The sought-after viral campaign islightening-in-a-bottle in the world of marketing. But if you are serious about attempting a viral campaign, it is important to understand the process behindsuccessful ones. Like everything in the marketing world, there is a specific approach to going viral: anapproach based entirely in strategy.

According to marketing professor Jonah Berger, the science behind a viral campaign can be laid out in simple to understand steps. As the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger spent years of research to compile the six key drivers of any successful campaign. To do this, he used the acronym STEPPS:

Social currency (sharing what makes us look good), Triggers (understanding that we talk about things that are top of mind), Emotion (the viewer’s individual mood or emotional attachment to topic), Public (imitating what we see others do), Practical value (information we can use), and finally Stories (the information passed on with idle conversation).

Three Important tips to consider:

  1. Be Brave; take a risk. All too often we see a successful campaign go viral only to find ten other businesses following suit.  Be a leader in your marketing, not a follower.
  2. Timing is everything. All strategy should be based with a timeline in mind. With that being said, major unannounced events do happen.  This is a significant portion of your risk, as a lot of this comes down to luck.
  3. Emotion is crucial.Although the easiest emotion to appeal to is humour, any emotional response is effective in viral marketing. Humour works best as it disarms the audience and allows the message to be heard.

Great Examples

In 2010, Old Spice created a viral campaign that defined its marketing for subsequent years, and placed it as the number one most subscribed sponsored YouTube channel as well as the most viewed sponsored channel of all time.  The campaign, entitled “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” had ex-NFL star Isaiah Mustafa as a spokesperson against “lady-scented body wash” that men were using.  This cheeky approach garnered a huge following of people sharing the YouTube videos, and included personal responses by Isaiah to YouTube commenters.  The campaign spread far and wide, and overall sales shot up over 170 per cent over this campaign.

Unlike Old Spice’s campaigns, it is not specifically necessary for campaigns to have big budgets to go viral.  In July 2014, a local golfer posted a video of himself dumping a bucket of ice water over his head.  In the video, he challenged his friends to follow suit and donate to the ALS Foundation.  Although not intended to be a viral campaign,this video spread almost immediately, with viewers participating by nominating their friends and celebrities. The innocent start of this campaign snowballed into a powerful donation-generating machine: ALS donations went from a monthly average of $1.8M to $15.6M.  As an end result, this campaign gave the foundation the ability to triple the amount they spend on research globally.

In defiance of the inclusive nature of a viral campaign, mustard maker Grey Poupon went a different path for their social media campaign.  Flipping the script on the traditional ‘Like’ model, Grey Poupon made it difficult for their web viewers to follow their Facebook page.  By applying to “be a member” on their Facebook page, their marketing team would analyze applicants’ recent Facebook history forpoor grammar andriské photos to assess whether they could access the exclusive group.  Through this campaign, Grey Poupon received 100 million impressions and a fan increase of 200 per cent while maintaining their brand image as a product for discernable tastes.

In each of these examples, the combination of great timing, great emotional impact, and a large degree of risk caused the ultimate success in their campaign.It is important to understand that it is easy to get lost in the desire for a viral campaign, while forgetting the true purpose of advertising – increasing the bottom line. Don’t start with, “Let’s make a viral ad.” Instead, set measurable goals, such as sales and website hits, then establish what level of risk is reasonable for your campaign.

There are no guarantees for the success of a viral campaign.  However, understanding and leveraging Berger’s drivers and starting your campaign with a well-thought-out strategy will give your campaign a leg up on the competition.