Is there a secret formula behind a successful viral?

A comparison that I have seen a lot of lately is that of a successful viral marketing campaign being as elusive as the Holy Grail. Indeed this is very fitting; many have tried to create a successful viral campaign and many have been lost in the search for it. When executed well a viral campaign can be phenomenal.


Glance back to some of the chief examples of 2012; Felix Baumgartner’s atmospheric plunge, Kony 2012Psy’s ‘Gagnam Style‘ and The Cambridge Satchel Co all have benefited massively from perfectly executed viral campaigns. So how is a successful viral marketing campaign created? Well, the reality is that it is impossible to give a “formula” on how to produce a viral campaign that guarantees success (despite what the flurries of internet ‘how-to’s’ say). That being said, there are certain consistent techniques that are evident in successful viral campaigns.


Brand relevance

Producing a memorable advertisement that gets shared by millions wouldn’t lead to a success for the company if it didn’t somehow have a hook that reverted back to them. Take Red Bull’s live broadcast of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from a hot air balloon from 127, 852.4 feet (phew) above the earth. While this wasn’t strictly a Red Bull advertisement, viewings of the stunt generated revenue that raised the companies value to approximately $5 billion. This was helped in part by the persona of Red Bull. It is widely recognised that Red Bull have sculpted an image of their brand as being connected to the extreme sports world. Furthermore Red Bull pour a lot of funding into sponsoring and creating event spectacles that include members of their sponsored team; which was the case with Baumgartner’s jump. So, on the surface Baumgartner’s record breaking jump seemed to be another world record breaking event however, it was a chance for Red Bull to subtly gather as much publicity as possible.


While the advertising came in more obvious forms with the Red Bull logos pasted on Baumgartner’s equipment, more subtly was the manifestation of their brand ethos. Remembering that ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ who better to sponsor a man hurtling towards the earth faster than the speed of sound than Red Bull? Through sponsoring an event relative to the brand, Red Bull managed to generate the ‘free’ publicity of 8 million live viewers left in awe after watching the event. By keeping the using a spectacle relevant to their Company persona Red Bull managed to successfully promote their brand without centring the event on themselves, the stunt did the talking for the brand and by the figures I stated earlier it clearly was a success.


Connection with the audience

A Viral campaign differs to a regular marketing campaign in a sense that a brand doesn’t use direct advertisement to gain recognition for themselves or their products. Rather a brand will adopt a more emotive connection with their audience, therefore connecting with them on the basis of igniting an emotional response and not directly answering their consumerist needs.  Therefore connection from person to person and not as a corporation is adopted;  a great example of this in action is the story of Julie Dean and The Cambridge Satchel Co. Google featured the humble story of a housewife, who in her bid to get her child out of  the school where she was being bullied decided to make traditional leather satchels and sell them. Her satchels became increasingly popular and word spread as a result of fashion blogging, thus resulting in Mrs Dean’s company growing from her kitchen with a  meagre £600 starting budget to her business being worth being worth £2.2 million; all without the need of a huge advertising campaign. The success of Julie’s company was aided by the poignant story that built the ethos of her business which led to Google employing it in one of their Chrome campaigns. Julie’s story connects with the public on an emotional level. It is a tangible story of a woman like any other who has built her success on integrity, aroused by a situation that many parents are affected by; therefore more “everyday” people wish to see it. I imagine if Julie’s YouTube video had approached the topic of her company from an angle of profit and growth then much of the “everyday” audience would not have been as interested.


Through different in its approach the Coors Light campaigns featuring Jean Claude Van Damme have also used the method of targeting audience emotion rather than consumerist needs. Coors Light adopted the 80’s action icon and placed him in on top of a mountain and delivering ridiculous lines. This advertising campaign has led to Coors Light being the most viewed beer commercial of all time; gaining millions of views and pushing the growth of Coors Light as a company by 40% in 2012.


When creating a viral campaign, companies remove the demeanour of being a “company”. These two examples demonstrate a more absurd method of advertising the products. Though product placement and traditional advertising techniques are evident, the content of the advert itself is fairly removed from a more logical manner of promoting a product. By connecting with an audience in a manner that sparks an emotive response the advertisement becomes memorable by the reaction it induced which leads to people sharing the advertisement to spread the feeling of inspiration, humor or whatever emotion was induced by it.


Keeping a successful formula

Some brands adopt a formula that has already proven successful for them; take Coca Cola for instance. In 1994 Coca Cola released the advert featuring a number of women gawping over a male construction worker. This advert became an iconic success. Coca Cola have recently relaunched a version of the campaign with a new video, but the iconic features of the original advert are still there; the concept and the famous soundtrack remain. This new advert has generated more than 70,000 shares on YouTube and is ranked on Mashable’s Global Ads Chart. In the case of Coca Cola, revamping an already successful concept in a new advertising campaign results in instant recognition and is therefore shared among people who are already familiar with it in its original context- it sparks an emotional reaction. Obviously for a brand to do this successfully they already need an iconic advertising campaign behind them that has already gained a huge audience, which is why ad’s such as don’t crop up very often.



Finally, good viral campaigns are made with the foresight of ease of sharing. If you look at one of the most successful viral campaigns of 2012 Kony 2012. Kony 2012 became the fastest growing viral ever made after reaching 100 million views in six days and an increased Facebook following of 621%. If you look at the Invisible Children website (and at the video on YouTube) you will notice there are many interactive features that allow for ease of sharing among different social media platforms. By including obvious features such as “share” and “like” actions as well as options to share over various social media platforms, companies cut out the difficulty of sharing their campaign for the audience; which results in more viewings and therefore more recognition. In the case of Kony this was aided by the celebrity recognition it received through Twitter accounts. At the heart of a successful viral campaign is it’s social reach and influence, therefore by making it easier for public broadcast companies benefit from heightened awareness which can even escalate to celebrity level.


A common misconception of viral campaigns is that their success is purely down to luck and finding the right niche. While this is true in a sense, viral campaigns are created outside of the normal realm of advertising; there is a logical approach behind them. Viral campaigns are created carefully to attract an audience in covert and clever ways, hence why only a few of the thousands of viral campaigns made ever manage to gain recognition.