The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    It’s the holy grail of social media marketing. Going viral is on the bucket list of many social media-savvy professionals.  Just whisperin...

    It’s the holy grail of social media marketing.

    Going viral is on the bucket list of many social media-savvy professionals. 

    Just whispering about it is enough to trigger a choir of angels to break into song.

    Everyone wants to have that next viral ad. That’s why many businesses focus some of their efforts on viral marketing. 

    But how do you even go viral as a small business?

    Is it just the luck of the draw? Do you make a sacrifice to the social media gods? Or do you need a team of social media scientists with lab coats and goggles?

    Well, there’s a 1 in a million chance of going viral. You have a greater chance of winning an Oscar, or being born with extra fingers and toes.

    But that’s only if you don’t know the secrets behind viral ads and campaigns (so you can stop writing that Oscar speech with your 7 extra fingers). 

    While luck does come into it, there are common themes in successful viral social media marketing campaigns that can skyrocket your chances of making it.

    We’ll take a look at some of the best examples out there and uncover the secrets behind them, so you can use those same secrets to boost your own brand.

    Hold on, are you sure you want to go viral?

    “Of course!” you might think.

    But mull it over for a second. A few brands have gone viral for all the wrong reasons. 

    Which turned out to be a disaster.

    Take Peloton for example. They released a Christmas ad a few years ago with good intentions. But it came across as sexist.

    It cost Peloton and its shareholders $1.6 billion.

    Ouch 😬

    ➡️ Check out more examples of guerrilla marketing fails that started off as promising viral marketing campaigns.

    But going viral can do wonders for your business too. BlendTec’s “Will it blend?” campaign increased sales by 500%.

    The saying that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” isn’t true anymore. Especially when it comes to viral marketing.

    Peloton is a cautionary tale. Tread carefully. 

    Make sure you go viral for all the right reasons by following the secrets below.

    11 secrets behind viral social media marketing

    1. Make it shareable

    It sounds obvious but it really is key. 

    If you don’t make it easy for viewers to share your content, then you’re not going to have much of a chance to go viral, are you?

    Create a hashtag for your campaign and put your content out on multiple platforms to widen your reach. 

    That way you’ll be giving people more of an opportunity to share, on whatever platform they prefer.

    2. Make it emotive

    Every viral campaign you’ve ever seen will evoke strong emotions in you. Campaigns are designed to do that because, as human beings, we’re addicted to emotion.

    The best viral marketing campaigns bring you joy, make you laugh, surprise you, inspire you, or warm your heart. Good viral marketing triggers one or a combination of these.

    Converse warmed the hearts of 80,000 consumers with this simple Facebook post:

    The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    Emotions have incredible power. They can start global movements like the Free Hugs movement. Which began with this:

    It reached 78 million people. That’s what a little inspiration can do.

    When it comes to videos on social media, a lot of brands try to use the emotions listed above but end up falling flat on their faces.


    Because emotions fade very quickly. The high ends fast. Pretty soon we need something else to trigger that emotion again.

    That’s why viral video marketing needs to constantly re-trigger emotions. It could be in the form of an emotional rollercoaster of a story, or it could be by re-triggering the same emotion in a new way.

    Just look at this brilliant Old Spice ad.

    It makes you laugh right from the beginning. But you keep watching because it continues to surprise you with unexpected scenes that re-trigger that laughter and joy.

    It creates hit after hit of positive emotion.

    So when you want to create viral content, focus on what emotion you want to trigger in your audience. Just make sure that you bring joy, laughter, surprise, inspiration, or tenderness. 

    Because if you trigger a negative emotion, it will go viral for all the wrong reasons. 

    And you don’t want that.

    3. Go bold

    This ad sure is bursting with bold brand personality.

    And it tickled the funny bones of over 28 million people.

    Like Dollar Shave Club, every viral campaign is bold in some way. But why does being bold work so well?

    Because it hooks you in the first few seconds. 

    Being bold has a greater chance of triggering strong (hopefully positive) emotional reactions in viewers. Doing that from the start of any social media campaign, whether it’s a photo on Instagram, a post on Facebook, or a TikTok video, draws attention and gives viewers a dopamine hit.

    4. Focus on your audience, not your brand

    Did you notice something else about Dollar Shave Club’s video?

    While it’s an ad, it’s still focused entirely on the viewer. It was made to delight and entertain its target audience.

    It also wasn’t overly branded. There were a few moments where you could see branding, but the rest of it was focused on the story. 

    Putting too much branding in your content will switch viewers off. Because that just shows that you’re more focused on your brand than your audience.

    Focusing on your audience doesn’t just have to mean entertaining them. It can also mean being relatable to them. And that doesn’t have to come in a fancy ad:

    The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    Just a simple tweet from McDonald’s earned them over 200,000 likes. 

    Because it was so relatable. 

    McDonald’s honed in on the common experience of indecision and shared it with their audience, who connected with it.

    5. Build a bond

    By focusing on people, you’re building a bond with them. And bonds are powerful.

    You can nurture bonds between you, your audience, and their friends by encouraging user-generated content.

    Don’t underestimate the power of it.

    iPhone’s user-generated content campaign #shotoniphone is still running, with 27,496,916 posts…and counting 😲

    Creating campaigns that build bonds between users and your brand can lead to viral spreading (the good kind, not the flu kind).

    You can also encourage a bond with your audience by sparking a conversation.

    Remember the dress phenomenon on Tumblr?

    The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    It wasn’t a marketing campaign, but it was a worldwide sensation. The dress was the center of debate among millions, who argued whether it was blue and black, or white and gold.

    If you can encourage conversation in campaigns for your brand, the results can be astounding.

    6. Be real

    Honesty is always the best policy — even when it comes to viral marketing.

    In fact, 88% of consumers consider authenticity when choosing a brand to support. Honesty makes you trustworthy. And when customers feel that they can trust you, 46% of them will increase their spending. Authenticity and transparency are increasingly important to consumers. That’s why marketing that is radically honest and genuine is more likely to go viral.

    Need more proof? (I hope you’re not having lunch.)


    You can’t get more real than that.

    This campaign from Burger King divided opinions among marketing experts and consumers alike. A quarter of viewers were put off purchasing burgers because of this ad.

    But it was still one of Burger King’s most successful campaigns with 8.4 billion (that’s right billion) impressions, and high levels of engagement on all social media platforms

    The clever team behind this weren’t aiming to boost short-term sales. They just wanted consumers to know that Burger King had stopped using preservatives.

    What’s fascinating is that the campaign did end up increasing short-term sales, surprising the marketers behind it. 

    So, take a (lettuce) leaf from Burger King when it comes to your viral social media marketing and be radically honest as a brand. 

    Your customers will love you all the more for it.

    7. Use storytelling

    Nothing beats a good story. 

    We’re obsessed with them. From the good ol’ days of sharing fables around a fire to binge-watching that new series until midnight, storytelling has always had a strong hold on us.

    And campaigns that have good storytelling tend to go viral.

    Maybe the thought of having to come up with a story for your own viral marketing campaign fills you with dread. Or maybe you’re worried about doing it on a tight budget.

    The great news is that you don’t need a multimillion-dollar video to tell a good story. It can be wonderfully simple, like this Google ad:

    It goes to show how powerful a simple story can be.

    And if you use a storytelling technique like an unexpected twist, it’ll be all the more effective.

    This Little Thor ad is a shot-by-shot parody of a popular Volkswagen commercial released in the same year:

    Because it matches the Volkswagen commercial most of the way through, you don’t expect that big twist at the end. An unexpected twist triggers surprise, making it more likely to lead to viral sharing.

    Besides using a twist, featuring an underdog is also a common theme in viral stories. 

    Social media platform Reddit were radically honest about their situation, making them an underdog in this Super Bowl commercial and Twitter post:

    They bet on the fact that people love an underdog. And it’s true. 

    But what’s interesting about Reddit here is that they didn’t invent a story. They used their situation — they used themselves — as the story.

    Which is good news if you’re not so keen on storytelling.

    So you don’t always have to make up a story. As a small business, you could be the underdog story. And it doesn’t even need to be in the form of a video. This Instagram post of an egg became a viral trend, because it was trying to beat a world record:

    What more proof do you need that everyone loves an underdog?

    Or maybe we just all like eggs (poached right?).

    8. Be original

    What you’ll also notice about viral marketing campaigns is that they’re all wonderfully original.

    But does that mean you have to rack your brains for a completely new idea?

    Not at all. 

    To be original, you can put a fresh twist on something that’s been done before. Think of cronuts.

    Greggs did this masterfully with their vegan sausage roll ad, made in the style of an iPhone commercial:

    And the marketing team behind the Deadpool films brought some originality by playing off another movie in this Instagram post: 

    The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    ➡️ More ways to stand out from the crowd, check out our guide to guerrilla marketing and the e-book about differentiating your business from the competition.

    9. Play with assumptions

    If someone tells you you’re wrong about something, you can’t help but listen.

    It’s human nature. 

    Challenging assumptions with your viral social media marketing strategy can start a buzz, leading to viral sharing. This Always ad is a perfect example of that:

    But challenging assumptions can also take the form of going against the status quo.

    On Black Friday, you’d assume brands would be encouraging everyone to shop, right?

    Not outdoor brand REI.

    They closed their doors on Black Friday and invited customers to go outside instead of joining the hordes shopping.

    REI used #optoutside and asked for user-generated content.

    The result?

    Over 18 million posts under the hashtag.

    The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    10. Use trends

    Jumping on trends, like memes, is one of the most common ways of going viral.

    But you have to be careful.

    It’s very easy to end up looking like your dad dancing Gangnam style 10 years too late.

    So you don’t end up like that, make sure to stay up to date with the latest trends by staying active on social media. 

    And if you do decide to create content based on a trend, make sure that you approach it in the spirit of joining in on the fun, to delight your audience. 

    If you’re just jumping on the bandwagon to get attention, it will be very obvious to viewers, and will turn them off your brand.

    Music artist Lil Nas X successfully jumped on a trend when he announced the release of his album. Drake had recently created a buzz, teasing the release of his own album by sharing the cover, which featured pregnant woman emojis:

    The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    So Lil Nas X teased his own album release soon after with various pregnant man emojis:

    The 11 secrets behind viral social media marketing campaigns

    Now that’s some smart viral marketing right there. 

    11. Partner with an influencer

    Still not sure how to start your own viral marketing campaign? Why not team up with someone who can help?

    Partnering up with an influencer can get your brand out there in front of millions. You could be using their expertise, as well as their audience, to make your message go viral.

    During the pandemic, Procter & Gamble partnered with TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio to encourage people to stay at home and raise money for Feeding America. 

    The video that was posted for the campaign got 6.9 million likes and sparked millions of user-generated content posts.

    @charlidamelio Stay home & do the #distancedance. Tag me & the hashtag in your video. P&G will donate to Feeding America & Matthew 25 for first 3M videos #PGPartner ♬ Big Up's (feat. Yung Nnelg) – Jordyn, Nic Da Kid

    ➡️ Learn more about virtual influencer marketing in our article.

    Create your own luck

    While there’s an element of luck when it comes to viral social media marketing, using these secrets in your campaign will boost your chances of virality.

    As you can tell from the examples we’ve seen, the content that you create needs to be high-quality and look professional.

    But don’t worry, creating high-quality content doesn’t have to be a stressful process.

    You can save time by using VistaCreate to design your social media posts and edit videos. No complicated software or design skills needed. Choose from thousands of templates and design your content with just a couple of clicks of your mouse.

    Now there’s nothing stopping you from creating content that makes you the next viral sensation.

    VistaCreate Team

    Latest news

    Don’t miss out on our top articles

    Subscribe to the VistaCreate blog newsletter and get our top articles in your inbox each month. No spam ;)

    Guest blogging with VistaCreate

    Share your story or article idea with us and thousands of VistaCreate blog readers. Pitch your ideas by filling out a short form.
    Create a design now