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The recipe to creating viral online marketing campaigns for small businesses

7 minute read

Zoe Brown
water splash against sunset

There are many definitions of viral marketing, some referring to strategy others to social media. Simply, viral marketing is a form of marketing where information (usually in the form of creative assets) gets spread from person-to-person in a rapid way much like a common cold (hence the term). Viral marketing is often associated with social media due to the ease and ability to share assets on a monumental scale in a short period of time but generally isn’t restricted just to the one channel.

The most obvious benefit of viral marketing is the increase in reach, brand awareness, and engagement that can be achieved within days or even hours. Imagine all the goals you have for a single tweet and then increase them on a massive scale. Viral marketing has the power to create a buzz around your brand leading to higher brand recognition, increased web traffic and sales, lower (or no) advertising costs, and fast growth. It’s often cited that viral marketing has the power to do all this and to a highly relevant audience, as people are more likely to share viral content with their connections who are interested in the same themes and content in some way.

Most viral content is planned by businesses, take BlendTech’s famous ‘Will it blend?’ campaign where they tried to blend ordinary, everyday objects to varying success. They’ve seen a sales increase of 500% since the launch of the campaign. However, sometimes brands are a bit luckier when something positive happens organically which results in a viral spread. Take Vans for example, who made headlines back in 2016 thanks to two teenagers and the infectious “Damn Daniel” videos. Vans quickly took advantage, refocusing their marketing and sending all website visitors to the shoes in question. This viral campaign contributed to a spike in sales, including a 30% rise in online sales.

It’s certainly not just big businesses that can benefit from viral marketing, the key is in the content. If a small business can create highly emotive, sharable, and relevant content they have as much chance to go viral. Although there’s certainly not an exact science to going viral, we’re going to look at the main ingredients that appear across all successful viral campaigns.

Know your target audience   

People will only share content that is interesting, relevant and provokes emotion, so it’s fair to say one of the most important ingredients for viral marketing is knowing your target audience. A good starting point is using any data or personas you already have for your target audience and defining what segment might be best to target with your viral campaign. You should be looking to create a segment of your target audience that is engaged, likely to share content, and those you’re confident you understand when it comes to their online behaviours and habits. Think about the following:

  • Demographics: Defining who you want to target by demographic data such as age, gender, education, and income will help you create your content.
  • Online behaviour: In particular which social channels they’re using the most, how they’re using these, how often, when, and what type of content they’re engaging with.
  • How they’ve engaged with your brand before: See which pieces of your content, or campaigns, your target audience has engaged with the most in the past. Including messaging, imagery, channels, etc.
  • Language: Think about what language your target audience is using online, how they’re interacting with each other and businesses, and what hashtags they’re using.

Any brainstorming, data gathering, and research you can do at this early stage will leave you in good stead when it comes to creating a viral campaign. Take a look at any data you can from previous marketing campaigns or your regular marketing activities, such as social media, any online advertising, video marketing, and activity on your website including blogging.

Utilise any online tools you can. Google Analytics can be a great place to research demographics and performance of your website and online content. You can also tap into social analytics with Facebook Insights or Twitter Analytics to get more insight into your target audience and previous campaigns.

Dove’s viral ‘Real Beauty’ campaigns are a good example of how businesses can really try and understand their target audiences. After setting out on a quest to understand how women thought about beauty, Dove’s sketch video (where an artist drew simply from descriptions) became the most watched video of all time, being viewed more than 114 million times. Their future campaigns also featured images of real and diverse women appealing to their target demographics, attitudes, pain points, and emotions.  

Stir up emotions

For content to go viral it has to stir up strong emotions, when people experience a strong feeling towards something the desire to share that with others becomes unstoppable. According to research from the Wharton Business School, there is a strong relationship between emotion and virality irrespective of whether it’s positive or negative. They also found that even though negative content can go viral, it tends to be less viral than positive content and content that is either awe-inspiring, surprising, or funny is more likely to get shared. This graphic backs this up, with the top emotions sparking online content including awe, laughter, and amusement.

emotions that make online content to go viral

Take Evian’s ‘Live Young’ roller babies advert, which sparked such emotion that it holds the official Guinness World Record for the most viral video ad of all time!

Have (and spend time on) a creative and visual strategy

We’re now in an era when we’re starting to favour visual content over written, preferring to use video tutorials rather than read instructions, and hear product reviews rather than read them. The key to creating a viral campaign is the content, so spending time on your creative and visual strategy is a must.

A good place to start is gathering a creative team, whether that be your employees, colleagues, friends, family, or a walk around the block clearing your head for ideas. Keep the following in mind at this stage:

  • Think different. For something to spark that all-important emotional reaction the content must be fresh and something your target audience hasn’t seen before.
  • Think format. We know that the content must be visual, but think about how this could work for your business. Do you have the resources to create a video? Perhaps you’re looking to use imagery so think about whether this needs design input or if you’re planning to use your products or part of the business. 
  • Think short. We’re all guilty of having short attention spans, especially when it comes to online advertising. Keep your content short, whether that be the length of a video, copy on a graphic, or social media post.
  • Think involvement. Is there something that you could do that encourages people to get involved? Perhaps a challenge of some sort or something to help support a cause or campaign.

At this stage, no idea is a bad idea. Those ideas that you would normally dismiss as being a bit off the wall, these are the ones that could potentially help you create a campaign that goes viral.

Take the viral charity campaign of 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which saw thousands of people tipping ice cold water over their heads to raise awareness of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Famous celebs took to the stage with names such as Tom Cruise, Mark Zuckerberg, and Anna Wintour getting involved. The campaign raised more than £88million for the cause in a single month!

Timing and launch

Once you’ve created your viral content that’s destined to spark emotions in your target audience, it’s time to think about launching your campaign. There are many different ways you can approach this depending on the content, your business, and target audience. Although you’ll be keen to get your content out there it’s important to not rush this stage. Consider the following when you’re planning your implementation strategy:

  • Events and national days: Does a popular event or national day naturally fit with your campaign? For example, lots of viral campaigns in the US have been launched around the Superbowl. And just think of John Lewis at Christmas.
  • Trending topics: Have you created your campaign to react to a particular trend in the industry or with your target audience?
  • When your target audience is most active: If you’re just looking to launch your campaign as soon as possible consider what month, week, day, and time your target audience is most likely to be engaged and online. You can find lots of industry research online to when the best times are to post on social media, such as in this report from Sprout Social.

Think of every angle

While we live in an age of connectivity, social sharing, and communicating online, this also means as a whole people are often wary about promotional online activities from brands and online advertising. This means any content produced by businesses, especially that which has the potential to go viral, can often be subjected to some hard scrutiny. Therefore, it’s vital that you consider every angle of your viral campaign before launch including trying to understand how it could be perceived. Try to consider what negative angles people could see and what nature of comments or feedback you may receive. Failing to do so and not spotting a potential problem early on could cause a backlash on a viral scale. Here are a few examples:

  • Although not a direct result of Netflix’s production and promotion of the film, the Bird Box challenge has seen people carrying out common tasks while blindfolded with some very dangerous effects. YouTube has since banned challenges of this nature.
  • Pepsi had to pull an advert featuring Kendall Jenner after backlash over appearing to belittle social demonstrations and the relationship between protestors and the police force.
  • Protein World’s “Are you beach body ready?” advert was banned in the UK after backlash over the insinuation that to become beach ready women needed to get involved with the ‘Weight Loss Collection’.  

In summary

Once your campaign is launched, make sure you keep a close eye on how it performs. If it goes viral you’ll need to be on the ball to monitor and respond to any reactions, questions, or comments. One of the hardest things with viral campaigns is resisting the urge to tweak the campaign too much, it’s best to let things happen naturally. You can’t force a campaign to go viral and if you don’t quite hit the mark first time around you’ve still created some great content, got your business out there and raised some brand awareness. Plus, there will be tons of great data and insights you can learn from any campaign to help you create viral content in the future.

Zoe works as a Content Marketing Executive at the UK Domain. Previously working in advertising and the sporting industry, Zoe has over four years experience in marketing.

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