Koozai > Blog > Why Viral Campaigns Succeed (and Fail)

Why Viral Campaigns Succeed (and Fail)

| 10 minutes to read

Go ViralViral campaigns don’t just happen. It takes planning, strategy and a fair amount of good luck. After all, perfectly acceptable ideas can fall flat or be hijacked by an unforgiving social audience. So how can you create a successful viral campaign?

Well, the simple answer is that you can’t. Sure, there are plenty of ways in which you can improve your odds of success – but nothing can be guaranteed. Every good viral campaign starts with a great idea; without a waterproof concept, you’re already fighting a losing battle.

So what Constitutes a Good Idea?

By its very definition, a viral campaign should be shareable. Therefore, it requires something that the wider world will find entertaining or be compelled to interact with. Injecting humour into a humourless subject can work; however, it can just as easily backfire.

As many stand-ups, writers and TV producers have found to their cost, being funny isn’t easy. What is funny for one person is quite the opposite for another; so viral marketers (as I’m sure they are called somewhere) need to either be completely off-the-wall or play it safe and aim for the highest percentile. Demographics and other technical mathematical equations can be just as important as delivery.

More often than not, a good idea is born out of innovation, not duplication. If you’re meandering down a well-trodden path, chances are your intended audience will be less engaged and more likely to ignore the message. Lethargy and indifference are not bywords of a successful content marketing campaign.

But this is all just empty rhetoric; after all, what does ‘innovation’ really mean, what does any of this actually mean? That’s the joy of attempting viral marketing, there are usually more questions than answers and your chances of failure are eminently higher than any risk of success.

There is no blueprint, and I think that is probably the hardest thing for most companies to swallow. When you invest in advertising or marketing, you want to know what you’re going to get back out of it. Due to the unpredictable nature of viral campaigns, any projections are likely to be little more than semi-educated guesswork. You need to invest in the concept more than anything else and accept that it could be a damp squib.

Amazingly, there are some that sit firmly in an odd middle-ground, attracting lots of attention (good), but for all the wrong reasons (bad). Rhythm in Motion had one such slip-up, but perhaps a better (and cleaner example) comes in the form of #Waitrosereasons.

While not expressly a viral marketing campaign in the same way as say the Old Spice Man, this stripped down Twitter hashtag was promoted, shared and then cruelly hijacked. The nice folk at Waitrose (or, more accurately, their marketing team) thought it would be a good idea to encourage their customers to share their reasons for shopping at the pricey supermarket chain. Unfortunately, while some were happy to offer genuine explanations, most chose to ridicule their clientele and apparent elitism.


Most commentators would view this as a #fail; however, the media attention it garnered and a surprising split in perception may actually point to a different conclusion. Sure, I doubt the Waitrose hierarchy wanted to be openly mocked on Twitter, and pay for the privilege. But any publicity is good publicity, right?

If you were to perform a search for #Waitrosereasons on Google, you’d find north of 20,000 results. That’s more coverage than most campaigns could ever dream of receiving. The fact that I’m talking about it now, a full four months after it was first launched is probably testament to its enduring success (or failure). So if you’re looking to go viral, is ridicule an acceptable price to pay?

The Risk/Reward Factor

For some, spectacular publicity – one way or the other – is enough to justify viral marketing. If it is good or bad enough for someone to remember, then it stands a chance of being picked up and shared. The worst thing is for a video, hashtag or Infographic to simply go unnoticed. When you invest in a campaign and market it to within an inch of its life, you don’t want to see it stuck in the wilderness.

So while a slow burning campaign is always possible, particularly if it has been engineered to develop over a period of time (for instance, you might provide clues over the course of a month or have a new prize every day), often it needs an immediate impact. The more people that see it, the more people are likely to share it. One word in particular is critical: momentum.

The last thing you want is for it to plateau early on or only attract sporadic bursts of traffic. For anything to go viral, it needs to keep multiplying and spreading. While there are always going to be some dead-ends, with users ignoring or not being sufficiently interested in the message, these need to be counteracted with greater numbers of excitable sharers of content. Again, this comes back to quality and innovation.

It’s all in the Delivery

As we’ve mentioned, marketing is a numbers game. The more coverage you can achieve, the more likely a campaign is to succeed. So if you’re launching a Twitter hashtag, don’t just leave it at that. Produce a PR, promote it on your website and other social channels and send it to bloggers that might be interested. Sure, one tweet or mention can be enough, but play the percentages. Assuming that a campaign is so good that it’ll simply succeed under its own steam can be risky.

Multi-channel campaigns almost have an unfair advantage, purely because one can promote the other. Therefore, you can create a vortex of interest across different communities and demographics. Returning to the Old Spice campaign that created a stir way back in 2010, this was a good idea that traversed almost every social platform, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It later became a television advert too, providing near-total saturation (the below video has over 44 million views on YouTube, not bad for an advert).


It used the social elements of Twitter and Facebook to allow users to request tailored videos, and then the publishing application on YouTube. The result was a campaign that was seen by millions; indeed, if you search for it today, you’ll find 1.8 million results for “old spice man”. This was a brand that was generally perceived as pretty outdated. Others have enjoyed similar one-off success, including one dollar shave club (which I have to admit is not a personal favourite) and various efforts of Paddy Power.

Awareness of your Audience

So you’ve got a message and a campaign in mind, but who is it that you’re actually looking to attract? Without an audience in mind, you’re likely to struggle with appropriate targeting. For instance, is bad language acceptable or does it need to be whiter than white? Arguably, the major success of the dollar shave club is that it only went after males of a certain age; therefore it included swearing and references that the demographic would understand and relate to.

The target audience was unlikely to be offended and were also more likely to relate and share the content. Evidently this worked, with the video receiving 7.9 million views to date – not bad for a 90 second advert. Remember, everybody is different, so make sure you adapt your message so it’s tailored for your ideal visitor, not just a generic ‘everyman’.

Legacy and Influence

Short-term gains are great, but to be considered a rousing success any marketing campaign needs to have some form of legacy. Whether that’s a few thousand followers or a bucket load of ‘likes’, brand awareness and the extra influence this affords you is invaluable.

So while you might well be delighted with a temporary spike in on-site traffic, what is this worth if it doesn’t translate to a similar uptick in sales or consistent growth in visits over a number of months? It’s fair to say that a single marketing campaign isn’t likely to be enough to keep you going for years to come, but it can certainly lay the foundations. How you choose to back that up in the future is entirely up to you.

One option is to create a series of related content, whether written or as part of an interlinking set of videos. Whether it includes a central character or theme, it simply needs to be recognisable and promote a positive message. If someone chooses to piggyback off your success or even parody it, then that’s a pretty good sign that the campaign has succeeded.

Betting the House on a Viral Win

Most advertisers and marketers think they know what audiences are looking for, sometimes they even get it right. If a campaign polarises audiences, this may not be as unsuccessful as one that is simply rejected or forgotten. You only need to look at the advertisements on television to see where the divide between forgettable and memorable begins. Most are seeking that valuable gimmick, like a meerkat or opera singing insurer, but the law of averages alone suggests that not everybody can succeed.

It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it, if the concept isn’t sitting well with your audience or it doesn’t get seen by the right people, your viral campaign simply won’t register. So mixing it in with a wider strategy may be more effective than simply putting all of your eggs in a basket full of variables beyond your control.

If it’s your first attempt at going viral, maybe test the water a little. See how responsive your social audience is with smaller campaigns and outreach. Unless there is a reasonable response rate, you may struggle with the initial launch. You could even seek a little independent advice to see if the idea is workable in the first place. It could be that you’re missing something pretty fundamental – again, television adverts (particularly for job sites) are a good example of a good message gone bad.

So betting the house would be a major gamble, and not one that is always going to pay off. Unless the idea is truly ground breaking, or universally entertaining, then it may only achieve a tepid reception at best. If it is just one idea of many, then you can simply move on and try again. But if your creativity and budget ends with a single campaign – well, good luck.

I’m not sure you can learn how to market with viral success in mind. There aren’t many hard and fast rules, with much of it dependent on your ability to conceptualise and understand audience behaviour. Even if you get everything right, there’s still an element of luck involved. Indeed, the smaller your brand, the bigger this element of luck needs to be.

If you’re M&S, Old Spice or even Susan Boyle, you can get publicity in the click of a finger. With tens of thousands of followers, as well as hungry tech journalists looking for an easy story, you can just feed a campaign into the system almost without trying. Even if it’s only half decent (or even absolutely terrible) it’s likely to get noticed in some capacity. The same can’t be said for most SMEs.

But despite the warnings, the potential gains make it well worth the effort. All is not lost for smaller outfits either; as long as your idea is good enough and you have a little marketing savvy, the audience is out there and ready to gobble it up. Sure, you may not enjoy the initial push that big brands can achieve, but viral marketing isn’t always about quick getaways. They tend to grow and mature, trickling across social networks and slowly gathering momentum as they go. If it’s good enough, the campaign ought to succeed.

As always, if you have any thoughts on viral marketing or completely disagree with what I’ve said above, have your say in the comments below.

Image Source

Go Viral Key from BigStock


  1. Walter Weeks avatar

    Viral campaigns are a brilliant way to capture the attention of thousands if not millions of users. A brilliant advertising campaign via the use of viral campaigns can attract wide spread attention from users all around the world. If done successfully a clever campaign can increase the popularity of a brand and in turn can lead to an increase in sales and profits. Such new ideas in social media are another brilliant way for organisations to increase the level of business.

  2. James Perrin avatar

    Nice post Steve,

    I think you have touched on some really important factors when it comes to viral marketing. For me, the risk/reward factor needs to be considered a great deal more by both brands and marketers. Everyone wants their campaign to go viral, but do so, you have to apply a degree of risk (as you have mentioned), so is going viral really what every single company wants?

    In light if this, I would argue that smaller, much more targeted gains can be just as important for one business as a viral campaign is to another. This leads me onto your point about legacy and influence. Again, whilst it’s great to have everyone see, hear and know of your brand thanks to a successful viral marketing campaign, what’s wrong with slowly building up a brand through small gains here and there?

    As an analogy (albeit a fairly weak one) let’s compare acts on X-Factor with those who don’t have the luxury of this marketing platform. On the one hand you have these names of acts that are on everyone’s lips for a few weeks of the year, but on the other hand you have acts that slowly build their reputation gaining kudos from the right people over time. Both are forms of marketing, one quicker, one slower; but can we argue that one is more effective in the long run than the other? I think we can.

    So, whilst viral campaigns are the Holy Grail for many, my point is that long-term strategies, whereby your messages and brand grows in influence over time is just as effective. In fairness, I don’t think you were arguing to the contrary, but I thought I would add my two penneth worth.

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