Understanding Viral Marketing: How It Works + Popular Examples

November 10, 2022
viral marketing 2

Understanding Viral Marketing

We all want to stay relevant in the online space, whether for our brand, business, or just in general. Becoming a trending topic is like the icing on the cake for marketers and advertisers, and it’s a great way to show that your efforts and strategies are working (unless you trend because of a backlash, in which case you might want to rethink your strategy).

The question is, how do we do this?

Viral marketing is the key to making your brand stand out from the crowd. It’s a way to get people to spread the word about your brand for you. The best part? It doesn’t have to cost a lot to get started.

Ingenuity and luck have the power to make your brand go viral. This guide will share how viral marketing works and why it can help grow your business.

What Is Viral Marketing and What Are Its Benefits?

When your content goes viral, it’s like wildfire. Your users are sharing it at an unprecedented rate, making it an instant hit. It’s one of the most effective ways to promote your content.

A successful viral marketing campaign can boost your company’s engagement and brand awareness. More sales often follow suit.

There are many ways to go viral: videos, campaigns, websites, or even mobile apps. Going viral is a massive step for marketers to make their brands take off and make money through sponsorships or promotions. While there’s no secret formula to a successful campaign, keeping tabs on the best practices from popular campaigns can be your ticket to virality.

Top Benefits of Viral Marketing

Top Benefits of Viral Marketing

Why should you care about viral marketing? Aside from the dramatic increase in views or shares, it can provide some profound benefits for your brand. Here are a few examples:

  • Viral campaigns can be a cost-effective way to promote your brand. You don’t have to place ads or buy media space because the numbers are at a low to no cost!
  • Creating a viral video is a great way to make a splash in the online world! You have a high chance of going viral and getting followers on popular video-sharing platforms like TikTok. You can tap into a whole new audience without putting extra effort into reaching them. There’s no need to worry about being too pushy when you’re viral; your followers will naturally come to you. 
  • Creating viral content is a great way to start if you want to make a lasting impression on your target audience. Not only will this help you build a strong connection with them, but you’ll also soon have a loyal following.

Why Does Viral Marketing Work?

Social media has completely changed the game when it comes to marketing. You no longer have to rely on slow and expensive methods like word of mouth or buying ad space. Now you can reach thousands of people with just one click on a social media platform.

STEPPS model

Viral marketing can help businesses reach their target customers effectively, and understanding the nuances can help you make a mark with your content. The STEPPS (Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, Stories) model is one framework that can help you make viral marketing work.

Social Currency

Your content is essential for your followers who want to stay relevant and boost their credibility in their community. Through your content, users can recognize your brand based on your positioning and messaging and associate your brand with getting social currency.

Natural Triggers

Your content must be interesting and relatable to your target audience to make it shareable. Social currency introduces viral content, while triggers prompt your audience to keep talking about it. 

For example, if you include a call to action in your content or if you create content that is timely and relevant to current events, your audience will  more likely  keep the conversation going.

Human Emotion

Adding an emotional element will make your content more shareable whether that means making your audience laugh or cry. Social currency is also essential when it comes to emotions, as it shows your audience that you care about the issues they do.

Public Space

When you want to ensure people see your content, post it in public! This way, people can share your content more efficiently, increasing reach and impressions. Users who see posts spreading quickly on their feeds are more likely to share them on their own profiles.

Practical Value

Your content can help make the world a better place! For example, if you share something that promotes a cause, informs others about a problem, or entertains, you’re helping make someone’s day just a little bit better.

When you create content with a specific purpose in mind, you increase the chances that others will want to share it.


When you’re looking to engage your audience, there’s nothing quite like a good story. You can get people’s attention and hold it by creating a thread on Twitter or posting it on Instagram or Facebook. When you tell a story, people can absorb the information better. Plus, it’s just more fun to read!

4 Popular Examples of Viral Marketing

Now that you understand what viral marketing is and how to make it on the internet, let’s take a look at some of the marketing campaigns that went viral over the last decade:

Dumb Ways to Die

Who says informing the public about important issues has to be boring? Australia’s Metro Trains partnered with McCann Australia to create a comedic video about train safety called “Dumb Ways to Die.” The video was an instant hit, generating over $60 million in media impressions.

More importantly, the brand’s message about train safety resonated with the viewers and reduced rail-related incidents by 20% since the video launched.

The Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge was a great way to raise awareness for certain causes. The ALS Association launched the challenge a few years ago to increase awareness and raise funds for medical research on the condition. The challenge was simple: people would need to pour a bucket of ice water over their heads and nominate three more people to do the same.

ice bucket challenge

Celebrities worldwide started joining the movement and even challenged their famous friends to participate or donate to the said cause. The Ice Bucket Challenge hashtag became popular and gained traction across multiple social media channels. As a result, the campaign raised over $115 million in the summer of 2014 alone.

Spotify Wrapped

Spotify’s Wrapped program is an annual event where users can see a recap of their listening activity, top artists, favorite songs, and even the total duration of their listening activities in a year.

Spotify users look forward to this yearly release to share their personal Spotify Wrapped on their social media accounts. Spotify saves a ton of money on promotions because the campaign naturally goes viral and only introduces new features yearly to keep users excited and reshare their content. Spotify has reported a yearly increase in mobile app ranking in app stores, up by 21%, with over 90 million engagement with Spotify Wrapped in 2020.

Always “#LikeAGirl”

The #LikeAGirl video by Always, an American brand for feminine hygiene products, challenged the way we think about common phrases used as insults toward women. The video showed that words like “you run like a girl” or “you fight like a girl” could be empowering when taken in the proper context.

The video first came out in 2014 and garnered over 65 million views on YouTube. The social awareness campaign inspired by the video helped broaden the landscape of feminism globally.


In 2018, IHOP sent the internet into a frenzy when they announced they were changing their name to IHOb without sharing what the “b” stood for. For the next few days, users took turns guessing what the letter “b” meant, while the brand took advantage of the engagement and actively interacted with their users. Eventually, they revealed that “b” stood for burgers.

There’s no denying that this campaign raised some eyebrows, but it proved to be an effective strategy. This viral marketing effort generated IHOP a whopping $113 million in earned media and dramatically increased burger sales.

Key Takeaways 

There’s no surefire way to make your content go viral, but understanding how viral marketing works and studying best practices from top brands in your industry can give you an idea of how to make it happen.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to creating viral content, but at its core, it’s all about making your content relatable and shareable for your audience.

Viral content can lead to more opportunities for your brand, such as: 

  • An increase awareness across multiple social media channels
  • Expanding reach and impressions beyond your target audience
  • Open opportunities for sponsorships and other promotional efforts
  • Boosting sales and company growth
  • Growth in engagement for your brand

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