History of Viral Marketing

We’ve all seen those advertisements or images on Facebook that seem to reach thousands, if not millions, of people and result in hundreds of comments, likes, and shares. Your friend shares the post, then you do, and then your friends do.

Those posts that spread like wildfire across social media networks are part of viral promotion, a form of content marketing that can be extremely successful for brands of all sizes. How did viral marketing come about? How exactly does it work? And what are some of its common aspects?

What Does It Mean to “Go Viral”?

Consider this: There are 2.5 billion people worldwide using social media, according to Statista, and an article in Forbes by Robert Wynne reports about 5 billion pieces of content are posted to Facebook and more than 500,000 tweets are sent on a daily basis.

Even though the chances of a tweet going viral are about one in a million, another Forbes article by Jason DeMers says that sharable content is key to successful content marketing. Of course, it depends on how and when the content is shared in order to increase its chances of becoming viral. Sometimes, a post can gain traction significantly, but only for a few days before losing momentum. The content needs to be something that the audience would want to share with their friends.

According to Entrepreneur, you should “think of virality as an exponential curve. If two people directly related to the brand share a piece of content, and if that number doubles 30 times, it means that over a billion people will have shared the content.”

The more shares a promotion gets, the greater the opportunity that it “snowballs into something huge.” A company needs to share its content in as many ways and in as many places as possible. If the company makes it easy for its audience to share content — through tagging, embedding, or downloading — then the chance of it going viral increases, according to Hubspot

However, content that appears to have gone viral may not produce the brand’s desired results. Much of the time, consumers barely read the content after clicking on it. In fact, 55 percent of readers actively spend less than 15 seconds on a page, according to Forbes.

Where Did Viral Marketing Originate?

Viral marketing’s roots date back to 1996, when a small startup company called Hotline needed a budget-friendly way to promote its new email service, Hotmail. Hotline’s team decided to insert the line “Get your own free Hotmail at” in all emails. The result? The number of Hotmail users grew from 20,000 to 1 million within a year. By 2001, Hotmail had 30 percent of the email market with 86 million active users. This is an example of one of the most important aspects of viral marketing: every customer involuntarily promotes a service just by using it.

However, it’s unclear where the exact phrase originated. In 1996, Jeffrey Rayport, a Harvard Business School professor, authored an article for Fast Company titled “The Virus of Marketing,” in which the term “viral marketing” appeared. However, venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson claims that it coined the term in a 1997 Netscape newsletter, using inspiration from Hotmail’s marketing strategy. In 2000, Fast Company published “Unleash Your Ideavirus,” an article focusing on the idea economy and how the “ideas that spread the fastest win.”

Regardless of its exact origin, there is no doubt that viral marketing could not survive without social networking today. During the 2000s, the major social networks launched. Facebook came to existence in 2000, and YouTube and Twitter launched in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

What Makes Viral Promotion Ideal?

As viral promotion is one of the most effective marketing tactics today, it offers many benefits for both small businesses and large corporations. One of the major advantages is that viral marketing doesn’t require a large budget. In fact, Hubspot reported that some of the most successful viral content was created with a very low budget, especially given the ability to shoot high-quality photos and videos with a smartphone.

Another considerable benefit is that when a viral marketing campaign is successful, a brand’s product or service is put in front of a new, larger audience. As the content reaches thousands of people, not only does the brand have the potential to make more money, but it can also gain a large amount of new followers, referral traffic, and even permanent links to help with its website’s search engine rankings.

A genuine viral promotion can also create loyal customer relationships. Through all the shares, likes, and tags on various social media networks, viral marketing campaigns are not considered as invasive. It’s the consumers and fans who decide to share the content, and the perception of the brand ends up being better than it would via other marketing tactics.

On the other hand, sometimes content going viral doesn’t lead to more loyal followers. The most important thing for a business’ success is loyalty, not how viral content becomes. A brand must work to build authentic connections with its audience, as loyal customers are the ones who want to stay updated on the brand’s latest news.

Successful Viral Marketing Examples

In November 2017, filmmaker Max Lanman created a commercial to advertise his girlfriend’s 1996 Honda Accord. The ad, which showed Lanman’s girlfriend drinking coffee and holding her cat in the car while driving, included some witty fine print such as “Cat and coffee pot not included” and “0% APR for qualified buyers with eBay accounts in good standing.” The video promptly went viral and has since achieved more than 6.8 million views on YouTube. While the video advertised the car for a sale price of $499, the car’s eBay auction quickly went up to $150,000 before being pulled off the site. Later, CarMax created a response video, offering the couple $20,000 for the Honda, which the couple accepted. CarMax’s own video topped 400,000 views, performing better than any of its other videos.

Another example of viral marketing is BlendTec’s “Will It Blend” campaign. In 2006, the blender company had very low brand awareness, and it created a series of videos showing the company’s CEO placing random objects into one if its blenders. Items such as an iPhone, a rake handle, a video game, and credit cards were destroyed in the blender. Within five days of being posted on YouTube, the videos had more than 6 million views, and BlendTec went from being an unknown brand to world-renowned. Additionally, their sales increased by eight times after the campaign launched.

What Many Viral Marketing Campaigns Have in Common

While there’s no guaranteed formula to make a marketing campaign go viral, there are some traits that the most successful campaigns have in common. They’re relatable to their target audience, making them feel strongly enough about the content to share it. The content may evoke emotion, be entertaining or inspirational, provide an element of surprise, or contain information that is deemed helpful. Hubspot also suggests viral marketing campaigns also have good visual strategies that tell a story and are innovative.

Content that is easy for the audience to digest also increases the chances of it becoming viral. Even though they tend to earn fewer links, the article in Forbes by Jayson DeMers mentioned earlier states, “Videos, quizzes, and list-based articles tend to get more shares than other types of content, possibly because they’re relatively quick and easy to digest.” Meanwhile, as 85 percent of content has 1,000 words or less, the remaining 15 percent, which contains more than 1,000 words, seems to earn more shares and links.

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