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Viral Marketing: How-to Guide

Imagine an egg. But not just every egg, the most popular egg in the world. What makes this particular egg so special, so unique? Nothing really. Still, this egg has 55.8 million likes.

Why? Because it’s absolutely hilarious.

In January 2019, @world_record_egg profile was created. Its premise was simple, yet ambitious: to set the new world record for the most popular Instagram post. The post reached the goal of 18.4 million likes in less than 10 days.

Calling the “Instagram Egg” a success would be an understatement. There was no promotional campaign, not a penny spent. In fact, it didn’t even have any commercial goal... Until the management of Hulu reached the profile holder with an offer.

With no funding, 1 stock photo, and a short description of the goal, a single person outplayed thousands of professional full-time marketers. This is ‌known as “viral marketing”. In this guide, we’ll explore the ways to tame this force of nature and grow your business.

Viral Marketing Essentials

Marketing can be costly. That’s why viral content is such a valuable asset: it yields great results with reasonably small investments… When it hits the jackpot, of course. While the output is hard to predict and keep track of, the potential gains are well worth the effort.

Basic Definitions

Photo by Ramon Kagie

Viral marketing is a promotional strategy that relies on shareable (or “viral”) content. Remember that one commercial? The one you just had to show to your friends to have a laugh or a heated discussion? That’s what viral marketing is all about.

Compared to traditional marketing, viral marketing relies on word of mouth instead of direct advertising. Basically, you’re asking your audience (directly or indirectly) to share your product, service, or content with their friends. Sometimes offering a reward. 

Viral content can be a blog post, a video, or even a picture. No matter the format, what makes the content go viral is its emotionality, relatability, and trendiness. Also, the respect for social norms, as some things are not well-suited for one’s personal brand. 

Trendspotting Formula

Photo by Rajeshwar Bachu

Possibly the most important element of a successful viral marketing strategy. To spot a trend before your competitors capitalize on it, you need to keep your hand on the market’s pulse. How can you achieve that? By browsing Google Trends and relevant content platforms.

On Google Trends website, enter a word or two that best describes your main offering. For example, a restaurant owner might enter “food” or “luxury food”. Then perform a search and scroll down a bit: “related topics” section will show a list of the hottest trends to date.

Then, find where your target audience spends most of their time. If your market is B2C, then you’ll probably find most of your clients on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit. B2B customers are more likely to browse and connect on LinkedIn and professional forums.

The Art of “Just Being There”

Photo by Adam Jang

You’ve found what’s trending, you’ve joined communities where your clients discuss the trends you’ve discovered. What’s next? It’s time to plan and execute your viral marketing campaign. Write down your findings, pick a trend and begin working on the concept.

Keep in mind that your ad should not sell the benefits of your product. Its purpose is different: to make a long-lasting positive impact. It can be an educational video exploring a popular topic in a fun way, a captivating, emotional story… or a meme.

The main goals of viral marketing is to increase brand awareness and improve brand trust. You're not selling anything, just offering value to your future customers, be it emotional support, an interesting discovery, or just relevant and "true to life" content.

Now that we have a better understanding of the theory, let’s move to practical cases.

Tactics to Consider

It’s hard to replicate others’ approach, as viral marketing can be compared to a weighted dice roll. Besides, users quickly see through copycats and lookalikes. That’s why we’re going to focus on the essence of successful marketing campaigns, and the lessons they taught us.

Stay Relevant: Inspired by Iceland

When talking about vacation, most people imagine hot sunny weather and the sound of waves gently washing away the sand. Cold, seemingly lifeless landscapes of Iceland might be a good fit for a wallpaper, but few people think of actually traveling there.

“Icelandverse: enhanced actual reality without silly looking headsets.” What a way to present a country! The recent Inspired by Iceland commercial combines a brilliant parody of the Metaverse’s awkward presentation with a clever showcase of the country.

The YouTube video currently has 1.9 million views and 4.7 thousand comments, most of which are overwhelmingly positive. All thanks to a mix of relevancy, quality, and a heartwarming message. A perfect formula of success in viral marketing.

Build Hype: Clubhouse

Photo by Dmitry Mashkin

There’re 3.48 million apps on Google Play alone. In a sea of applications, it’s hard to reach the intended audience. Still, Clubhouse managed to attract 2 million users. How did they do that exactly? By creating a sense of exclusivity through an invitation-only sign-in model. 

This approach is called the “velvet rope strategy”. If you've ever been to a club or a public event, then you've probably seen (and been in) a VIP zone. Clubhouse has put a lot of effort in pushing the exclusivity of its membership with big names at the core of its user base. 

Short-term hype is great, but sustainable long-term strategy is better. Clubhouse didn’t live up to the surrounding buzz, and the lack of substance behind viral marketing has led to its sharp decline. You probably didn't hear about the app recently, and that's to be expected.

Have Fun: Dietz Nuts

Brands prefer to avoid negative associations at all costs, but sometimes self-awareness and ability to make fun of yourself can win the hearts of your customers. In 2019, Dietz & Watson launched a new product along with a commercial that plays on its name: “Dietz Nuts”.

While the bets were high, the payoff was even higher: 1.8 million views and 3.1 thousand comments praising the cleverness of the company’s marketers. “The world’s first meat nuts” were a massive success despite (and even because of) the dirty implications.

What can we learn from Dietz & Watson’s “meaty” accomplishments? That it's important to laugh with your audience to avoid being laughed at. Corporate environments can be too sterile for customers’ liking, so humor is a great way to make your brand more human.

Things to Avoid

Viral marketing can be both beneficial and detrimental to your business’ success, depending on the implementation. It’s extremely important to have a deep understanding of your target audience. Failure in doing so might cause controversy and damage your reputation.

Outdated Formats: Wendy’s

“How do you do, fellow kids?” is an impression that Wendy’s gave with its infamous commercial of 2015. It features “the memer”, a person who describes his experience with the new sandwich using an outdated meme format: “Like a Boss”. The commercial was met with critique online.

In today’s market, being controversial is bad, but being out of touch with your customer is much, much worse. How can you serve an audience you don’t understand? The answer is: ‌badly. Still, the story of Wendy’s has a happy ending, as the company managed to find its footing.

From 2018 and every year since, Wendy’s holds #NationalRoastDay on Twitter. All participants (including big brands) ask the company to roast them and receive personalized insults. This tradition became a viral marketing machine, generating countless tweets of comedy gold.

Bad Timing: Robinhood

Sometimes it's worth canceling an advertising campaign. For example, if its message no longer reflects your brand’s public image. Still, Robinhood decided to launch a super bowl commercial amidst controversy related to the company’s stock market manipulations.

In January 2021, the WallStreetBets subreddit coordinated a series of “meme stock” buyouts. During this event, Robinhood restricted all trading activity related to affected tickers. While actions taken were beneficial to big hedge funds, small retail investors took a hit. 

Not the best time to run the “Everyone can be an investor” campaign, right? Still, Robinhood has put its plans into motion, which has led to yet another wave of public outrage. The ad didn’t even mention the controversy, and was perceived as hypocritical and misleading.

Sensitive Topics: Pepsi


Public unrest might be the worst topic for viral marketing. Businesses can’t pick sides, as risks of alienating a significant chunk of the audience are high. But they can’t remain neutral either, as corporations can’t just capitalize on the issue. Simply put, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Pepsi had a different opinion on the matter. The company ran a commercial about Black Lives Matter protests, picturing them as fun public gatherings. In the ad, a can of soda given to a police officer solves the conflict and saves the day. Everyone’s happy… Except viewers.

The ad was perceived as tasteless and tone deaf. Who would’ve thought that a company trying to give a central stage to its product in such a sensitive matter might be a bad idea? If you really value your company’s reputation, avoid controversial topics at all costs. 


Viral marketing is a force of nature. It can be a flat calm, it can be a tsunami. You can’t just force virality, because then you would be like a surfer commissioning a wave to ride on. While you can’t force the change, you can adapt and learn to predict it. Same with waves.

When people learn how to surf, they don’t expect the immediate results, they don't attempt to conquer huge, “expert” waves. They begin with no waves at all, to learn how to stay on the board and react to sudden weather changes. This is exactly what you need to start with.

Viral marketing is a wildcard, not a substitute for traditional marketing. It’s a tool that runs best when you’re prepared, a tool that rewards creativity and awareness of current events and trends. To go viral, your company needs to go with the flow. Within reason, of course.