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  • Writer's pictureLiz Maguire

The Myth of Viral Marketing.

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Like trying to affix jello to a wall, the actual terms for a 'viral' post is hard to...nail down. Most sources define a viral post as one which is 'seen', or engaged with by many users across a platform. That's not much help when trying to plan a 'viral' marketing strategy, is it? Well that's just today's topic: How the myth of viral marketing is relative to the use case.

In this post we'll look at the definition of viral marketing, look at the developing theory on how viral marketing even 'works', and finally suggest how to evaluate your brand before deciding on viral marketing as a strategy (which it's not, for SMEs).

But before we begin...the first viral post was...?

Let's get in our time machine and travel back to 1996 together. YouTube hasn't been invented yet -- that comes along in 2005. The first 'viral' video was 'Dancing Baby', which featured a 3-D rendered dancing, diapered baby to a Swedish rock song. The video became part of a viral email thread that cemented it in the early history of the internet. We've learned a lot about marketing in the digital world since then, but perhaps not everything (yet).

What is 'Viral Marketing'?

Sprout social defined 'viral' marketing as marketing which relies on an organic audience to share and push the messaging to a broader reach. Essentially, a viral post is one which is shared quickly and trends across either the host platform or sometimes several. However, this cross platform pollination often comes a few days later as evidence indicates that viral posts might break on 'X' (formerly Twitter) or Instagram and TikTok long before it reaches an audience on Facebook.

Here's an interesting 'all rectangles are squares but not all squares are rectangles' with regards to viral marketing, for you. Are a viral post and a trending topic the same thing?


A trending topic could be a person or moment which is gathering traction on the internet. A viral post is a subgenre of a trending topic, sometimes. So, that is to say that 'all viral posts are trending topics but not all trending topics are viral posts'.

Berger's STEPPS:

There's fascinating long form research out there about the complexity of viral marketing and what makes it a success. It is even an academic niche of the marketing industry. Jonah Berger, a marketing professor out of the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of 'Contagious: Why Things Catch On'. As with all things in marketing, worry not because Berger has proposed an acronym to help explain how viral marketing works: STEPPS.

  • Social Currency

  • Triggers

  • Emotion

  • Public

  • Practical Value

  • Stories

Berger suggests that a 'successful' viral marketing campaign touches on each of the STEPPS points. It deals in social currency, in that it becomes almost a 'watercooler' topic -- 'Oh, did you see the ad for XYZ?'. It uses image and copy to build up brand awareness in the viewers mind so that they associate that word or image, with your brand. It evokes an emotion -- humor, sadness, envy, etc. -- from the viewer which prompts a response or result. It isn't political in the public sphere, in that a viewer can share or comment without 'fear' of retaliation by others engaging with the material. It can teach or share a piece of information, like a 'cooking hack' for a cutlery brand or a new way to apply eye makeup for an eyeliner company -- i.e. the viewer feels they have benefited from interacting with the piece of media. And finally, it tells a story. Perhaps the simplest -- and the trickiest of the seven points to nail especially for a static post or campaign.

When it works, it really works.

There's countless examples out there of viral marketing that became 'pop culture' moments like Red Bull's 'Red Bull gives you wings' campaign or Snickers 'You're not yourself when you're hungry'. But there are some things to remember -- such as brand size, audience, the CTA (Call to Action) -- before a viral marketing strategy becomes all the eggs in your basket.

Brand Size: If you are a multinational corporation, you might have an entire department focused on viral marketing. Because then you can afford to have another department dedicated to branding, and one dedicated to digital marketing, etc. However if you are a small operation you might consider the pros and cons of attempting to create a viral moment in a crowded marketplace. It's advisable to spend time and resources on building a digital presence that clients and customers can digest at a glance. Unfortunately, that can sometimes mean marketing that feels like 'busy work' because the results are not as electric as a one time viral post.

Audience: It's probably very unlikely that every person in the world -- or at least, online -- will need your product or service. It's better to spend the effort and energy to define your target market and direct strategic ads featuring language that speaks to their needs, to drive conversion. Viral marketing is unprecedented for brand awareness, for sure, but it does not necessarily translate to sales.

Call to Action (CTA): What do you want people to do when they see your ad or post? Do you want them to:

  • Order a featured product?

  • Subscribe to a service?

  • Follow your page?

  • Visit your website?

  • Sign up for your mailing list?

Each one of these is a directive that your viewer should take without realizing, from your messaging. A post which packs in more than one clear CTA is less than likely to 'work', or convert, because your audience won't understand what they are supposed to be doing. This is where targeted ads to specific segments of potential (and post) clients or customers can reap far more reward, when done well.

All this is not to say that viral moments don't happen for smaller brands and creators, especially those selling online. There are businesses out there that were days from closing doors when an influencer share their product and over night they had to lease a new warehouse to keep up with demand, etc. But those are the unicorns. Don't expect to be a unicorn, instead be surprised if you become one.


Viral marketing is a vague niche of digital marketing,with history in traditional marketing. There's theory developing around what drives a viral post, every day. When it works, it works really well. But before considering if your brand can go viral look at your size, your audience and your CTA for the messaging.

Get in Touch.

Want a marketing strategy built to withstand the tidal waves of trends? Talk to Litir Marketing, today.

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