A History Of Viral Campaigns

March 23rd, 2016 by

Viralling out of control…

It seems obvious that viral marketing has become inextricably entwined with the internet, but it may surprise you to learn that this concept has been with us for over two decades. Early examples of viral marketing pre-date mass adoption of the internet, having been pioneered in the mid-1990s as advertising agencies realised ideas or slogans could spread among society like viruses. Britvic’s Tango Man campaign was among the first adverts to deploy viral characteristics, with dynamic visuals and quotable soundbites leading to elevated public awareness and a million playground imitations.

Media analysts and Harvard graduates soon identified viral marketing as a concept whereby exposure to something encourages that person to pass it on to those around them. The internet provided a perfect platform for sharing and commenting, and campaigns with modest budgets or humble origins could become global phenomena as social media grew in the Noughties. Twitter and Facebook directly ensured the success of UK campaigns as diverse as Evian’s dancing babies, Red Bull’s space jump and Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty sketches.

To qualify as viral marketing – as opposed to simply going viral – there must be a deliberate intention to create a campaign. Fenton the dog went global by dint of his deer-chasing antics, but there was no ulterior motive behind that infamous video. By contrast, over 82 million YouTube viewers have watched Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two reversing Volvo lorries. The beauty and theatricality of the finished video ensured global recognition and a trailer full of awards, while generating priceless advertising for the product.

Viral marketing doesn’t necessarily require a huge budget, and some of the most successful campaigns have been produced on a shoestring or even self-propagated by the public. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a fine example of this, raising over $100 million for motor neuron disease via homemade videos, and gradually escalating involvement by celebrities. Despite being charitable rather than commercial in its outlook, this demonstrates how a simple idea can elevate almost anything into the public consciousness.

To ensure a viral marketing campaign succeeds, it needs a degree of visual drama that will appeal to the 16-35 year olds who are most active on social media. Through comments and file-sharing, these people will generate a degree of publicity that a national multi-platform advertising campaign couldn’t hope to accomplish. There is also a degree of cynicism towards advertising that doesn’t extend to word-of-mouth recommendations or social media posts. If a close friend comments on an advert with a handsome man talking about how amazing he is (Old Spice), or retweets a video of people convinced the floor of their lift is collapsing (LG), that will resonate far more than any magazine advert or radio jingle.

As the significance and value attached to viral campaigns has grown, so has the industry around them. Summits have been held on viral marketing, where insiders discuss social networking potential algorithms and the optimal time to seed new campaigns. Everyone wants to create the next Dumb Ways to Die – an animated safety video by Australia’s Metro Trains that became a global phenomenon. Dumb Ways to Die spawned two popular games, an insanely catchy song and 122 million YouTube views, receiving awards from around the world. Indeed, given the continuing success of viral marketing campaigns, it’s surely only a matter of time before this niche industry gains its own annual awards ceremony.

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