They call what we do viral marketing – but what makes successful viral marketing campaigns?

 What Makes Successful Viral Marketing Campaigns?

Many people call what we do viral marketing. Others call it “uniquely cost-effective” or “the Holy Grail: what everyone’s looking for”

We’re happy with the label viral marketing… but other names for what we do include viral PR, guerrilla marketing and/or PR, social media marketing, buzz marketing, even content marketing… or just stunts and quirky, creative PR that spreads virally, often round the world, delivering buzz, traffic, links, revenue.

Meanwhile, different people understand different things by the term viral marketing. For some it means viral videos – or, at least, videos that aspire to go viral – while others use it more broadly to mean any kind of stunts, wheezes, content and clever ideas that are designed to spread virally – including videos but not limited to them. And this broader definition is more what we mean by the term.

Whatever you call the sort of thing we do, our ideas cut through the clutter and give you more for your money.

If you need to get noticed, the good news is that you don’t need a giant budget. Besides, you can’t rely on big budgets anymore, even if you’ve got one.

What you need is… a good idea that spreads virally.

Viral marketing, clever stunts and creative PR are now the best ways of winning attention.

We’ve shown so time and again for big brands and small.


Some examples of our successful viral marketing campaigns

So, Craigslist got viral coverage when we used its data to reveal “London’s most romantic Tube station”. (And then did the same for the subway systems in New York, Chicago, among seven North American cities.) won global traffic when our study found “Hollywood’s greatest chat-up line”. saw traffic grow nearly six-fold when our study for it revealing “America’s most embarrassing place-names” went viral and sent visitor-numbers rocketing. (And America’s single most embarrassing place-name, in case you’re interested, is Toad Suck in Arkansas, while the UK’s, we also revealed, is Shitterton in Dorset.)

We’ve named football’s longest-suffering fans (Rochdale fans) and opened the first call-centre with live hold music.

We’ve published the first testicle cookbook and recruited the first Glaswegian interpreter.

Either way, good ideas are what make you stand out from the crowd and win attention money can’t buy. Or, as American ad man, Ed McCabe once put it, “Creativity is one of the last remaining legal ways of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition.”

We’re UK-based and work globally. So, do our ideas.

Are you interested in going viral? Let’s talk


Why does everyone nowadays seem to want viral marketing campaigns?

Of course, viral marketing existed before the Internet, let alone before the rise of social media. In those days it was simply known as word of mouth… or by fancier terms, like social epidemics.

But the reasons that successful viral marketing campaigns have become such a Holy Grail of marketing is first, that the Internet is an inherently viral medium and second, that the rise of social media has seriously amplified this built-in contagiousness. The result is that viral marketing itself has … well, gone viral.

So, even before the rise of social media, the Internet was already an inherently viral medium – but social media have made it even more of one.

Meanwhile, both the fragmentation of the media and proliferation of it – the sheer number of different media and constant tidal wave of information that threatens to swamp us all – means that the old ways of marketing don’t work any more. It’s harder than ever to get people’s attention, let alone to change their minds.

Coming up with ideas that spread virally is not just the best way of getting people to know about your brand or product or initiative, it is often the only way.


The six principles of successful viral marketing campaigns, ideas and content

In his influential recent book on viral marketing, “Contagious – How To Build Word of Mouth In The Digital Age”, the American marketing professor, Jonah Berger, answers questions like, “What makes some content go viral? Why do people talk about and share certain products and ideas more than others? And why do some stories and ideas rumours seem inherently infectious?

He then answers these questions, with the help of data based on over nearly a decade of research and analysis by himself, colleagues and others. His is probably the most thorough, scientific study of the subject ever made.

He identifies six principles of contagiousness that tend to characterise ideas, products or content that are more likely to spread.

So, products and ideas more likely to go viral tend to contain Social Currency and are Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practical/Practically Valuable and wrapped up in Stories.

Brought together, these six principles together produce the acronym STEPPS, which stands for:

  • Social Currency
  • Triggers
  • Emotions
  • Public
  • Practical Value
  • Stories

“Think of the principles”, advises Berger, “as the six STEPPS to creating contagious content. These ingredients lead ideas to get talked about and succeed.”

So, in order to develop a better understanding of what makes successful viral marketing campaigns, it’s worth saying a bit more about each of these six principles or STEPPS in turn.

Principle 1: Social Currency

This just means that we’re more likely to share content that makes us look smart than stupid, cool than geeky or good than bad. Knowing and being able to tell others about cool or funny, new or interesting things makes us look cooler, funnier or interesting. It makes us look like insiders – like someone in the know. In short, it helps us make a good impression.

So, if we want people to create successful viral marketing campaigns and get people sharing our stuff, we need to craft content that helps people make these impressions.


Principle 2: Triggers

What Berger means by “triggers” are thing that remind people to think and talk about our product, content and ideas. So, the word “dog” prompts people to think of the word “cat”. The word “breakfast” triggers us to think of the word “cereal”.

“We need to design products and ideas that are frequently triggered by the environment”, writes Berger, “and create new triggers by linking our products and ideas to prevalent cues in that environment. Top of mind leads to tip of tongue.”


Principle 3: Emotion

This simply means that people are more likely to share content and ideas that provoke or elicit an emotional response – whether it’s surprise, anger or awe. Or, as Berger puts it, “When we care, share.”

Some emotions, however, increase sharing more than others. Content, for example, that inspires awe – such as, say, Susan Boyle’s first performance on Britain’s Got Talent – are among the most likely to be shared, as are what psychologists call “high-arousal” emotions like anger and anxiety.

Ideas that prompt positive emotions, however, generally get shared more than ones that inspire negative feelings. Indeed, some emotions, such as sadness, which are both negative and “low-arousal” actually decrease sharing.

Ideas that prompt amusement also do well. (Indeed, things that go viral in the UK, even more than some other countries, tend to be funny. And that’s why many, if not most of Think Inc’s best viral marketing campaigns have been ones that amused people.)

So, the lesson is that we need to know which emotions to try and evoke.


• Principle 4: Public

This refers to the fact that people are more likely to adopt and share a product or behaviour that they can see others using. Or, as Berger observes, the old saying, “Monkey see, monkey do”, reminds us that you’re far less likely to copy something that you can’t actually see.

So, the lesson is that we should be trying to design products and campaigns that are visible, observable – in short, public.


• Principle 5: Practical Value

Content, information and ideas that are useful or seem to be of some practical value are more likely to spread virally. This is because people like to help others, by sharing with them information/content that they think might be useful to them.

We need therefore, says Berger, to create content that both seems genuinely useful to people – by helping them, for example, save money or time, or to improve their health – and is packaged such that people both want to and can easily share it with others.


• Principle 6: Stories

We humans are story-telling animals. Or, as Berger puts it, we don’t just share content and information; we tell stories.

So, Berger’s sixth and final principle of crafting successful viral marketing campaigns, products and ideas tells us that we need to embed our ideas, messages, brands and products in stories that people want to tell others.

“But we need to do more than just tell a great story”, adds Berger. “… We need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.”


Successful viral marketing campaigns don’t need to reflect all six principles at once

Finally, note that the six principles of contagiousness identified by Berger don’t all need to be present at once in order for an idea, brand or campaign to be viral or contagious. Yes, the more of them that you’re able to include or leverage the better. But an idea that contains just two or three of them can also do well.

“So, think of these principles”, writes Berger, “less like a recipe and more like tasty salad toppings. Cobb salads, for example, often come with chicken, tomato, bacon, egg, avocado and cheese. But a salad with just cheese and bacon is still delicious. The principles are relatively independent. So, you can pick and choose whichever ones you want to apply.”


  • Want to know what our clients say about our viral marketing campaigns? Check here.