Viral Marketing for Brand Awareness


 Virality defined: The tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another; the quality of fact of being viral (Oxford Dictionaries, 2015).

People love to share stories, news and information with their immediate circle of friends or even the general public. We tell our friends about great restaurants, we chat to our family about good gift ideas, and gossip with co-workers about office scandals. We write online reviews about hotels, share articles on Facebook, upload holiday photos on Instagram, and tweet about our latest purchase. According to Berger (2013), “people share more than 16,000 words per day and every hour there are more than 100 million conversations about brands”. Viral marketing (VM) may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, E-books, brand-able software, images, text messages, email messages, or web pages (Wikipedia, 2015). The things others tell us, e-mail us, and text us have a significant impact on what we think, read, buy, and do. “Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions” (Berger, 2013). Viral marketing appears to expand in growth and importance every year, and with the development of social networking contributing to it effectiveness, it is clear that this technique will eventually become crucial for market when planning a marketing strategy.

Relationship Between Viral Marketing & Brand Awareness

In order to explain the relation between viral marketing and brand awareness, the marketing objectives of viral marketing should be explained first. Viral marketing through new media on the Internet is used to increase brand awareness or achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) and to create market share in a short period of time on a shoestring promotion budget (Krishnamurthy, 2001). Brand awareness, as defined on Wikipedia (2015), is ‘the extent to which a brand is recognised by potential customers, and is correctly associated with a particular product’. The ultimate goal of marketers interested in creating successful marketing programs is to create viral messages that appeal to individuals with high social networking potential (SNP) and that have a high probability of being presented and spread by these individuals and their competitors in their communications with others in a short period of time (Wikipedia, 2015).


Viral Marketing Explained

Viral marketing has been associated with the popularisation of the notion that ideas spread like viruses. The field that developed around this notion peaked in popularity in the 1990s (Wikipedia, 2015). Media critic, Doug Rushkoff, was one of the first to write about viral marketing on the Internet. The assumption is that if such an advertisement reaches a “susceptible” user, that user becomes “infected” (i.e., accepts the idea) and shares the idea with others “infecting them,” in the viral analogy’s terms (Wikipedia, 2015). According to De Bruyn & Lilien (2008) , “a common finding of social network theory is that demographic similarity facilitates the flow of information. People who are alike tend to interact more often and communicate more easily, and observation known as the “like-me” principle” (p.154). Therefore, when a brand gets their message out to their target audience and the audience like what the message or product they will share it with people who most likely will be interested as well.

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The two types of viral marketing:

Private: this occurs when “an individual communicates information about a service to his or her social network of friends, family, co-workers, etc.” (Krishnamurthy, 2001, p.423). This may be done through e-mail, social networking websites (e.g. Facebook), or in person.

Public: this arises when individuals share their message in public forums. According to Krishnamurthy (2001), “there are also several forums on the Internet explicitly designed to elicit customer feedback either on a variety of products and services” (p.423).

The online version of traditional Word-Of-Mouth (WOM)

Social Media 1

Viral marketing is the online version of the traditional WOM literature in marketing. This is primarily due to: (i) the emergence of new technologies, such as e-mail and social networks, which have increased the level of reach and immediacy; and (ii) an increase in accessibility and reduction in costs in acquiring such technologies because now individuals are better able to communicate their opinions to a large subset of the general public.

Marketers are looking for new ways of communicating with customers and creating a dialogue with them. The growth and evolution of the Internet has led to the creation of a new format of word-of-mouth; viral marketing through new media. The ultimate goal is to “use consumer-to-consumer communications – as opposed to company-to-consumer communications – to disseminate information about a product or service, thereby leading to more rapid and cost effective adoption by the market” (De Bruyn & Lilien, 2008, p.151). Marketers are interested in creating viral messages that appeal to individuals with high social networking potential (SNP) and that have a high probability of being presented and spread by these individuals and their competitors in their communications with others (Wikipedia, 2015).

Below is a television commercial released on Old Spice‘s YouTube channel in 2010 starring Isaiah Mustafa, which has reached 50.5 million hits to date. This commercial eventually led to a popular viral marketing campaign which had Mustafa responding to various Internet comments (Wikipedia, 2015).


Another successful viral marketing campaign is Evian Baby&Me released in 2013 and has 104 million hits to date. Outside their commercial Evian included other media in their Baby&Me campaign.

Evian Print Final 1 Evian Print Final 2 Evian Print Final 5

These examples resonate with Krishnamurthy’s (2001) statement, “viral marketing presents a new way of building customer traffic by leveraging customer-to-customer relationships. When done right, it has the potential to lead to explosive growth in the customer base and rapid acceptance of the product” (p.424).

When best to use Viral Marketing

Like any other marketing tactic, organisations must still evaluate the appropriate situation to utilise viral marketing. Krishnamurthy (2001) explains when best to use viral marketing:

  • In situations where an organisation cares more about quantity rather than quality,
  • When there is not too much heterogeneity in the lifetime value of customers,
  • For companies with a strong value proposition, and that are market makers (innovators).


Krishnamurthy (2001) warns, “while viral marketing offers and organic, customer-led path for growth, it is certainly something that requires continuous managerial oversight” (p. 423). He suggests that organisations consider three things for better management:

  1. Choose the initial recipients of the message carefully and strategically. They must be popular, influential, and a representative of the company’s target market. It needs to be a strategic consideration, not done merely out of convenience.
  2. Pick the message carefully. It should communicate the organisations value proposition in a simple and clear manner, and be easy for consumers to share. It is important to strive for methods that will ensure consistency of the brand image.
  3. Put control mechanisms in place. Consider how the organisation will measure the impact of its campaign, and constantly monitor how consumers are spreading the message.

Message dissemination can either be intentional or unintentional. Unintentional dissemination occurs when consumers are not deliberate actors in the broadcasting of the marketing-message process. Hotmail gained enormous success through this tactic. The company attached a tagline at the bottom of each e-mail message that said: “Get your private, free e-mail at”. Within the first year and a half more than 12 million people created a Hotmail account. The marketing and promotion during this period cost the company only $500,000 (Krishnamurthy, 2001).

Intentional dissemination is when consumers willingly become promoters of a product or service and spread the word to their networks. De Bruyn & Lilien (2008) explain that the key reason for this type of behaviour arises when the consumer is “driven to do so either through an explicit incentive (e.g. financial incentives, need to expand network externalities) or simply out of a desire to share the product benefits with friends (e.g. fun, intriguing, valuable for others)” (De Bruyn & Lilien, 2008, p.151). For example, PayPal acquired more than 3 million users within the first nine months of launching by paying members $10 to recommend members. De Bruyn & Lilien (2008) go on to state, “these examples suggest that marketer can leverage the power of interpersonal networks to promote a product or service. The concept assumes that electronic, peer-to-peer communications are an effective means to transform (electronic) communication networks into influence networks, capturing recipients’ attention, triggering interest, and eventually leading to adoption or sales” (p.152).

Another more recent example is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

De Bruyn & Lilien (2008) developed a multi-stage model of WOM influence through viral marketing. “The multi-stage decision-making model consists of a sequence of mental stage or levels that consumers experience throughout a purchasing decision. The sequence typically incudes at least the following stages:


  1. Awareness – the consumer knows the alternatives exists, but may not have either interest in it or sufficient information to understand its possible benefits.
  2. Interest – the consumer is aware, develops more interest, and hence decides to learn more about the product.
  3. Final decision – the consumer has now taken an observable action, a purchase of a good or the sustained adoption of an innovation” (De Bruyn & Lilien, 2008, p.153).

Consumers spreading the word about products and services they have experienced depends on their level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, their commitment to the firm, length of relationship with the firm, and the novelty of the product. Furthermore, consumers rely on WOM communications over other sources of information when they lack expertise in a product category, they perceive a high risk in decision-making, and when they are deeply involved in the purchasing decision (De Bruyn & Lilien, 2008).

Disadvantages of Viral Marketing

Viral marketing can be extremely difficult to control once the message spreads online rapidly. Consumers can edit a message once they forward it to their peers, thus making it difficult to control the content of the message. Consumers that unwillingly receive messages could consider such messages as ‘spam’, which may damage a brands reputation. Finally, it can be challenging for marketers to control the campaign’s timing. Therefore, control can be seen as the most important and challenging factor of a viral marketing campaign in order to maintain a good relationship with consumers.

Most of us have heard expressions that suggest that any publicity is good publicity, however “all existing studies of negative publicity have found its effects to be negative” (Berger, et al., 2010, p.816). We have all seen situations where a business, community, or individual has experienced negative consequences due to certain content becoming viral. For businesses, it is common knowledge that “negative reviews, messages, or rumours hurt product evaluations and reduce purchase likelihood and sales” (Berger, et al., 2010, p.816). Berger, et al, (2010) disagree that negative publicity only causes damage to businesses, as they believe it may have positive effects when the goal is to increasing awareness or accessibility. They state that “consumers have finite attention, and the sheer multitude of cultural offerings means that most consumers will not be aware of every book, movie, or album that is released. Similarly, people may know about a product, but information varies its accessibility and is less likely to affect behaviour when it is not top of mind” (Berger, et al., 2010, 817).

It can be reasoned that publicity may have positive affects if it makes consumers more aware or encourages the product to be top of mind. “We suggest that whether negative publicity has positive or negative effects will depend on existing product awareness and accessibility” (Berger, et al., 2010, 817). For example, when brand awareness is high, negative publicity will most likely hurt sales, lower product evaluation, and decrease consumer choice. “In contrast, through increasing awareness, negative publicity may increase sales when product awareness or accessibility is low. If few people know about a book released by a new author, any publicity, regardless of valence, should increase awareness” (Berger, et al., 2010, p. 817).

How to Conduct a Successful Viral Marketing Campaign

Berger (2013) proposes six key STEPPS that cause things to be talked about, shared, and imitated:

Principle 1: Social Currency

Most people would rather look smart than dumb, rich than poor, and cool than geeky. Just like the clothes we wear and the cars we drive, what we talk about influences how others see us. It’s social currency. Knowing about cool things makes people seem sharp and in the know. Therefore, we need to craft messages that help them achieve these desired impressions. We need to find our inner remarkability and make people feel like insiders. We need to leverage game mechanics to give people ways to achieve and provide visible symbols of status that they can show to others.

Principle 2: Triggers

These are stimuli that prompt people to think about related things. Peanut butter reminds us of jelly and the word “dog” reminds us of the word “cat.” People often talk about whatever comes to mind, so the more often people think about a product or idea, the more it will be talked about. We need to design products and ideas that are frequently triggered by the environment 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

Naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion. Blending an iPhone is surprising. A potential tax hike is infuriating. Emotional things often get shared. So rather than harping on function, we need to focus on feelings. However, some emotions increase sharing, while others actually decrease it. So we need to pick the right emotions to evoke. Sometimes even negative emotions may be useful.

Principle 4: Public

It’s hard to copy something you can’t see – Making things more observable makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular. So we need to make our products and ideas more public. We need to design products and initiatives that advertise themselves and create behavioural residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea.

Principle 5: Practical Value

People like to help others, so if we can show them how our products or ideas will save time, improve health, or save money, they’ll spread the word. But given how inundated people are with information, we need to make our message stand out. We need to understand what makes something seem like a particularly good deal. We need to highlight the incredible value of what we offer—monetarily and otherwise. And we need to package our knowledge and expertise so that people can easily pass it on.

Principle 6: Stories

People don’t just share information, they tell stories. But just like the epic tale of the Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry things such as morals and lessons. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. So we need to build our own Trojan horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell. But we need to do more than just tell a great story. We need to make #virality valuable. We need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.


  1. Berger, J. (2013). ‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On’. New York, Simon & Schuster. Retrieved from:
  2. Berger, J. & Sorensen, A.T. & Rasmussen, S.J. (2010). Positive Effects of Negative Publicity: When Negative Reviews Increase Sales. Marketing Science. Vol. 29, No. 5, September-October 2010, pp. 815-827
  3. De Bruyn, A. and Lilien, G.L. (2008). A multi-stage model of word-of-mouth influence through viral marketing. International Journal of Research in Marketing, Vol. 25, Issue 3, Pages 151-163.
  4. Krishnamurthy, Sandeep (2001), “Viral Marketing- What Is It And Why Must Every Service Marketer Care?”, Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. 15(6&7), Pages 422-424.
  5. Oxford Dictionaries. (2015). Virality. British & World English. Retrieved from
  6. Welker, C.B. (2002). The paradigm of Viral Communication. Journal of Information Services and Use. Volume 22, Number 1/2002 p3-8
  7. (2015). Viral Marketing. The Free Encyclopaedia. Retrieved from:

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