Viral Marketing: The Definitive Guide (2019)

This is the complete guide to viral marketing in 2019.

In this new guide you’ll learn:

  • How to launch viral campaigns from scratch
  • How to make viral videos
  • Helpful tools, strategies and pro tips
  • Lots more

Let’s dive right in.

Viral Marketing

Chapter 1:Viral Marketing Basics

Viral Marketing Basics

In this chapter we’ll cover the basics of viral marketing.

(Including what it is and how it works).

So if you want a quick overview of why things go viral, this intro chapter is for you.

What Is Viral Marketing?

Viral marketing is a marketing practice that leverages network effects and word-of-mouth promotion.

Put another way:

Viral marketing is an approach designed to get others to share your product for you.

In other words, traditional marketing is where you blast your marketing messages to a group (like with TV commercials).

And viral marketing is where you encourage other people to spread your product or service.

That said, in the real world most products don’t have a realistic chance of going viral.

And if you’re in that spot, you need to create a piece of viral content instead.

(More on that later)

Benefits of Viral Marketing

So you might be wondering: why bother with viral marketing at all? Aren’t you better off sticking to traditional marketing approaches, like online advertising and SEO?

To be clear: going viral isn’t going to replace traditional marketing anytime soon. But it’s a great way to complement what you’re already doing.

Specifically, here are the top 5 benefits that your business can see from a successful viral marketing campaign:

  1. Increased brand awareness
  2. A spike in website traffic
  3. More leads and sales
  4. Decreased marketing costs (viral content is WAY cheaper than ads)
  5. Increased connection with existing customers

Why Things Go Viral

I recently teamed up with BuzzSumo to learn why things go viral.

Backlinko and BuzzSumo – Why things go viral

Obviously, it’s impossible to quantify exactly why certain content gets shared more than others. There are a million variables involved. But this industry study at least gives us an idea of what traits viral campaigns tend to have.

So: what did we find?

First, when it comes to blog content, longer content gets significantly more shares than short articles.

Longer content gets more shares

Although we didn’t find a big difference in terms of publishing days, content published on Sunday seemed to do best.

Content published on a Sunday does best

We also discovered that longer headlines (14+ words) tended to get a higher than average number of social media shares.

Long headlines are correlated with increased social sharing

Our last finding was that people LOVE lists. In fact, list posts generate more shares than any other type of content (even video).

List posts get a high level of shares

So yeah, interesting stuff. And now it’s time for our next chapter…

Chapter 2:How to Create a Viral Campaign

How to Create a Viral Campaign

In this chapter you’re going to learn how to create a viral marketing campaign from scratch.

So if you’re ready to get started on your first campaign, you’ll love the actionable tips in this chapter.

Let’s get started.

Find a Hot Topic

Your first step is to find a topic that people will WANT to share.

In other words:

A red hot topic that people are already talking about.

Why is this important?

Well, most products and brands that go viral leverage an existing trend.

For example, this Squatty Potty video went viral (it currently has 36 million views).

Sure, the video is professional. And funny.

But the REAL reason this video did so well is that it piggybacked on the emerging interest in gut health.

If this same video came out in 2012 or 2013, people wouldn’t have been ready for it.

The question is:

HOW do you find these hot topics?

First, use Google Trends.

Google Trends - Search

Google Trends shows you hot topics (actually, keywords) that people are searching for in Google.

To use it, just enter a broad topic that describes your brand or product.

Google Trends - Search for

Then, scroll down to the “related topics” and “related queries” boxes.

Google Trends –

This shows you hot topics related to the keyword you just typed in.

You can also use BuzzSumo’s Content Research feature.

In my experience, this tool is actually better for finding hot topics than Google Trends. But I actually use both.

Anyway, all you need to do is search for a few keywords related to your business. Then, look at what types of content gets the most shares.

For example, if you search for “Keto” in BuzzSumo, you’ll notice that contrarian content (“’No One Should Be Doing Keto Diet’ Says Leading Cardiologist”) and recipes (“Keto Chicken Quesadilla”) tend to do best.

Contrarian content example

Don’t Make it “Salesy”

Should your content relate to your product?

Of course.

But it’s important to keep in mind that your viral campaign isn’t a traditional advertising campaign. There shouldn’t be a logo, slogan or other traditional marketing assets.

Instead, the focus should be on creating something cool that people will WANT to share.

Let’s look again at The Squatty Potty video I mentioned earlier.

This video 100% relates to the product. But it’s also educational and funny.

Squatty Potty collage

They only show the product about halfway through the video.

Squatty Potty video

And even then, they only talk about the product itself for a few seconds. Then, it’s back to hilarious content.

Use Data

Viral videos aren’t for everyone. For example, if you sell something boring like B2B supply chain software, it probably doesn’t make sense to make a funny video.

That’s where data comes into play.

Data is a SUPER underrated way to get shares and targeted traffic.

For example, my business is an online education company. It’s a pretty small niche. Which means that there’s no point in making a funny video that’s designed for a large audience.

Even if that video DID go viral, it wouldn’t get in front of my target audience of marketing professionals.

So instead of funny stuff, we focus on data-driven content that our audience is interested in.

Data-driven content

It may not rack up millions of pageviews, but we do go viral in our small niche.

For example, this search engine ranking factors analysis we did racked up over 8k social shares.

Search Engine Ranking Factors post

And brought in a flood of traffic from blogs, news sites and social media.

Flood of traffic

Chapter 3:Viral Marketing Examples

Viral Marketing Examples

Now it’s time for the fun stuff: real life examples!

In this chapter I’m going to breakdown 4 successful viral marketing campaigns. I’ll reveal why they worked… and how you can replicate their success.

Let’s kick things off with our first example…

Purple Mattress’ Egg Drop Test

This video (which has 55 million views to date), Purple Mattress dropped a guy onto a bunch of eggs held only by a mattress.

Purple Egg Drop Test video

This 2018 video combined multiple factors that make content go viral:

  • Humor
  • Intrigue
  • Data
  • Emotion

But this video also has something that your viral campaign doesn’t NEED… but it helps.

I’m talking about controversy.

That’s because lots of people pointed out flaws in the way this “study” was conducted.

Purple Mattress flaws video

This wasn’t anything that derailed the video. But it was just controversial enough to drive up interest.

Takeaway Lesson: As long as you nail the fundamentals, adding a touch of controversy can definitely help. This doesn’t mean that you need to take a stand on a controversial issue. But you can add a touch of controversy by doing something that sparks a conversation, like running an experiment, bucking a common practice or doing something outlandish in a boring space (like mattresses).

Dollar Shave Club’s Intro Video

When Dollar Shave Club first started, they had a problem:

How do we explain our unique service to our core audience of young guys?

You have to remember that in 2012 monthly boxes were brand new concepts. Which meant that Dollar Shave Club had to explain why people should stop picking up razors at CVS and sign up for razors-by-mail instead.

So they decided to create a video that explained what they did using lots and lots of humor.

Dollar Shave Club – Funny video

And it worked!

The video went viral pretty much on day 1. And it now has over 26 million views.

Dollar Shave Club video – Total views

But more important that views is that the video put Dollar Shave Club on the map. The brand awareness they got from that video is worth millions (even though the entire campaign cost them $4500).

Takeaway Lesson: If you have a product or service that requires an explanation, make the explanation fun. That way, people will actually WANT to learn about what you do.

Wage Needed To Rent a House Map

Maps are a SUPER underrated form of visual content.

Unlike things like videos and infographics, maps are a CINCH to make. And the right map can go viral.

For example, this simple map racked up 877.5k social shares.

Viral map

As you can see, that map isn’t going to win any design awards. But it strikes a nerve that pushes people to share it.

Takeaway Lesson: Like I mentioned in Chapter 2, data is HIGHLY shareable. And maps are a great way to package that data for maximum shares. That’s because people that live in places on the map (or know people that do) will want to share your map.

Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches Campaign

This single video has racked up 68 MILLION views.

Dove

How is this possible?

Well, Dove hit on multiple emerging trends: new ways to define “beauty”, confidence and a focus on self-care.

And the video wasn’t some fluff piece that said: “All women are beautiful in their own way!”.

Instead, this video is a touching piece of content that increases high-arousal emotions.

And, according to a study by Sorbonne University, emotional content is more likely to get shared (and therefore go viral).

Harvard Business Review – Emotional content

Takeaway Lesson: This campaign worked because it was highly EMOTIONAL. And considering sharing is an emotional decision, pushing the right emotional buttons can help your content spread. This sort of thing is not easy to pull off. But as you just saw, when it works, it REALLY works.

Chapter 4:Advanced Tips and Techniques

Advanced Tips and Techniques

Now that you have a handle on the fundamentals and have seen real life examples of viral marketing in action, it’s time to go advanced.

Specifically, I’m going to show you a four advanced strategies that will increase the odds that you go viral.

Promote in Communities

So you just created something that you’re SURE can go viral.

Now what?

Well, it’s time to promote your content in communities.

The exact community depends on what you’re looking to promote.

But in general, places like Quora, Product Hunt and Reddit can work well.

Community promotions examples

Obviously, you don’t want to spam these communities. That’s going to do more harm than good. Instead, you want to casually mention your content with the group.

If it resonates with that group, members will comment on your post and upvote it… which can be the initial “push” that every viral marketing campaign needs.

Use Email Outreach

Email outreach is another way to get eyeballs on your content.

I have a complete guide to outreach here.

Blogger Outreach post

But as a quick summary, you want to target people that are SUPER interested in your content.

For example, let’s say you just published a video about The Paleo Diet. Well, you’d want to reach out to bloggers that write about Paleo. Simple.

Targeting the right people is 90% of the game.

The other 10% is sending people personalized, non-spammy messages.

In other words, you want to avoid stuff like this:

Spammy personal email

Here’s an example of a GOOD outreach email:

Good outreach email example

Focus On Video

As you saw from the viral marketing examples in Chapter 4, videos are PRIMED to go viral.

So if you’re deciding between different formats, definitely go with video.

There are two reasons that videos tend to work better than blog posts, infographics, ebooks… and pretty much anything else.

First, videos are highly emotional and highly visual.

Videos are highly emotional and highly visual

Two things that are HUGE for going viral.

Second, YouTube videos can spread naturally on the platform.

YouTube videos can spread naturally on the platform

In other words: your videos can spread on YouTube without you needing to hustle for every view. You still need to give your video that initial push.

But if people start to watch, like and share your videos, YouTube will start to promote the video on its platform.

Make Sure Your Campaign Is In-Line With Your Product

For example, IBM’s “A Boy and His Atom” video is closely tied to computers.

As an example of what NOT to do, The North Face recently defaced Wikipedia in an effort to get higher Google rankings.

North Face Wikipedia campaign

Then, in a lame attempt to go viral, they bragged about it.

Needless to say, gaming Wikipedia is not in-line with The North Face’s brand.

Chapter 5:Viral Marketing Case Study

Viral Marketing Case Study

In this chapter I’m going to show you how one entrepreneur used viral marketing to generate 17,584 unique visitors to a brand new website.

In one day.

And he accomplished this despite having:

Zero connections.

Zero Twitter followers.

Zero marketing budget.

Here’s the exact step-by-step process that he used.

How Chris Gimmer Generated 17,584 Visitors
(In One Day)

Chris Gimmer is the founder of BootstrapBay, a new marketplace for themes built using the popular web development framework called Bootstrap.

Bootstrap Bay

Make no mistake:

The Bootstrap theme niche is REALLY competitive with dozens of entrenched competitors.

It gets worse:

Chris wasn’t some hotshot startup founder with years of experience under his belt.

In fact, Chris recently left his 9-5 gig in the finance world to launch his startup.

Despite those setbacks, Chris launched a campaign that brought in 17,584 visitors in one day to his brand new site.

Chris Gimmer – Traffic spike

Companies like Blendtec, Old Spice, GoPro and Dollar Shave Club all created viral videos that have generated millions of views.

Thanks to their videos going viral, brand awareness and sales shot up like a rocket…

…and never went back to square one.

And it was a similar story with Chris’s campaign.

Before the massive traffic surge, BootstrapBay was averaging around 150 visitors per day.

Now they average over 2000 visits per day.

Chris Gimmer – Daily traffic stats

Bottom line: A single viral marketing campaign can make a huge long-term difference in your site’s traffic.

With that, here are the steps that Chris used.


Step #1: Find Content With a Proven Track Record of Success

One day Chris stumbled upon a post on Medium.com called, “Stock photos that don’t suck”.

Stock photos that don't suck

Despite being a bland list of links to stock photo sites, that Medium.com post racked up an impressive number of social shares.

After reading that Medium.com post, Chris thought to himself:

“If that list of links got people that excited, what if I made something way better?”

Which leads us to our second step…


Step #2: Improve On The Content That You Find

Here are the techniques Chris used to dramatically improve the base content he found:

1. He turned the content into a full blog post with an introduction, body and conclusion

The Medium.com article lacked the meat that makes a blog post great.

In fact, it was really just a list of links:

List of stock photo websites

Chris rounded out his content with a strong intro and conclusion that made his blog post feel more like, well, a blog post.

Chris Gimmer – Strong introduction

2. He indicated which license each website used

People love to share insanely useful stuff.

Believe it or not, but creating something super-useful isn’t that hard.

You just need to give your content that extra umph that most people are too lazy to add.

Case in point: Chris’s post.

Chris told people the exact license each free stock photo site had:

Exact license for each source

3. He added sample pictures from each resource

This made his content much more visual.

Sample photos for each source

Adding images seems like a no-brainer. But a fair share of “here’s a list of free stock photo sites” articles don’t feature images (including the Medium.com post).

At this point, you’re probably wondering:

How long did all these improvements take?

Chris must have handcuffed himself to his laptop and worked non-stop for 87 days.

Actually… it took Chris a grand total of 6-hours to create his epic resource.

Here’s the breakdown of those 6-hours:

  • 1.5 hours to search the web for additional resources
  • 1 hour to determine which license each site falls under
  • 1.5 hour to gather all the pictures
  • 2 hours to write the post and put it all together

So at this point Chris had an epic piece of content live on his site.

But with no following and no connections, how could he possibly go viral?

Well that’s where step #3 of this process comes into play…


Step #3: Promote Your Content

I mentioned this back in Chapter 4…

If you want your content to get results, you can’t rely on the ol’ “Publish and Pray” approach.

Instead, you need to promote it.

How did Chris promote his content?

I’m glad you asked…

First, Chris submitted his post to a place that his target audience hangs out.

Web designers make up a huge chunk of Chris’s target audience.

And where do they hang out?

The web design sub-reddit on Reddit. So he decided to share his content there.

As you can see, his Reddit thread quickly racked up 181 upvotes:

Reddit thread upvotes

Upvotes are great and all… but what about TRAFFIC?

That single Reddit thread drove 2,168 visitors to Chris’s content overnight:

Next, Chris submitted his content to a bunch of web designer communities.

Chris realized that the web design subreddit was just one of MANY places that his target audience hung out.

So he submitted his content to web design communities, like LayerVault.com (basically GrowthHackers.com for web designers):

Chris Gimmer – Blog article

That single LayerVault submission has brought in 1,915 visitors:

Chris Gimmer – Layervault traffic

Conclusion

Conclusion

That’s it for my complete guide to viral marketing.

Now I’d like to hear from you:

Which campaign from today’s guide was your favorite?

Chris’s stock photo campaign? Or are you a big fan of The Dollar Shave Club video?

Either way, let me know in the comments section below.

70 Comments

  1. I think this case study sums up all your techniques we’ve be getting in your newsletter recently. Like a Cherry on the top!

    Great insight again Brian, it’s amazing; I’m getting some ideas as I have some stuff ready to go viral. :))

  2. Using this methodology, I was able to significantly increase traffic and got a ton of shares on social media. D&B actually tweeted our article on 101 Small Business SEO Tips. Thanks for the great content ideas!

  3. Hey Brian – question – for a newbie, how do I go find out how many monthly searches are being conducted on certain search terms I’m curious about?

    That info/tool would be very helpful to me as I consider a new launch. Thank you!

  4. Brian,
    This looks great and I am probably going to have to read it more than once to get everything. One thing I keep having to remind myself: you can pick a topic that is not directly related to your product/service but interesting to your audience. Prior success is the most important part, not how closely a particular article topic might relate to what you do. So, bootstrap themes –> finding free stock photos. Or, building backlinks –> google ranking factors. Anyways, thanks for writing. This is great stuff!!

    1. Definitely, Gordie.

      That’s one of the #1 questions I get: “How can I write content for my niche if it’s not interesting”.
      As you pointed out, the answer it: “Don’t”. There are plenty of related niches ripe for the taking.

  5. Hey Brian,
    I noticed there was no mention of email outreach to others that have linked to similar content, did you leave that out on purpose or did he simply not do that?

  6. i have been reading your content for months – love it! but what about ultra niche products/services in limited geographic markets? i’m dealing with very very low search volumes and no meaningful social sharing. which of your strategies do you suggest for folks like us?

    1. Thanks Alex 🙂

      In that case you want to create content that appeals to a larger audience. There’s no law that says your content has to be super-related
      to what you sell. So for example, let’s say you sold lawnmowers in Texas. You could create Skyscraper Content about gardening, DIY, lawn care etc.

  7. Hi Brian. Grade “A” article ! Based on your case study, it works well in english that for sure but what about other languages ? I’m running a website in “french” with a brand new domain name (DA:14) and when I run the step1, the number of shares or social impact are really really low compared to a website written in english. In your example Chris got +200k FB share, the max I can get is approx. 1.500. I think the overall trafic and shares impact will be really low ? What do you think ?
    Should be good to have an other case study for languages different than english ! You see me coming right ? 🙂

    1. Good question, Lio. You may not get as many social shares and links. But there’s less competition so you don’t
      need as many to rank.

  8. To add to your insane comment-fielding workload – what about companies (or clients of mine) in the B2B space? One of my clients is a sewage treatment plant company, for example… I don’t imagine communities form around those sorts of things online!

    1. Zak, every niche has an opportunity of some kind. You just have to be creative. There’s ton of great content you could create for people to help with their septic systems, plumbing etc.

  9. Brilliant post, Brian, that’s simply bonkers! I think these viral moments are what build a lot of sites. BuzzFeed, for example, have had their fair share of BIGGIES which I think further increased their incline upwards.

  10. I’ve started and stopped so many personal blogs before simply because I experienced burnout after the initial 1 week blogging high. I would get writers block and quit.
    But just going through the Buzzumo step here I found over 10 article ideas that I’d be stoked to write about!

  11. You writing style is so engaging and entertaining! I thought the indents and ellipses were cheesy at first, but it really made me want to keep scrolling along. I found your post very helpful, and I’ll be sure to send it along to my fellow members of the writing department here at Tek Shouts! Thanks, Brian!

  12. Learned a lot! Thanks Brian! Glad someone referred me to your blog. This will definitely help me in my business. Looking forward to your newsletters 🙂

  13. Impressive that he just created a simple solution to a real problem for web developers and they went crazy for it. I’ve searched for free stock photo sites and they do seem lackluster and reading up on all the licensing info is time consuming. He put together the right fix to the issue, with a sweet high quality email photo package and the people loved it!

    Great article and site, thanks 🙂

    1. Michael, that’s true. Sometimes people overthink content. Sometimes half the battle is putting out something extremely useful.

  14. Awesome post. Not sure how I landed here as I was searching for “sumome image sharer” case study.

    I clicked through cause I know your name.

    This is truly the way to go with modern day SEO and falls into the basket of create a business that offers more and costs less. Works 100% of the time.

    I think that your example is great, it highlights in many ways why this will work and is a perfect example that is somewhat easy to excecute.

    I think that you should put more emphasis on the fact of finding a piece of content that is bland, really mediocre with a huge amount of shares! This is actually the hardest part, the rest is pretty simple. Luckily I know where to start looking for some So So content with a lot of shares 🙂

    Thanks really great food for thought.

  15. Brian, you are a long ball hitter when it comes to free traffic. Thanks for the great information. I would love to read about how you micro target the target “crowd” for a specific post.

  16. Hi Brian,

    Great post to read, love your writing and recommendations. So far my highest number of visitors happened just a week or so ago when I had a 3 line mention in the NY Times. Don’t laugh, just 531 visitors and that has tailed off sharply.

    Question: I have one post about specific exercises to lose weight and fight depression that is the main driver of what little traffic I do get currently. Is that common for a site to have one or just a few posts that get the most traffic? And in that case, does it make more sense to see if I can improve and market that content? I believe I first read or heard of you from the smartpassiveincome podcast and when I did start to muck around with my page title and that specific post, I messed up and actually lost rank position, I think I need to see if I can apply your skyscraper technique to my own best post without losing rank. Thanks again for your detailed guide.
    Sincerely,
    Richard

    1. Richard, a NYTimes mention is nothing to sneeze at. Yes, that’s common but you want to have several bringing in traffic for you. #scaleup

  17. Shared, Tweeted and Liked!
    Fan-frick’n-tastic post Brian, once again blazing the trail with case studies that provide genuine value to others. Stellar as usual my friend.
    Only thing I’m wondering now, is if the WordPress theme space can take a double whammy if we try the same with our new framework…

    Hmmmmn…. to be continued… 😉

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey. The stock photo angle may be a bit saturated (I’ve seen A LOT of people using that since this article came out). Fortunately, there are lots, lots more out there.

  18. I have read this twice and printed some of the other posts too! I am just starting out in the blog world and I have been doing my market research. I am so happy I decided to work backwards! I am learning the important stuff first. I have already used some of your techniques to see what topics in my niche need a little skyscraping with a bit of me squeezed in for pizzazz! I mean I am cracking my knuckles and having a great time just looking for topics! I’ll be back to share my success very shortly.
    Thanks again!

  19. This is gold right here. Bookmarked! Actually I have been using almost all platforms you mentioned. The rewriting viral content is super brilliant. I’m glad I came across this today.
    Thank you!

  20. Hey brian!

    Ive done this on a smaller scale for other people, but Im just now doing this for myself! Ill let you know how it goes! Im really excited!

    Keith

  21. You know many adverts and soap programmes on television tend to show us Brian’s as not being that clever – Brian in Confused.com for example and some soap star’s who played the role of Brian like in Coronation Street.

    But here in the real business world if your name is Brian Dean, the people better start taking you seriously. This article you have written is first class. I think many of us here who are hanging out with you and reading the article may be delivering Search Marketing Services to business owners.
    And so, I tell you what – that is exactly what I am going to do – make my business clients read this. Why?
    Because business owners, especially those in the Small Business Community do hire people like us, but also try to do the DIY bit to keep their service cost down.

    But the problem is that many of those people are ‘dabblers’ and don’t really know what it takes to market their website and create pages that will engage the customers they want. This process Brian you have put together really maps out how to publish a web page that will convert.

    The biggest problem for those small business owners is they can’t think like a journalist, yet they want an all singing all dancing website they can edit themselves. I think this article of yours will teach them to become better page editors and lead them to squeeze more out of their landing pages and their websites. Business owners need to be educated if they are to achieve what I call OnlineXcellence!

  22. Hello,
    First of all want to say your article is awesome. I read each and every step very carefully and also will implement all these strategies.
    But, my question is how you find targeted audience for particular category ?

  23. OMG, this is the best resource for generating traffic that I have found! I can’t thank you enough for the detailed and thorough information you’ve provided!!! I’m excited to see how well I can do.

  24. You know Brian what I like the most about you.
    You are genuine and the funny part is your so long post never bores me like my books do. I can read all your articles no matter where I am seating because you always tell about your experience. I had become a fan of yours from last one year and you wouldn’t believe after that I made a huge money and readers from Online blogging. Thanks a lot Bro 🙂

  25. I originally read this post several weeks ago. We put a content strategy plan together for a client and I thought it would be a good idea to come back and make sure I add a lot of these strategies to it. It is easy to come to Backlinko for strategy ideas because there is always a case study to back it up. Thanks for sharing Brian

  26. This is awesome because you actually gave specific, actionable steps that I can take and follow with own business. I read a lot of blogs that are vague and supposedly helpful, but in reality they don’t teach you anything you can actually, specifically DO to see results. Thanks for this! Off to start researching..

  27. Brian,
    Great article, and super easy to follow along.
    Question – do you push every single new blog post to your email list, or is that done selectively?

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