The Nature of Viral Marketing

What is viral marketing? The concept has its roots in a 1996 campaign run by Hotline promoting its new email service – Hotmail. The company inserted the line “Get your own free Hotmail at” in every email sent using the service, and their users grew from 20,000 to 1 million in just one year.[i]

Though the concept began in the 1990s, viral marketing didn’t take off until technology caught up – when social media platforms began launching in the early 2000s. Social networks are a veritable breeding ground for viral marketing.

Today’s social media is more than a platform for connecting with old friends. Though Facebook was founded for college students, it has far surpassed its original purpose and become an essential part of relationship building in today’s society. 

A close up of a screen
Photo from Pixabay

According to a report from the Pew Research Center, 55% of Americans get their news from social media sites either “often” or “sometimes.” The most popular place for news is Facebook, followed by YouTube and Twitter.[ii] There are 2.6 billion users on Facebook – that’s 2.6 billion potential impressions for content shared on the platform. But how do marketers reach them?

This is where viral marketing begins to look appealing – but it’s not exactly simple. Though there are no hard and fast statistics, the chances of content going viral are very slim. There are 5 billion items of content posted to Facebook per day and over 500 million Tweets daily.[iii]

There are plenty of sources online that will promise to help you go viral. One article claims that viral marketing campaigns share a number of characteristics, including relatability and emotion. It also notes that viral marketing campaigns use good visual strategies and tell a story – and ultimately, the content should be simple and easy to digest.[iv]

Another piece argues that viral posts are insightful outliers that either surprise the audience, leverage a trend, inspire consumers, utilize stunning visuals, amuse consumers, create controversy, tell secrets, or warm the heart.[v] Basically, do everything. 

You can see why going viral isn’t as simple as we might wish. However, one scholar has compiled data from hundreds of viral messages, products, and ideas to identify six guiding principles behind viral content. Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has six key steps for marketers trying to understand the nature of viral content. 

The cover of Contagious why things catch on by Jonah Berger

In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger presents his “Six STEPPS:” Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories.[vi] According to Berger, if you can master these characteristics, your content will be more likely to spread across audiences and become “contagious.”

Here’s the overview:

  • Social Currency – People want to seem interesting. If your product, idea, or message helps consumers feel more like insiders, they’re more likely to generate buzz surrounding it.
  • Triggers – Creating content that is frequently triggered by the consumer’s surrounding environment will keep your messaging in the forefront of their mind.
  • Emotion – Consumers share content that they care about. Generate content that sparks emotion in your audience. 
  • Public – Make your message as visible and observable as possible. We can’t spread the word about something we’ve never heard of. 
  • Practical Value – People like to help others, so if we make our messaging useful, they’re more likely to bring it up on their own.
  • Stories – We are all inherently storytellers. Crafting a narrative means your audience will share those stories more than they might share numbers or snapshots.[vii]

Though there is of course no formula for creating viral content, it cannot be denied that information can spread like wildfire given the right conditions. In addition, while viral marketing can seem extremely appealing for its low cost and high exposure, it’s important to note that campaigns that don’t go viral are not necessarily failures. Sometimes a slow burn does the trick.

Questions for Marketing Managers to consider:

  • Do you agree with Berger’s Six STEPPS? Are there any characteristics you would add to his list?
  • Is viral marketing something to strive for, or is a steady exposure over the long term a better goal?
  • How do you maintain control over a message that has gone viral?






[vi] Berger, Jonah. Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2013. ISBN 978-1-4516-8658-6.

[vii] Berger, Jonah. Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2013. ISBN 978-1-4516-8658-6.