Basics of Viral Marketing

A successful viral marketing campaign can spread farther and faster than a traditional campaign on a fraction of the budget. Just consider for a moment that the average Superbowl takes in around a hundred million viewers, while Tay Zonday’s Youtube sensation Chocolate Rain has been viewed sixty million times, not counting the "cloned" versions of the video that others have posted, which often rank in the millions.

Placing an ad during Superbowl airings costs literally tens of millions of dollars, plus millions more to actually produce the video. Tay Zonday produced and posted his song for free.

Viral marketing comes down to the concept of "interruption marketing" and "permission marketing". In television, print and radio, in traditional, old media, an advertiser was free to interrupt what the prospect was doing, be it watching a movie or listening to music, and tell them about their new product or service. In today’s media, the marketer is at the mercy of the consumer, not the other way around. In other words, we need permission to advertise to them.

This is what many of the old-media marketers are failing to understand, and why they’re faltering in the new media: they don’t respect the consumer. When the consumer wields the power to turn you off and shut you out, you need to respect them, because you’re in their hands, not the other way around.

The "Hook"

Everything you know about branding remains true, everything you know about talking to the consumer, informing them of your product or service, it all remains true. What’s changed is that you need to take into consideration that the consumer has a short attention span, and you can’t blame them. With so much information coming in at such an incredible rate, the only smart thing to do is to block ninety nine percent of it out. Hey, most of it is advertising anyways, right?

This means that your approach needs to have a hook, like a song has a catchy chorus, and the hook has to be right up front. The audience isn’t going to sit there for a full minute waiting for you to get to the point. If you don’t make yourself clear in the first five seconds of your viral marketing piece, then you can kiss the consumer’s attention span goodbye.

The hook needs to be something immediate, visceral, and something that people will have a strong reaction to. Many viral marketers like to use something controversial to this end. For instance, if you use dark humor, sexual content or political charged content, then at the very least, you’ll generate some argument in the comments section, and that can help you get noticed.

What Is "Viral?"

"Viral" just means that people are trading this video or song or whatever it is back and forth with one another. They’re sharing it on message boards, in forums, on blogs, in chat, they’re making their own remix videos, whatever. The point is that people are sharing it. This is one of the reasons you need to respect the consumer in this new media: they’re your network, they’re your producer, they’re the people who are going to yay or nay your marketing campaign.

Nobody’s going to air your video on millions of TVs nationwide, every hour on the hour. A viral video either grips the viewers, or it doesn’t get seen.

Controlling the Chaos

Because the campaign is out of your hands the minute you post the video online, viral marketing can be incredibly chaotic and unpredictable. A song just as amusing as Chocolate Rain could come out today and not attract more than a dozen views, and there needn’t be any obvious reason for this. It just happens. The citizens of the web grow bored with certain ideas quickly, they latch onto new ones, they hold onto this or that viral video seemingly forever and just ignore the other one. It’s not easy to predict.

However, you still need to at least try and gauge how people will react to what you’re trying to do. One way of predicting the consumer’s tastes is to look at those dumb chain mails you get. You know, the list of stupid jokes or pictures of cats with top hats on or whatever it is. People keep circulating these emails, even today in the 21st Century, over fifteen years after the inception of America Online.

Those chain mails are the perfect example of viral content. The only reason anyone sees them is because people keep emailing them. If people stopped emailing them, there wouldn’t even be an open channel to see them yourself. This is content that lives or dies on people finding it interesting enough to share, and that’s why it’s the perfect content to look at for inspiration.

It takes more than just copying what someone else has done, of course. In fact, if you flat out copy someone, then chances are you’ll be lost in the sea of other copycats that don’t provide anything new. However, borrowing a certain style or approach or keeping in line with a certain spirit presented in this popular content isn’t a bad way to get started.


The best way to get your viral content going is to get it started yourself. Just posting a video or a song or an image or something on the web and expecting it to catch fire is just plain unrealistic. If you post it and then link to it on a couple dozen forums, on the other hand, or if you have a blog with even a handful of readers, that’s a good place to start. In any event, it’s a bit like siphoning gas. You need to get it going yourself if you want the traffic to start flowing.

If you post the link in, say, twenty four different places, and wind up with twelve views… well, it may be a problem with the content itself. You can’t force content to go viral, which brings us back to the main thing to always keep in mind with regards to viral marketing.

Content Trumps All

Quality content is really what matters in the end. Whether you’re trying to improve brand awareness, trying to draw more people to your blog or website or just trying to sell something yourself, good content is all that really matters in the end. Whatever else you want to apply to your marketing strategy, whether you want to experiment with something interactive or combine a print campaign with a digital campaign or if you want to do something entertaining or funny, it all comes down to quality content.

So what makes for quality content? We’ve mentioned that you need to grab the consumer’s attention right away, but that’s not all there is to it. You should try to grab their attention with something relevant, something meaningful on some level. A quick guitar riff followed by a guy in a chair talking about the product really isn’t how you do it. The information and the "flash" of your content need to be one and the same.

As we said, you can’t force it. If a video or a website or an image is going to go viral, it’s going to go viral. There’s really nothing you can do to take bad content and make it go viral, nor can you stop viral content once it’s caught on. Put your faith in content and focus more on developing something interesting and attention grabbing than on trying to position yourself in the perfect position to push a viral video or site or something. Just rely on the content and do everything you can to create something novel, new, inventive and fascinating.

If you can make people laugh, make them cry or just provide that "wow" factor, you may have a viral hit on your hands.

Dan Petrovic, the managing director of DEJAN, is Australia’s best-known name in the field of search engine optimisation. Dan is a web author, innovator and a highly regarded search industry event speaker.

More Posts - Website