Viral marketing is a method of online promotion relying on the word of mouth effect, building publicity from the ground up rather than through top-down advertising campaigns. It is based around producing content specifically designed to be highly shareable, most often via social media. The aim is that readers will spread the message by passing the content on within their network of personal contacts, with these contacts sharing to their own networks in turn.
It’s thought that the first use of the technique was by Sony in the mid-1990s, in an offline context, using teams of opinion influencers to spread the word about the original PlayStation. In contrast to traditional marketing and advertising of the time, the campaign leveraged the credibility of prominent members of a niche culture to generate a groundswell of authentic buzz. The technique soon became popular in the rapidly emerging online marketing arena and is now a mainstay of the content marketer’s toolbox.
The term “viral” refers to the way in which a marketing message can take on its own momentum and spread throughout a population, in a process similar to that of infectious disease transmission. The content itself can take many forms, from images to videos to plain text, but needs to provoke an emotional response in the reader that encourages them to share, whether through humor, insight, or otherwise memorable elements. The content generally contains either a very subtle marketing message or none at all, aiming to build brand awareness or buzz through widespread exposure rather than directly promoting the benefits of a particular product or service. Having a piece of content “go viral” is a difficult goal to achieve, but the rewards can be immense for relatively little cost, and so marketers with a proven track record in this field are highly sought after.