Viral Marketing Campaigns 101

      Viral marketing can be defined as a digital strategy that allows users to market to each other through the sharing of a company’s promotional material on social platforms. While this appears to be a simple and cost-effective marketing solution for any firm, the successful execution of this technique is very difficult in practice. When done correctly, a viral marketing campaign causes a chain-reaction that is driven by word-of-mouth (Kostić, Jovanović-Tončev, Džamić, & Knežević, 2015). This extraordinary impact is logical when the recent transfer of consumer influence power to social media influencers is considered, as discussed in class. However, what truly guarantees the success of a viral marketing initiative? How can a marketing professional, who is expected to quantify the ROI for their projects ensure their idea will be widely spread across social platforms by users?

      First of all, it must be established that there is no single strategy that will work for all companies. In fact, viral marketing initiatives are not always the best choice. The first step is thus to determine whether this type of campaign aligns with the firm’s goals and desired brand image. If used incorrectly, viral marketing has the potential to harm the company’s reputation, making it a risky tactic. With very little research available, especially concerning the relationship between persuasion by influencers and the responses of recipients in online social platforms, this area of marketing must be approached carefully (Subramani, & Rajagopalan, 2003).

      Steve Olenski, in his article for Forbes, emphasizes the importance of “emotional resonance” and suggests an “offbeat view of the times” focus for viral marketing initiatives (Olenski, 2015). In other words, it is critical that the campaign plays on individuals’ emotions in order for them to remember the ad and share it with their network. The author’s second suggestion presents an even more difficult challenge because it requires addressing a controversial topic in an ethical and respectful way.  A recent example of this going wrong is Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner. While this campaign certainly did go viral, achieving 1.6 million views on Youtube in 48 hours, the message that the video sent resulted in serious backlash from the public (Watercutter, 2017).

The most controversial segment of the ad: Kendall Jenner hands a Pepsi to a police officer.

      Pepsi proceeded to apologize, stating that the intent was to promote peace and unity, and pulled the ad. Admittedly, the campaign did result in online conversations about the brand, demonstrating a classic instance of all publicity being good publicity. In fact, as illustrated in the graph below, Pepsi’s worldwide Google searches were at their highest after the ad was launched, when looking at the last five years (Gbadamosi, 2017).

Pepsi’s Google searches over five years. Source: Google

     This makes sense when the importance of creating an emotional response is considered. From a research perspective, as explained by Botha and Reyneke, consumers who experience “flow” are more likely to share it online, regardless if the content is pleasant or unpleasant (Botha, & Reyneke, 2013). As learned in class, flow can be defined as full and enjoyable immersion in an activity. For the majority of ethical consumers, there was certainly no enjoyment when it came to the advertisement itself. However, the act of protesting against the campaign and standing up for what they believe in may be considered as a type of flow. However, it is an extremely dangerous move because it further increases the unpredictability of the audience’s response. At a certain point, consumers may feel so strongly about a controversial issue that they boycott the firm. While ethical behavior is rarely a priority for companies, they do have an inherent responsibility to act appropriately. Pepsi did achieve their goal of increasing their social media presence, but at what cost? They made light of a serious issue and therefore were not upholding their ethical requirements.

      Clearly, viral marketing is a fascinating topic, offering marketers opportunities to communicate a message and form a rapid emotional connection with customers. While the current lack of comprehensive research makes it difficult to determine a recipe for success, the best way to learn about this strategy is through application. Marketers should not fear viral marketing, as long as they believe that it fits into their desired brand image and they maintain their ethical responsibility. This developing trend can bring great success to companies, and the more firms implement it into their strategy, the better researchers will be able to predict consumer reactions.

To conclude this post, I will leave you with a few of my favorite viral marketing ads:

The Always #LikeaGirl campaign:

LG’s So Real It’s Scary campaign:


Botha, E., & Reyneke, M. (2013). To share or not to share: the role of content and emotion in viral marketing. Journal Of Public Affairs, 13(2), 160-171.

Gbadamosi, T. (2017). When Pushing It Pays: How Social Media Has Made Controversy Financially Rewarding. The Market Mogul. Retrieved 12 April 2017, from

Kostić, M., Jovanović-Tončev, M., Džamić, V., & Knežević, M. (2015). Economic and legal conceptual framework of viral marketing. Marketing, 46(2), 115-123.

Olenski, S. (2015). Elements of a Viral Marketing Campaign. Retrieved 12 April 2017, from

Subramani, M., & Rajagopalan, B. (2003). Knowledge-sharing and influence in online social networks via viral marketing. Communications Of The ACM, 46(12), 300.

Watercutter, A. (2017). Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Ad Was So Awful It Did the Impossible: It United the Internet. Wired. Retrieved 12 April 2017, from


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