Viral Advertising: The Minute Guide

viral-advertisingWith the rise of social media, connections between consumers have never been more valuable. The sharing of articles, videos, photos, and other content has been heralded as one of the best and most successful methods of getting attention for your business.

Viral advertising can be tricky however, and it’s sometimes easy to get it wrong.

The Basics

Viral advertising is simple at its core – a company produces a piece of content, which is then shared across various social networks by consumers.

This kind of advertising is participatory rather than passive in nature. It relies on the interest of the audience to propagate it. It cannot and does not follow the same rules as traditional advertising.

Some famous examples of viral advertising are Cadbury’s Gorilla campaign in 2007, and the Old Spice campaign featuring Isaiah Mustafa in 2010.

The Content

The content that a company produces in order to raise awareness of its services or products can be anything. Videos, articles, photos, and even online games have all been used in viral campaigns. The content does *not necessarily need to be related to the service or product. It must only be compelling enough that consumers will share it and make sure that it reaches the maximum number of potential customers.

One unusual aspect of viral advertising is that the company cannot make its sales pitch too prominent. This may be perceived as a ‘hard sell’, putting the focus on the product or service rather than the content on offer. This will reduce the chance that consumers will share the content, and thus reduce the effectiveness of the campaign overall.

The Audience

Viral advertising is shared across various social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and Google Plus. The users of these networks will pass links to the content to their own audience, which usually consists of their friends and family. Different users will have different levels of influence or reach. The influence of a Twitter user, for example, is measured by the number and quality of followers they have, and the number of Twitter lists they are a member of.

A company seeking to start a viral advertising campaign should identify the niche where they will find the highest number of potential customers, then focus on a select number of influential users in that niche who will be able to spread the content.

The Networks

Viral advertising is spread across a large number of social networks of differing sizes and user bases. These networks have been designed so that content is easily shared, providing that the content is delivered in a standard form. Videos on Youtube, for example, are very easy to share on Facebook and Google Plus, or embed on blogs and websites.

Once a company has produced some viral content, the highest priority should be to make that content as accessible as possible (i.e. allowing users to share it with a single click).

Social network integration is vital if the company has chosen to host the content on their own site rather than make use of a third-party service.

Following Up

The final part of viral advertising is taking advantage of the boost in attention. The company must be prepared to handle an additional number of sales based on the popularity of the content, and analyze the incoming web traffic to see what sources have been the most successful at attracting new customers.

Avoiding Backlash

The most important point to note is that viral advertising is not always effective, usually when there are unintended consequences or consumers respond negatively. Companies that engage in astroturfing or attempt to engineer viral growth usually face a massive backlash if their activities are discovered.

Some campaigns are offensive or misguided, such as the Ashanti campaign that encouraged fans to send death threats to each other as a means of promoting a new album. If a company decides to move into viral advertising, they must be ready to handle any unforeseen effects as soon as they arise, up to and including putting a halt to all marketing efforts if they begin to damage the company image.

* I’m of the school of thought that believes it does.

About Omar Kattan
Omar is MD & Chief Strategy Officer at Sandstorm Digital. His experience includes 10 years in traditional marketing and advertising in the Middle East and a further 10 years at two of the largest media agencies in the UK. Follow Omar on Twitter for updates on the latest in digital, branding, advertising and marketing.


  1. […] stages of the internet, before social media took off. A campaign such as this would undoubtedly go viral.  Imagine what a campaign like this could accomplish […]

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