Viral Marketing: Beyond Advertising

Companies such as Starbucks, Cadbury, Agent Provocateur and Burger King, have taken full advantage of the benefits of viral marketing; it’s even possible that, without it, there would be no President Barack Obama… But what is viral marketing and how does it work?

The Internet has heralded a movement beyond traditional advertising and into Internet viral marketing. The difference between the two is that simple advertising is about pushing information onto consumers, while viral marketing encourages consumers to go in search of that information themselves. Viral marketing, otherwise known as consumer-led marketing, is all about getting the customers to do the work.

While the online marketplace is, in some senses, removed from the traditional marketplace, it can actually be used to re-engaged customers. In an interview for the BBC, Matt Golding, director of viral advertiser, Rubber Republic, said that the viral phenomenon pre-exists modern technology, such as the Internet, that “people have been sharing information and recommending things to each other forever. The internet just allows that to expand.”

Viral marketing happens when you give your customer what they want.

Matt Harding prepared the ground for the famed Cadbury adverts when he sent holiday footage of his silly dancing in various countries around the world to his friends. The video quickly spread all over the net and became hugely popular. As a result, Matt received sponsorship from a chewing-gum company and set up his own business.

But why are people so attracted to Matt’s videos? Perhaps it’s because everyone likes to see people enjoying themselves, or, perhaps, because his videos celebrate the joy of travel. But with customer-led marketing, the adage, ‘the proof is in the pudding’, really does apply. Having received 13,755,162 plays and 35,928 comments, it is evident that – for whatever reason – a lot of people find the video extremely appealing.

Viral advertising works because it gives customers what they want; the result is always entertaining and, quite often, subversive. Take the Cadbury adverts: a Gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins is weird enough, but two school children with improbably energetic eyebrows is really odd. But it works. The official video of the latter on YouTube has received 3,883,041 views and 10,474 comments.

Viral marketing is about catering for the customer’s needs, and taking full advantage of their impulse to participate. It can hide the fact you’re selling something, but effective viral advertising doesn’t need to: it is the incongruity of a gorilla drumming to Phil Collins matched with a confectionary that makes the Cadbury’s ad so effective.

Social Networking and viral marketing.

The series, Mad Men, is an example of how a product can ‘go viral’ very quickly in the cyber world. By last Autumn, there were 75 Twitter accounts purportedly owned and ran by characters on the show. Although the company behind Mad Men, ACM, was initially adverse to the unendorsed accounts – and even took Twitter to court – they soon woke up to the benefits of all this free advertising.

Unleashing the virus.

AMC didn’t need to initiate an Internet viral campaign: their Internet profile grew because of the people that watch Mad Men. Most enterprises, however, don’t get the same kind of automatic exposure; and people have to know about a product or service before they talk about it.

‘It’s the engaged customers who do the marketing for you. They’ll send people to your website, sing your praises and take the conversation that you started far beyond people you thought you could ever reach. For that to happen, you have to start the conversation.’ – Dan Wilson, community manager, BT Tradespace

Starting your own blog is one of the most obvious and easiest ways of getting people to talk about your product or service. Here are some tips on using a blog to generate conversation:

  • Leave interesting comments on other blogs: this will encourage other people to investigate yours.
  • Look for new ways to encourage people to leave comments on your blog- be inventive!
  • Consider introducing a rating or ‘star system’ to your blog.

In an interview for Smarta Video, owner of, Karen Hanton, astutely says that ‘people like to participate’. She is undoubtedly right– you only have to look at YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

When it goes wrong.

American Express was recently shamed when it emerged that their employees were writing blogs as ordinary citizens in support of their own company. With Google searches revealing a torrent of web-wide condemnation, American Express just couldn’t escape the repercussions of their suspect marketing methods.

‘Another related danger of customer-led marketing is allowing customers to make your ads.’ – Dr Paul Marsden of marketing consultancy, Brand Genetics

For the 2006 World Cup, Carling released an image of 11 women lining up for kick-off, all in wet football shirts. Carling encouraged that the image be edited and passed around– but the campaign went seriously wrong when someone added defamatory remarks about the taste of the beer. As you can imagine, this took a lot of time and effort by Carling’s marketing department to put right.


Despite the very real danger of Internet viral marketing going wrong, the Internet is still the driving force behind customer-led marketing. And the fact remains that if you can get consumers to do the work for you, your profile will augment of its own accord.

Be the change that you want to see. Step into your leadership.