns. Firstly, I discuss the importance of message in viral marketing and how different types of messages are affecting the consumer decision to spread the viral message further on. Secondly, two main types of strategies (random and placed) are analyzed and also their relation to different types of messages. Throughout the paper, the examples from research and practice are used for clarification of these attributes of viral marketing. Lastly, I summarize the most important findings. 

Why viral marketing matters?

The term viral marketing has become the buzz word in the field of advertising and companies invest more money into this approach in order to succeed in current business world (Hinz et al., 2011). What actually viral marketing means may be understood from one of the most citied article by Lance and Guy J. (2006). The authors claim that viral marketing is ”Unpaid peer - to - peer communication of persuasive messages from identified sponsor using the Internet to persuade or influence an audience to pass along the content to others.” The magic of this approach is that it may attract wide audience in short time via peer - to - peer communication and thus the cost might be lower in comparison with traditional adverting (Camarero and San José, 2011). Contemporary increasing demand for viral marketing was mainly caused by factors such as digitalization and social media, which has reshaped how the consumers react on advertising. Due to this evolution, consumers have immediate access to the content on demand and they became more picky in consuming messages from companies. This shift also caused that responses of consumers on traditional ways of advertising has decreased (Hann et al., 2008; Nahon and Hemsley, 2013; Hinz et al., 2011). Therefore I consider studying viral marketing phenomenon as important due its potential and applicability in current business conditions. 

Do you want to atract? Focus on the viral message!

Every successful viral marketing campaign has to contain the message, which is planned to be communicated by consumers. As Dobele et al. (2005) claim viral message is very often connect to the brand message in order to position company brand, change their image or increase adoption rate. Nonetheless only engaging message may have chance to succeed. So, what are the key elements for successful viral spreading? Dobele et al. (2005) discusses five important elements of viral marketing. Firstly, it has to capture the imagination. Fun is essential part of viral marketing campaigns. Vital example might be the campaign for Spielberg's A.I. from 2001. There were created over 30 different websites prior to launch of the movie, many of them interactive allowing future consumers experience the world around the movie. The potential consumers of the movie had an opportunity of looking for clues regarding future world, interacting with the characters in the movie and solving different cases. Secondly, viral marketing message is often attached to higly visible or easy to-use products. Using this logic, Honda reshaped the view of a complicated product (car) into asimple one during their Honda - The Cog campaign. In this ad, each component (lights, wheel, pedals etc.) was forming step by step the actual car, followed by slogan ”Isn’t it nice when things just work?”. Thirdly, targeting also plays important role in viral marketing. As an example may serve A.I.  from 2001 again where the creators of the campaign targeted predominately on the fans of sci-fi and the whole interactive experience was built upon it. Fourthly, the credible sources supporting the believes of consumers. This might be opinion leaders or famous people which consumers recognize on daily basis as trustworthy sources. Particularly this attribute may trigger the spreading of viral message. Lastly, it has been proved that viral messages may profit from the combination of new technologies like in case of A.I. or Hobit. 

Viral marketing messages have to attract also via emotions and motivate consumers to spread the message. According to Dobele et al. (2007), particularly the most important one is emotion of surprise, however it doesn't work itself and it has to be combined with other emotions. For instance the combination of emotions of surprise and joy was successfully used in previously mentioned Honda - The Cog campaign. Apart from surprise and fun emotions, even sadness emotion may be used. Such an example is viral campaign by International Red Cross, where they combined features of storytelling and newsletters in order to support the victims of earthquake in Iran. Surprisingly even the emotion of anger fits into viral marketing. This was used in viral campaigns where consumers identified themselves with some form of injustice such as women rights, protest against government and so on. Other useful emotions in viral marketing might be fear (campaigns against violence or weapons) or disgust (Dobele et al., 2007).

Although the viral message has to attract via emotions, similarly important is the motivation of consumers to spread the viral message further on. Thus consumers have to identify their motivational factors with the viral message (Ferguson, 2008). Ho and Dempsey (2010) claim that the most positively correlated motivational factors with forwarding the viral message are individuation and altruism. Individuation is related to the need of an individual to be unique or different from other people. It means that consumers want identify their personalities with the viral message , which tells to their peers who they are or how they want to be perceived by others. Secondly, the message may be connected to motivation factor of altruism, when consumer want to express their concern for others, friendship or love.

Think twice about the strategy!

If the message incorporates some of the mentioned elements, the creator of the viral campaign needs to have the clear vision how they plan to advertise the campaign and boost the spreading. Even though there are some views that viral marketing is moreless a matter of luck, the most successful campaigns and substantial research disprove these simplifications. This is supported by Cruz and Fill (2008), discussing two different types of viral marketing campaigns, ”random” and ”placed” campaigns. The random viral campaigns try to engage via creative content, entertainment or by the quality. In addition random virals are moreless without extensive corporate control and suppose more user activity from the beginning of spreading. On the other hand, placed campaigns include carefully planned strategy with usage of paid advertisement. Thus the degree of corporate control is much higher in this case and company tries to engage more at the beginning of the campaign. 

Similarly Nahon and Hemsley (2013) recognize two different strategies of spreading, bottom-up and top-down approach. Bottom-up approach assumes that main activity in viral spreading comes from the consumers at the beginning until the end of the viral process. The most common channels used in bottom-up spreading are social networks, blogs or forums. While in top-down approach, the carrier of the message at the beginning of the process is the company and their multiple channels, media placement etc. in order to boost bottom-up spreading. 

If we connect the findings of both analysis of viral marketing strategies, ”random” campaigns rely much more on bottom-up forwarding of the message whereas ”placed” campaigns on top-down approach. In order to explain the contrast between these two types of strategies, I discuss following examples from practice of viral marketing. 

Typical ”random” viral campaign is for instance the famous ”The Scarecrow” from Chipotle Mexican Grill released in 2012. The eponymous video on YouTube arises the questions regarding the environmental pollutions and their effect on the future world. This unhappy future world is possible to see via the way of the main character (scarecrow) who travels from the factory on processing animals into the nice and environmental friendly garden of scarecrow. The viral message emphasizes mainly storytelling, emotions (sadness and hope) and the creative content. Except the game on iOS/Android no extensive advertisements were used to promote the viral message in the video on YouTube. The same was confirmed by Chipotle representatives. Therefore ”The Scarecrow” was mainly random campaign relying on bottom-up approach based on the activity of the consumers.

On the other hand, the example of ”placed” viral might be considered the campaign by Old Spice - ”The man your man could smell like” from 2010. Even though the campaign was related to men’s deodorant, the main target group of the viral were women since they often motivate and buy the personal hygiene products for men. Thus the main character of ad was masculine man saying funny quotes serving as archetype of ideal man for women. The overall buzz was supported by extensive advertisement and communication from the creator of viral campaign. Particularly the advertising options in TV, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or direct interaction with women on Google Hangouts. The enormous success of this viral campaign was confirmed by following ads since theyrepetitively used the same main character or the similar type of the content (fun and surprise). As it might be apparent the corporate control of the campaign was much higher than in the case of ”The Scarecrow”. In addition, emphasizing on the extensive advertisement and media placement, the viral campaign might be perceived as an example of ”placed” viral. 

Managerial implications and discussion

To conclude the analysis of the sources of success in viral marketing, I discuss the following implications as the most important. Every viral message has to be intriguing enough for the consumers, that it will positively affect their emotions and motivational factors. Similarly important is to consider the right target group, this was apparent in the viral campaigns such as The Scarecrow (environmental consciousness people) or Old Spice (women buying personal hygiene products for men). Based on the type of the content and targeting, the viral message should adopt certain strategy of viral spreading. For instance, if the creators of ”The Scarecrow” campaign decided to use paid adds and expansive media placement in combination with their ”environmental friendly” message, it would probably cause negative reactions. Since the target group would consider direct promotion of ”environmental friendly” message as untrustworthy. While in the case of Old Spice campaign, the main message was about fun and surprise connected to the brand/product, so the ”placed” type of strategy was not disturbing for the target group. Finally, it is beneficial for almost every viral campaign if some credible sources refer to the actual campaign such as famous people or opinion leaders. It allows the viral campaign to be more trustworthy and credible and also spread faster because of large networks of consumers among these credible sources.














Academic Journals


Camarero, C. & San José, R. (2011). Social and attitudinal determinants of viral marketing dynamics. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(6), pp.2292-2300


Cruz, D., & Fill, C. (2008). Evaluating viral marketing: isolating the key criteria. Marketing Intelligence & Plan, 26(7), 743-758


Dobele, A., Lindgreen, A., Beverland, M., Vanhamme, J. & van Wijk, R. (2007). Why pass on viral messages? Because they connect emotionally. Business Horizons, 50(4), pp.291-304 


Dobele, A., Toleman, D. & Beverland, M. (2005). Controlled infection! Spreading the brand message through viral marketing. Business Horizons, 48(2), pp.143-149


Ferguson, R. (2008). Word of mouth and viral marketing: taking the temperature of the hottest trends in marketing. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 25(3), 179-182


Hann, I., Hui, K., Lee, S. & Png, I. (2008). Consumer Privacy and Marketing Avoidance: A Static Model. Management Science, 54(6), pp.1094-1103


Hinz, O., Skiera, B., Barrot, C. & Becker, J. (2011). Seeding Strategies for Viral Marketing: An Empirical Comparison. Journal of Marketing, 75(6), pp.55-71


Ho, J. & Dempsey, M. (2010). Viral marketing: Motivations to forward online content. Journal of Business Research, 63(9-10), pp.1000-1006


Lance, P. & Guy J., G. (2006). From Subservient Chickens to Brawny Men. Journal of Interactive Advertising, 6(2), pp.4-33




Nahon, K. & Hemsley, J. (2013) Going viral. Polity


Online sources


Honda – The Cog


Chipotle – The Scarecrow


Interview with CMO of Chipottle


Old Spice – Factsheet


The Man Your Man Could Smell Like – Old Spice