Viral marketing was a big deal in the late-90s and early-2000s.
Before Facebook and iPhones—in the days of the primordial Internet—people visited websites by typing in URLs they memorized. They shared proto-memes and weird videos using email, forums, or AOL Instant Messenger. And they didn’t go to one-stop hubs where you could scroll through a curated timeline and find everything at once. It was the wild west, where brands used “viral” marketing tricks on a new digital medium where it felt like anything was possible.
For one famous example, Microsoft created “I Love Bees”, a puzzle game that lured thousands of users across mysterious, interconnected sites that eventually revealed the Halo 2 video game. Gamers solved clues and followed breadcrumbs, unaware at first that they were part of a marketing campaign.
By 2006, easy-to-access platforms such as YouTube allowed brands like Blendtec to produce short, silly, and instantly shareable videos. Since then, they’ve gained one million subscribers and over 50 million total views.
And in 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge, which had people film themselves dumping cold water on their heads and then nominating a friend to do the same, raised over $200 million for organizations fighting Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Viral marketing can lead to huge gains and massive media exposure for a brand or cause. But is this style of marketing still relevant in 2019? Well, it depends on how you view it.
Thanks to the spread of smartphones and social media, it has become exceedingly easy to follow the latest trends. However, that also makes it increasingly difficult to stand out in the minds of those bombarded with tons of daily content. On Monday, the president’s latest weird tweet is the main character in the news cycle. On Tuesday, it’s a comedian fumbling some non-apology (then landing an ad gig). By Wednesday, it’s a shaving gel company tackling toxic masculinity.
How do you create something viral in this kind of fast-paced environment?
Our advice: Don’t stress over “going viral”.
Instead of aiming to create a virus (hehe), shift your goal and cultivate a loyal following through word-of-mouth marketing, an approach still very much in use by brands today. While similar, there’s a subtle distinction between “viral” and “word-of-mouth.” The former is made with the intent of immediately infecting users with exciting content.
Meanwhile, word-of-mouth marketing involves creating emotional, striking content and then letting it grow organically. Don’t be passive, though—you should still be actively distributing your content through the appropriate channels.
To really stay top of mind with a natural, word-of-mouth approach you should:
- Narrow down your audience into a specific segment of potential followers.
- Create emotional, shareable, and timely content that humanizes your brand so it’s more than just a logo.
- Ensure the content is easily visible, easy-to-understand at a glance, and attention-grabbing.
- Study what the conversations and pain points are, and then fill in the gaps with solutions.
Strike gold, and your campaign will result in:
- More media exposure from online and traditional publications.
- An increase in engagement across your social channels, including spikes in likes, comments, and, of course, shares.
- Gradual development of a loyal following which could lead to more conversions and lead generations.
- Marked increase of your brand value.
It’s difficult to suddenly create a viral sensation, and it’s even more difficult if you’re a B2B company in niche fields such as plastics or software-as-a-service. Are you going to create content that everyone and their grandmother will share? Probably not.
That’s why it’s a good idea to narrow your focus, take the points mentioned above, and target the audience within your niche. You may not appear on the front page of BuzzFeed, but you will more likely get picked up by industry publications and the influencers calling the shots within your sector. In the long run, that’s the more important outcome when it comes down to successfully hitting your business ojectives.