Going Viral: Elements of a Successful Campaign


Last Updated on March 31, 2021

When you’re planning your viral marketing strategy, it’s important to keep in mind the basic requirements of every viral campaign. Today we’re going to take a look at important elements for success, and examine how you can use them to design and launch your own viral campaign. To build a good viral campaign, make sure your plan includes:

  • A free product or service
  • The product has to be easily transferable to another person
  • It has to be able to scale easily
  • It has to take advantage of other people’s resources
  • It has to be unique

There is a Free Lunch, and You’re Serving It


Every single viral campaign begins with giving something away. Every one. It could be an e-book, a piece of software, an instructional video, or even a few laughs, but it has to be free. And when we say free, we mean free. Not free with an opt-in or a free trial.

It has to be really free, because you’re going to encourage your customers to share it with their friends, and no one wants to tell their sister/brother that they have to sign-up for your list to get the cool thing you’re giving away.

Now that doesn’t mean you’re giving away the farm. You must remember that there is a huge gap between good and great. So you absolutely must give away great stuff. There’s lots of ways you can do that, while still leaving your customers wanting more.

For example, if you build and sell a software package that helps bloggers find free photos for use on their blog, you could offer a free version of the software that only searches one database instead of several. Or if you’ve written an e-book, you might release one chapter for free.

One thing to remember, though, is that the free product must be useful all by itself. You’re not releasing a free trial, you’re essentially building two products. One which you’ll give away and one which you will sell, and they both need to be valuable to your users. Free software that is so limited as to be worthless is not a good candidate for a viral campaign. The same is true for a chapter of an e-book that ends with a question.

Some marketers pull just this sort of trick to “force” customers to upgrade, but very often it will backfire. Customers are savvy, and they dislike being manipulated this way, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll lose sales by giving away too much information, because the opposite is actually true.

You’ll gain sales by giving away great stuff. Especially if your great stuff is easy for your users to share among their friends, family, and colleagues.

Share, Share, and Share

The second element of a fantastic viral marketing campaign is the ability of your customers to share your product with their peers. Think about the hundreds of email forwards you get in a year. That’s because people love to share great stuff. Good marketers know this and take advantage of it by providing their customers with what they want, and then they sit back and watch it spread.

Social Networks

Critical Key Performance Indicators in Social Media

Viral campaigns thrive on the Internet largely because of the social networks that exist. Ten years ago marketers had to rely on telephones and email (maybe) to get the word out about a new product or a great service. You can imagine the results were unpredictable and slow to materialize.

Today, we have dozens – maybe even hundreds – of social networks to use to get our message to the masses. But for some, that means having the opposite problem: where do you start?

For an online marketer, the first place to start is with your very own email list. These are the people who already know you, like you, and buy from you. They’re your biggest fans, and they’re the ones who are most likely to pass your great products on to their family and friends and social network.

So make sure you’re keeping them informed about the latest products you’re developing, any contests you’re holding, or any other thing that’s going on that they might want to share.

You probably have an account with several of the more popular social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. But for viral marketing to work in these venues, you have to be hanging out with the right crowd. If you use Facebook primarily for friend and family interaction, trying to launch a viral campaign there is probably not a good move.

The same goes for Twitter and Google Plus. Do you follow those in your niche, or those who are other marketers?

If it’s the latter, your niche campaign won’t have very good results here either. Instead, make an effort to follow those who share your passion for your niche, instead of those who are simply marketing their own online business.

Now if your niche is internet marketing, then you should be following other marketers, but that’s the only exception. Concentrate on following – and being followed by – those who are in your niche, but who are not necessarily selling in your niche. In other words, you want to be hanging out with the buyers, not the sellers.

For strictly social interaction, Google Plus, Facebook, and Twitter are your number one choices. If your target market is other business owners, though – say for example you sell a product aimed at accountants – you need to get on LinkedIn.

If you’re not familiar with it, LinkedIn is basically a database of business professionals in all areas of expertise. It’s similar to Facebook, but without the games and other social activities.

LinkedIn allows you to network with other professionals in your area of expertise, form groups, organize meetings, and develop a vast network of colleagues you can reach out to through private messaging or by posting status updates.

You can automate your LinkedIn updates just like you can with Facebook and Twitter, and even link your other social network accounts so everything is up to date. If your product is geared toward professionals, LinkedIn is the social network of choice.

For viral campaigns built around funny videos, great photography, comic strips, or other visual media, StumbleUpon is the social network of choice.

A combination of a social application and a bookmarking service, StumbleUpon is where you go when you’re looking for new stuff on the Internet. Just click the button on your toolbar, and you’ll be transported to the next interesting thing as determined by the choices you made when you signed up. Like animals?

StumbleUpon will serve up a random cat video or heartwarming dog story. Into sports? You might land on a video of Tiger Woods hitting a hole in one, or an ad for a new kind of practice ball.

Of course, getting your content to go viral on a social network involves more than just putting it out there and hoping for the best.

Later on we’ll discuss how you can give your campaign a virtual push to get it started, but for now, just be aware of the options available in the social networking world. Each has its own purpose and followers, so pay attention to where your customers hang out to determine the best social networks for your needs.

Learn to Use Your Friends and Their Resources

Leveraging the power of your own network is an important aspect of any successful viral campaign. Chances are some of your friends are marketers just like yourself, and chances are they’ve got mailing lists, blogs, and Twitter followers in related, complementary niches. These are powerful assets you can use when it comes to launching a viral campaign.

Here’s a short list of ways you can leverage the resources of other marketers to get the word out about your new campaign:

  • Buy ad space on related blogs
  • Guest post on related, but non-competing blogs
  • Buy ad space in newsletters in your niche
  • Offer affiliate commissions for lead generation
  • Make yourself available for interviews about your product or business

Make it Special

The final element of any viral marketing campaign is its uniqueness. The same old eBook offering the same old, seen-it-everywhere plan for planning a destination wedding isn’t likely to go viral. But add a new twist or your unique take on it, and suddenly it has potential.

That doesn’t mean you have to invent a new way to train dogs, though. It just means you have to offer a unique view. In other words, be yourself. You’ll get a lot further by giving your eBook or video or podcast your own voice than you will with simply rehashing what others have already said many times over.

Another way to add a unique flair to your content is by giving away checklists, printable workbooks, and other user-friendly features that can’t be found elsewhere. We’ll talk about that some more in the section on creating viral eBooks, but for now just remember that unique and unusual products and marketing campaigns will spread faster and farther than anything else.

You can see that all these elements go together like a jigsaw puzzle. Without all of them, the picture is incomplete, and they all rely on each other to work. Without the resources of your friends, your social networking strategy won’t work as well or be as far reaching.

Without a good product, your friends and readers won’t be likely to share it with others. Without a great distribution network, it won’t matter how good your product is, because no one will see it.


Free software lends itself quite naturally to a viral campaign. It fits all the requirements we discussed earlier for successful viral marketing – it’s free; it’s easily transferable; it’s easily scalable; it uses other’s resources; and it’s unique. Some examples of software that’s gone viral include

  • Article submission programs
  • WordPress plugins – and WordPress itself!
  • Games
  • iPhone apps
  • Browser add-ons
  • Note-taking and organizing applications like Evernote

But before you decide you want to write a software package, you need to consider the special requirements of software. First, it has to work across multiple platforms. Unlike video hosted on YouTube or a PDF file, software has the added problem of so many possible configurations of computers to deal with.

Is your end user running Windows XP? Vista? Or even Windows 97? What about the video adapter? You can see that a lot of thought has to go into the development of a large-scale software package, so it’s not something to be taken lightly.

The second obstacle to software creation is ongoing support. You can’t just throw out a piece of code and let it drift off without a support plan – not even a free piece of code. If you don’t have plans to upgrade, fix bugs, and improve your software down the road, you might be better off sticking with eBooks and videos.

What’s in it for Me?

With that said, though, software can quickly go viral and build a fantastic revenue stream for you, even if the software itself is free. Here’s a few ideas you can use to monetize free software:

  • Offer a limited functionality free version, with an up-sell to the fully functional paid version. Remember though, the free version must be useful as it stands if you hope to get a viral stampede started.
  • Sell ad space in the software itself. Evernote does this well, with one small, unobtrusive ad in the corner.
  • Use a link-back strategy to build brand awareness. This is perfect for WordPress plugins.

Distribution Channels

Distributing free software isn’t much different than distributing other forms of content. You can host the files on your own server (remember to use caution here if you plan on going viral!), host them on free file sharing sites, upload them to CNET or ZDNET or SourceForge servers, or – in the case of WordPress plugins – distribute them through the WordPress Codex.

Going Viral


Can you force a viral stampede? Probably not. But there are things you can do to give your marketing tactics a nudge that might just send them over the edge.

Great content.

This cannot be stressed enough. Without this, no matter how much effort you put into your marketing strategy, people are just not going to pass on links or eBooks or newsletters that aren’t any good. Make an effort to go the extra mile for your readers, and they’ll reward you by bringing in new customers for you.

Before we get into the specific aspects of viral marketing, what it means and how to implement it, let’s spend a little time discussing the concept of traditional marketing, what it is, how to implement it.

There is nothing ‘magical’ about the concept of marketing. Simply put, marketing is any action that puts your company or its products in the minds of potential buyers of your goods and services.

There is some magic however in successful marketing–a subtle blend of knowing your target audience and what will both be memorable and yet not overshadow the key elements that you need the target to remember.

This, of course, takes research into what the potential sales of your goods or services might be as well as understanding possible pricing margins and the profitability that is possible for the given market; the costs of marketing can’t be such that your efforts won’t pay for themselves in the long run.

Obviously the most important part of any marketing scheme is the product itself–some things sell themselves and simply need to be introduced to the public to be recognized for the value they have. Others may be necessary and life altering, but may not be clearly understood, or the value may be undermined by availability from other resources.

The next most important aspect of a successful marketing scheme is to match the price point to a level which people will pay, and which allows for enough volume of sales to maintain future advertising and development—without being so high that it encourages others to enter competition with you.

Finding a successful price point starts with looking at your customers and the market niche, then at any competitor’s current pricing models and how customers feel about those price points. If you find you could sell for half the price of existing vendors, but the public believes the price of the goods is already fair, then entering too far below current market values may cause them to believe your product is of a lower quality or has less assurance of longevity.

An excellent example of a price that is unwarranted but widely accepted is diamonds–except for the fact a diamond is one of the hardest natural substances and is as pretty as cut glass, it has very little value and is not that difficult to obtain or process. So why are they so expensive? Simply put, because the people in the business tightly control the price and help with marketing campaigns to set public acceptance of the existing price points.

Another one of the Seven P’s that is not as vital today in the Internet-driven world (but still bears thinking about) is the place—either where you will be presenting or obtaining the products you will be marketing. For most Internet-based businesses, this really boils down to the shipping model and company you will deal with to get the products to your customers. But for some, a physical retail outlet is still an important aspect of your business image and the way your company will be perceived.

There are things to consider here, too. For example, one vendor providing cheaper shipping but not enabling you to deliver without signatures can be an issue—your customers might be annoyed at having to take time off work or go to another location to obtain the product they will be anxiously awaiting. Having to arrange a schedule or fight to obtain the goods may override any excitement your successful marketing may have created.

Of course, being able to physically hand someone the product in a nice bag from a retail outlet is the ideal scenario: but today most business deal at least in part with online and magazine sales. Other options may include sales at onsite locations such as exhibitions, conventions and fairs—all of which offer the same opportunities to stand out from your competitors as a retail outlet, but mean some additional planning and thinking ahead.

The “P” for Promotion is a key attribute to marketing, and especially viral marketing–it is the aspect where you pump up the public’s knowledge and understanding of your goods or services in any manner possible. Smaller budgets mean more clever marketing approaches, but some concepts you can bear in mind that should work regardless of the amount of funds available to your campaign include:

  • Indirect approaches such as PR can be more effective than ‘above-the-line’ activities like advertising. Coverage in the kinds of publications your customers read is worth its weight in gold, so don’t be shy about approaching newspapers and magazines. Most journalists are keen to hear good stories, particularly if you make it easy for them by supplying photographs with a press release.
  • For many new businesses, local coverage may not only be easier, it may also be more effective at generating sales.
  • Know what works—look at how others in your field do it to see what kinds of promotions have been successful.
  • Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of small-scale advertising in local papers, bulletin boards, and directories such as the Yellow Pages.
  • Come up with a catchy slogan that customers can recall easily, and get involved in local community activities.
  • Consider direct mail, telesales and the Internet advertising to win new customers.

With the proper planning and a vision of exactly what you’re trying to achieve, you should be able to hit just the right promotional mix of advertising, direct marketing and public relations. In many cases, you can learn by examining how your competitors handled early promotion concepts. Just be sure not to try and copy theirs—being unique and new is a vital element of successful marketing.

Your people can be your biggest asset or your most visible deficit–even if you’re the only employee of your company, the attitude your customers see from you at all times (whether real or just perceived) has a major impact on how your business is perceived.

Ideally, you should reward existing customers in some way, and preferably a manner that your competitors do not and to provide personalized service of some kind. It can cost you between three and ten TIMES as much in advertising revenue to replace a customer who has gone to a competitor than to just keep them in the first place.

So in some cases you can come out ahead in the long run just by losing a little on a few key transactions.

One way to improve your customer relations is to welcome complaints, and to provide feedback to the customers who complain, letting them know that you value the input and what actions, if any, you are going to take based on their complaints.

If you are not making changes, explain why. Establishing that you understand their position but cannot address it for whatever reason is the least you can do—provided doing so doesn’t open you up to legal action!

Process refers to the methods and systems you have in place. These are what you utilize to deliver your products and track your customer satisfaction and sales as well as the costs, potential earnings and ongoing expenses per revenue generations.

As far as marketing is concerned, it is perhaps the most important of all aspects of running a business. This is because with improper processes in place, you can neither understand nor extrapolate your real costs and revenue generation, and may very well be running at a long-time loss despite having profits being shown on the books currently.
Some aspects that should be included in your processes should be:

  • How to track after-sales services
  • Informing customers of delivery status
  • Methods for dealing with delays and back-orders
  • Tracking and ensuring follow-up phone calls are made
  • Obtaining feedback and complaints about ongoing issues
  • Tracking orders and issues in a manner that allows easy lookup


As with most of the seven P’s of successful marketing, a great deal of time and/or money could be spent in this area, but careful thought and creative thinking can normally come up with processes that will work well and fit within most budgets.

Most of us know that the first impression of our company and products are likely to be the way our web site, letterhead, company sign or flyer appears. Not only does the appearance of these items provide an initial impression. It can also help shape customers’ overall concept of your company as they become more aware of other aspects of your appearance and the ‘tone’ of the business. There are basically three styles of design when it comes to physical appearance that impact your business, and those include:

  • Graphical designs – Covering everything from the logo and branding, to the style or ‘type’ of fonts you use, the graphical look of your company is vital to the image you will be portraying. Entire industries of graphic designers exist to help companies develop packaging, stationery, leaflets, promotional brochures, websites, corporate videos, CD and DVD-ROMs. Whether you use these or develop them on your own is up to you. Since quality and consistency are vital, this is one area that it is often well worth spending a few dollars in.
  • Product design – Everything from teapots to trains were created with the help of designers. It is not enough to fulfill a function, you need to do so in a manner that people will accept and that is also being reasonable and cost-effective to produce. A good product designer can help you here.
  • Interior design – Whether a web site, the interior of a building, or the storefront of your convention display, spending time to develop exactly the right look can set you apart from competitors, or even improve your productivity.

Check out our previous articles:

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