7 Viral Marketing Campaigns and What They Taught Us

by Gabe Arnold

Going viral is no easy feat. Those brands who have hit millions in views and shares worldwide seemingly have nothing in common.

These internet sensations can often be described as ‘one of a kind’, transcendent, hilarious or thought-provoking. In truth, there is no magic formula that will make a digital creation go viral online.

The last couple of years have seen sweeping changes in the ways many of us interact with digital content online, introducing countless new avenues, apps, social media sites, and technologies.

Keeping up with the latest viral content trends is the one way for marketers to stay ahead of the competition, and it can be a great launchpad for your own creative ideas.

Here are seven recent viral marketing campaigns we can learn from.

Lesson One: Breaking The Echo Chamber

In 2017, the internet is a very noisy landscape, saturated with different channels and viewpoints, known in some circles as ‘echo chambers’. Pepsi’s now infamous, Join the Conversation campaign became viral for all the wrong reasons and the ad was quickly pulled amidst waves of internet backlash.

What Can We Learn From Pepsi’s Ad Campaign?

  • Polarizing your audience could land you in trouble with the masses. In advertising, there is little time for nuance and even with the best intentions, your intended meaning may be lost on the wider population.
  • Test your campaigns with audiences before launch. Internet trends and news cycles change daily, so the most effective way of staying on top of this is testing your campaigns across a wide sample size.

Lesson Two: Create A Valuable Experience

In an open response of sorts to Pepsi’s ad, Heineken ‘stepped out of the echo chamber’ and created a social experiment campaign called World’s Apart.

This viral video showed two people with opposing political views tasked with a collaborative activity. At the end of the task, the producers showed each participant a video of the other’s opposing views on politics, the environment etc. They were then asked if they would like to share a beer with the other participant on camera.

What Can We Learn From The World’s Apart Campaign?

  • Be ‘self-aware’. Keep an eye on the wider internet trends, and react and comment accordingly.
  • Create a valuable experience. This social experiment was thought-provoking without being patronizing, and still manages to bring in the product in a way that feels organic, rather than forced.

Lesson Three: Master The Art of Parody

Internet culture dictates that once you put something ‘out there’ it can become ‘memeable.’ Brands who embrace this tend to get more shares and can even achieve worldwide fame overnight

‘Salt Bae’ is the perfect example of a ‘living meme’ in action. Chef, Nusret Gökçe, wanted to promote his steak house online and posted this meme of himself on his Instagram page.

The video was soon picked up and altered and reposted in a number of different guises until eventually, its reach grabbed the attention of the mainstream press.

What Can We Learn From The Salt Bae Campaign?

  • Spread your brand’s unique message via inexpensive, simple means such as Instagram.
  • Be proud of who you are as a brand, to the point where you can have a sense of humor about it and not take yourself so seriously. People respond positively to good-hearted comedy, much of successful viral content is funny.
  • Be open to people experimenting and parodying your work — it’s all part of the viral game.

Lesson Four: Make Relatable Content

The Ice Bucket Challenge for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) awareness was a massive Facebook sensation and raised over $115 million for charity. Part of its worldwide appeal was the fact that anyone could complete the challenge at home, raise some funds for a good cause, and tag their friends to get them involved too.

Those brave enough to face a bucket of ice cold water on their heads joined the likes of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and a whole host of other famous faces making videos and spreading the positive message even further.

What Can We Learn From Ice Bucket Challenge Campaign?

  • Use of video and social media can be utilized by both celebrities and the conventional internet user to help you spread your message far and wide.
  • People can be inspired to help a good cause in unusual (and chilly) ways.
  • Make the ‘hook’ simple and easy to share.

Lesson Five: Hack The Trends

Instagram users have well and truly adopted the #TBT (Throwback Thursday) hashtag as one of their regular favorites. Every week millions of posters find an old picture and post it to the site, offering their followers a glimpse of their lives before ‘The Gram’ or the previous week, if they were particularly ‘feeling’ their outfit that day.

Expedia jumped on this trend and created #ThrowMeBack offering followers the chance to win a holiday by posting one of their old travel photos with the hashtag.

What Can We Learn From Expedia’s Viral Marketing Campaign?

  • Know your audience’s top platforms and usage trends and replicate their behaviors wherever you can.
  • Utilize your social media channels to offer ‘calls to action’ and special offers, even if the platform will only allow you to post one link on your profile (as in the case of Instagram).
  • Competitions are more likely to go viral, as people are more invested in the content and are likely to share it.

Lesson Six: Give The Audience What They Want

Solving your customer’s common problems is guaranteed to help you get the brand word out fast. Dollar Shave Club (video NSFW) noticed that customers needed to buy new razor blades every month, a very mundane purchase and one that brought a lot of annoyance and frustration.

Dollar Shave’s viral video campaign became a huge success for its humor and its take on how you can avoid forgetting or paying over the odds for fresh razors with their subscription service. It was a great match between the brand message, and user-friendly content — a natural way to talk about the product. This video is a superb example of viral referral marketing in action.

What Can We Learn From Dollar Shave Club’s Campaign?

  • No-fuss problem-solving grabs the attention of internet audiences. Quite often high-production and expensive marketing campaigns aren’t needed to get the message across — it’s more about problem-solving and ‘getting under the hood’ of common issues.
  • A subscription based model for purchasing can be introduced into most online stores, and it’s a great way to build a brand community and disrupt an industry that’s started to feel ‘stale’. Offering your customers convenience and the right pricing model will help you generate sales.

Lesson Seven: User Generated Content

Many internet users are turned off by brands that only broadcast their marketing messages, and take very little effort in engaging with their fans.

In a world where we are all connected 24/7, big data can be utilized and good old-fashioned communication can help brands discover what consumers like and share online.

Airbnb introduced the #LiveThere campaign, to inspire people to share their travel photos, gorgeous images, in line with the platform user’s preference for awe-inspiring travel photos.

Airbnb offers a distinct experience to their customers: the chance to live ‘as a local’ through their crowd-sourced accommodation booking services. Bringing in the rhetoric and nostalgia of dwelling, home, and going ‘glocal’ makes perfect sense for the brand.

What Can We Learn From Airbnb’s Live There Campaign?

  • Championing your customers can draw in massive audiences worldwide.
  • Try to really connect to universal themes and topics. Pull at people’s heart-strings.
  • Tools like Google Analytics can help you create customer personas, giving you hints on viral marketing campaign ideas that tie-in with your customer’s social media and content consumption habits.

In 2017 the extreme ends of the ‘amazing’ and ‘cringeworthy’ scale of viral marketing ads have significantly shifted. Creating a viral marketing campaign these days takes careful audience research and testing. However, new avenues and methods are being developed all the time. The most important thing to remember is that any brand can become a huge internet success overnight. Don’t worry about budget, and instead concentrate on bringing a unique and brilliant message to your audience. Some of the best viral campaigns have been achieved by imaginative bootstrappers.

      Victoria Greene: Brand Writer

I love working with a variety of ecommerce brands and businesses, as well as running my own ecommerce stores. As a writer, I’m a big fan of storytelling and user-generated content: it’s all about getting into the user’s head!

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