Viral Marketing

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Viral marketing is using the Internet as a social network to promote a product or company through a web site, video, game, or other message spread by Internet users. The idea of a viral situation is that when a user sees the message, he or she will pass it along to his or her friends through online communication or verbal word of mouth; the message spreads like a virus and its goal is to “infect” as many users as possible (Lodish, Morgan, & Archambeau, 2007, p. 243). Viral marketing usually encourages users to interact with an advertisement in order to capture consumers’ attention in a time when they are able to choose what advertisements they want to see and when (Howard, 2005, para. 1). Viral marketing has grown in recent years due to the popularity and growth of user-generated web content, which allows viral ads to spread very quickly. Advertising Age reported that viral campaigns average 35% of their total viewership in their first week, experience 20% growth in the next two weeks, and finally settle into a steady 10% rate in subsequent weeks (Cutler, 2009, p. 42).



Reasons For Use and Audience Qualities

Since the Internet gained more widespread use in the mid-to-late-1990s, Internet memes have spread as viral content. David Meerman Scott (2007) cites the “dancing baby,” spread through e-mail, as an early example of a viral video (p. 92). Over time, advertisers realized that they could capitalize on the popularity of such memes. Sites like YouTube and MySpace allow anyone to upload their own content, which has allowed online videos to circulate very quickly among the general public, and therefore led to an increase in viral marketing. Viral marketing can be catered to most age groups, as more and more people are using the Internet and its social media. The public’s interest in new media has inspired many advertisers to use viral advertisements because people may see them as more unique and cutting-edge than traditional advertising. Burger King Chief Marketing Officer Russ Klein summed up this idea, saying, “People have grown increasingly skeptical of packaged, canned, Madison Avenue-speak” (as cited in Howard, 2005, para. 3).


Another reason for viral marketing is that it is generally cost effective; since viral content is spread by word of mouth, the people are doing much of the promoting for the company. There are no particular estimates for how much viral advertising usually costs, but most viral campaigns are not expensive., for example, has used a number of odd eBay purchases to create viral buzz. In 2006, the site bought a kidney stone passed by William Shatner for $25,000, and the story was covered by reporters and bloggers. In essence, paid $25,000 for publicity, and the money was donated to Habitat for Humanity, which put a positive spin on the situation’s image (Scott, 2007, p. 97).


The main limitation of viral marketing is that it risks making the company look bad to the customers if the viral content looks too “fake,” forced, or similar to a conventional advertisement (Scott, 2007, p. 92). In 2004, for example, the Sci Fi Channel “leaked” a story to the Associated Press that it would air a special called The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, hinting that the network had discovered a secret about the director in working with him to promote his movie The Village. Sci Fi later issued a statement saying that the whole ordeal was a hoax to create buzz, fearing a backlash over the fake news (Balter & Butman, 2005, p. 49-50). At other times, viral ads have given a company negative press because the company had its name attached to an ad, but was not aware of the ad’s content. In early 2005, a British boutique agency called Lee and Dan made a fake commercial to send to Volkswagen in which a terrorist tried to set off a car bomb inside a Volkswagen Polo, but failed because the car was so sturdy (Batler & Butman, 2005, p. 57-58). Volkswagen immediately received bad publicity for using terrorism in the ad, and its reputation was damaged until Lee and Dan admitted that it made the video.



Reach and Frequency

The reach and frequency of viral marketing are currently not measured, and the issue is currently being debated. Proponents of measurement argue that measurement would be the same as more conventional, one-way advertising, while opponents contend that reach and frequency cannot provide an accurate picture of the interactivity and pass-along factors of viral marketing (Ramsey, 2009). The World Federation of Advertisers outlined further challenges of these measurements, including the fact that online media is still relatively new, so advertisers have limited knowledge about what opportunities it can give them, and the idea that most online media have small segmented audiences, which makes collecting data from large audiences more difficult (“What Advertisers Want,” 2009, p. 2-3). However, opportunities for measuring audiences come from the ability to see when content is viewed online and the ease of feedback from users (“What Advertisers Want, 2009, p. 3).


Due to its nature of trying to create immediate buzz among consumers, viral marketing is scheduled at least fairly close to the release of the product, if not right before release. The viral campaign for Cloverfield, released in January 2008, began in July 2007 at the release of Transformers (Brodesser-Akner, 2008a, p. 58). Similarly, the campaign for The Dark Knight, released in July 2008, began in May 2007 (Collier, 2007). Burger King’s Subservient Chicken interactive site used to promote its Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwiches was launched only a few weeks before the sandwiches started being sold at the restaurants (Batler & Butman, 2005, p. 47).


Successful viral campaigns have elicited strong responses from audiences. The Subservient Chicken campaign amassed tens of millions of web hits (Terdiman, 2005). Asa Bailey of the Viral Advertising Association said that viral campaigns have the potential to net 10 times the exposure of a traditional campaign, and defined what makes viral ads work as such: “It has to have some kind of wow factor. A viral ad has to have a connection to the consumer. It has to make you laugh, make you cry, has to make you think (or) it has to say something. It's not so much about just banging on the product.” (as cited in Terdiman, 2005). The aforementioned Cloverfield made $40 million in its opening weekend—a record for a January release (Brodesser-Akner, 2008a, p. 58). The movie promotion began with a teaser trailer simply reading “1-18-08” (the film’s release date) to pique the interest of audiences, and followed with a series of web sites hinting at details about the movie’s plot (Brodesser-Akner, 2008a, p. 58). These activities allowed fans to become immersed in the marketing. Marketing for The Dark Knight took fan interactivity further with online games that required players to take actions in real life, such as a contest in which the first people to find a particular bowling alley locker found Joker bowling bags with bowling balls, Nokia cell phones, and messages to call a particular phone number (Brodesser-Akner, 2008b, p. 3-55). The film went on to be highly successful.



Other Interesting Qualities

Viral marketing also has other interesting qualities. One is that advertisers can use pre-existing viral content made by Internet users to start a campaign. In the summer of 2006, Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz of made a video in which they dropped over 500 Mentos mints into 200 liters of Diet Coke. When the video was discussed on hundreds of blogs and its creators appeared on late night TV shows, Mentos began publicly supporting the two men and using the video for promotion (Scott, 2007, p. 91-95). Another curious idea about viral advertising is the “too-hot-for-TV-online-only-video” (Luscombe, 2009). Budweiser provided a recent example with a straight-to-YouTube commercial involving a man buying beer and a pornographic magazine. The ad’s adult-oriented humor is intended to intrigue the audience (in this case, young men) into actively finding and recommending the video on YouTube (Luscombe, 2009).


Although it has only been prominent for a relatively short time, viral marketing has made a notable impact on advertising. With the rise of new media, it has become fresh and unique, as well as easily to access and pass along for users. The inexpensive costs of viral ads, compared to their potential exposure, are efficient for advertisers. Numerous companies have already shown the potential of viral marketing, and others have opportunities to think of new ways to make viral ads fun and engaging for consumers.


Viral Ad - BBH Graduate Recruitment

Sprite Viral Ad

Captain Morgan Viral Ad

Ikea Viral Ad

dove evolution

References and Links

Balter, D., & Butman, J. (2005). Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing. New York: Portfolio.
Brodesser-Akner, C. (2008a). 'Cloverfield'. Advertising Age, 79(11), 58. Retrieved October 20, 2009, from the Academic Search Complete database.
Brodesser-Akner, C. (2008). Hyping Joker--without exploiting Heath's death. Advertising Age, 79(19), 3 55. Retrieved October 26, 2009, from the Academic Search Complete database.
Collier, M. (2007, May 22). The Dark Knight Goes Viral - The Viral Garden. Retrieved October 29, 2009, from Cutler, M. (2009). How to Make Your Online Video Go Viral. Advertising Age, 80(11), 42. Retrieved October 19, 2009, from the Academic Search Complete database.
Cutler, M. (2009). How to Make Your Online Video Go Viral. Advertising Age, 80(11), 42. Retrieved October 19, 2009, from the Academic Search Complete database.
Howard, T. (2005, June 22). 'Viral' advertising spreads through marketing plans. USA Today. Retrieved October 19, 2009, from
Lodish, L. M., Morgan, H. L., & Archambeau, S. (2007). Marketing That Works. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing.
Luscombe, B. (2009, June 4). This Porn's For You: Budweiser's Racy Internet Ad. time. Retrieved October 19, 2009, from,8599,1902420,00.html
Ramsey, G. (2009, September 30). The Great GRP Debate: online audience measurement. Retrieved October 27, 2009, from
Scott, D. M. (2007). The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing, & Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Terdiman, D. (2005, March 22). Marketers Feverish Over Viral Ads. Wired. Retrieved October 22, 2009, from
What advertisers want from online audience measurement. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2009, from

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