Viral marketing has been used successfully for about 20 years. In 1996, Hotmail began to add this tagline to the bottom of each email sent by its users: “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail.” Within 18 months, the company signed up 12 million new users. In 1999, well before Facebook, YouTube and other social media existed, the producers of The Blair Witch Project used online message boards to drive traffic to their website promoting the movie. The movie cost less than £1m to make, but the campaign helped it to gross nearly £200m. This Christmas season, Advertising Age reports that Heathrow Airport’s Coming Home for Christmas video has attracted over 67 million views, while John Lewis’s Buster the Boxer video has scored over 132 million views.

As you can see from these examples, viral marketing is a strategy that gets people to use social media and email to spread the word about your product or services. It may look easy, but creating a successful viral marketing campaign takes research, planning and creativity. Here a few tips to consider.

Identify your target audience

Before you do anything else, you need to define your target audience. Are you trying to reach millennials? Are you targeting businesses? Are you targeting families with young children? Are you aiming to attract sports fans? Knowing the demographics of your target audience lets you create relevant content.

Don’t create a traditional advertisement

The point of viral marketing is to create content that viewers will enjoy and want to share with friends, family and colleagues, so don’t just create a traditional advertisement. Focus on creating an engaging story that doesn’t just emphasise your product or services. What you’re trying to sell should be secondary to the storyline – you’re trying to create something exciting and memorable.

A good example of this approach is the Netflix socks promotion. Rather than directly pitching its online streaming service, Netflix created a video that showed people how to solve a problem they might have – falling asleep while binge-watching their favourite series and losing their place. The proposed solution was Netflix socks – “smart socks” that would detect when you fell asleep and automatically pause the series until you woke up again. Now, this was a DIY project that required you to buy a kit for £48 and assemble it yourself using a soldering iron, so it was unlikely that many viewers would purchase Netflix socks. However, the promotion was a huge success in attracting attention to the brand, with 1 billion media impressions worldwide and over 500,000 YouTube views.

Make your promotion easy to share

Sharing is the whole purpose of viral marketing, so make it easy for viewers to share with others. Add a share button to your promotion to make it easy for people to post it on Facebook or send an email. Allow people to download and embed your content on their blogs and websites. Don’t make people register or open an account to view your promotion – you want to make it easy for people to spread the message.

Prepare for success

If your viral marketing campaign is a success, you will experience a large increase in traffic, so be sure you have enough bandwidth available to handle it before your kick-off. Also, consider using a website monitoring service to inform you if you do experience any performance degradation due to increased traffic so you can promptly address it.

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