examples of viral marketing campaigns & what makes them successful

Brand awareness, sales, and visibility can increase dramatically when a marketing campaign goes viral. That’s why going viral is so appealing for a business owner. So, what does it take to get your content noticed in a big way?

By creating content that is engaging, shareable, and emotionally resonant, companies can leverage the power of social media to spread their message and generate buzz around their brand.

Keep reading to see the top viral marketing campaigns over the past few decades, and learn how you can utilize the same strategies found in viral marketing for your own business.

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5 examples of successful viral marketing campaigns

These five examples illustrate how different types of campaigns can lead to viral success, from fundraising to humor to inclusivity, and offer valuable lessons for marketers looking to create their own viral marketing campaigns.

Here are five real examples of viral marketing campaigns that have captured the attention of millions of people around the world.

1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a social media phenomenon that took the world by storm in 2014. The campaign involved people dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads and challenging others to do the same, all to raise awareness and funds for the ALS Association.

The campaign generated over $115 million in donations and had celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey participating.

2. "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" from Old Spice

Old Spice's "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign is a classic example of viral marketing done right. The campaign featured actor Isaiah Mustafa delivering a tongue-in-cheek monologue about what makes a man desirable, all while promoting Old Spice's line of grooming products.

The ad went viral almost immediately and generated over 50 million views on YouTube alone.

3. Coca-Cola’s "Share a Coke" campaign

In 2011, Coca-Cola launched its "Share a Coke" campaign, which involved printing popular names on Coke bottles and cans. The campaign encouraged people to buy Coke products to find their own name or the name of a loved one, and then share a Coke with them.

The campaign was a massive success, with Coca-Cola reporting a 2.5% increase in sales and over 1.2 million photos shared on social media using the #ShareACoke hashtag.

4. Dollar Shave Club

Dollar Shave Club is a subscription-based service that delivers razors and other grooming products directly to consumers. The company's viral marketing campaign featured a humorous video starring the company's founder, Michael Dubin, in which he poked fun at the high prices of razor blades and touted the convenience and affordability of Dollar Shave Club.

The video went viral almost immediately, generating over 26 million views and helping to catapult the company to success.

5. Airbnb’s  "We Are Here" campaign

Airbnb's "We Are Here" campaign aimed to promote diversity and inclusion by highlighting the stories of real people who use the platform to travel and connect with others. The campaign featured a series of videos and photos that showcased the diversity of the Airbnb community, along with the hashtag #WeAreHere.

The campaign was a huge success, generating over 7 million views and earning widespread praise for its message of unity and inclusivity.

5 common components of viral marketing campaigns

Viral marketing campaigns have the potential to be incredibly powerful tools for businesses looking to connect with audiences and promote their brand. By creating content that is shareable, memorable, and emotionally resonant, companies can create a buzz that spreads like wildfire across social media and beyond.

Crafting a great marketing campaign is a skill, but there are no magic formulas behind them. Think of your favorite viral marketing campaigns — you'll notice they share a few common traits. If you’re a marketer that wants to reach a larger audience, keep these five things in mind.

1. Viral marketing speaks to a specific audience

The key to a successful viral marketing campaign is understanding your audience and their wants, fears, and pain points. The campaign must resonate with and compel your audience. It also should be interesting enough that viewers want to share it with friends and family.

When figuring out how to speak to your audience, use these questions as a starting point.

  • How do they think?
  • What challenges do they have?
  • How does your offer help them overcome these challenges?
  • Where do they hang out online?

Once you know who you are targeting, it’s much easier to figure out a digital content strategy you can use to reach them and what marketing messages will resonate with them.

Various tools are available to help marketers research their target audience, but two of the best tools are your website and Google Analytics. The data provided by Google Analytics will allow you to extract detailed insights for your audience, such as age, location, gender, interests, language, and more.

data provided by Google Analytics

This information can guide you when planning marketing campaigns, ensuring that your audience will be more likely to interact with and share your content.

2. Viral marketing campaigns evoke emotion

Viral marketing campaigns are highly effective when you touch your customers' emotions deeply. You can achieve this same effect for your business when you understand your audience and how your product or service hits home with viewers.

The Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign did just this. The campaign was incredibly moving and tapped into a range of emotions in just a few moments on screen. After watching the ad, you might have experienced thoughts of frustration, insecurity, and confidence.

Each commercial features a person describing their appearance to an artist that cannot see them. The artist then draws their portraits based on those details. After the first portrait is complete, the artist draws a second portrait based on what they see.

We realize that the second portrait where the artist draws what they see is much more beautiful and realistic than the first portrait drawn based on the individual's description of themselves.

Dove's message illustrates that our perception of ourselves can be worse than how others see us. This message inspired conversations about self-esteem and the beauty within all of us.

To date, Real Beauty Sketches received almost 180 million views and counting, most likely due to its relatability and emotional appeal.

3. Viral marketing campaigns don’t take themselves too seriously

In 2017, Carter Wilkerson, a 16-year-old from Reno, Nevada, jokingly tweeted the fast-food chain Wendy's asking how many retweets he needed to receive to get a free year of chicken nuggets. The chain could have easily ignored the tweet, but instead, they quickly replied: "18 million."

Tweets from Wendy's which became a viral marketing campaign

Carter's tweet was retweeted and shared, which ultimately helped him reach his goal. Although he only got 3 million retweets, the tweet became the most retweeted tweet at the time. Wendy's also decided to reward his efforts despite falling short of the original goal of 18 million retweets.

Wendy's probably didn't expect this tweet to go anywhere, but when it started to go viral, they encouraged other users to help Carter reach his goal.

This unlikely viral marketing campaign wasn't the result of planning months in advance. Instead, Wendy's was able to garner positive attention and brand awareness by closely monitoring its social channels and seizing the moment.

Every day, consumers interact with and post shareworthy content about brands they love on social media. As a business owner, you can use social listening tools to stay in the loop about what your customers are saying about your brand. You never know when there's a social media post that can help generate marketing buzz for your business.

4. Viral marketing campaigns use eye-catching visuals

Twitter noticed a trend with users using the social media platform to manifest their dreams into reality — these posts exceeded 59 million tweets.

Capitalizing on this trend, Twitter launched a campaign in major North American cities called "Tweet It Into Existence." Twitter shared success stories from celebrities including Demi Lovato, Megan Thee Stallion, Issa Rae, and other big names who tweeted about their big life goals. The hope was that users would tweet about their own dreams and watch it come to fruition. It worked.

Twitter's "Tweet It Into Existence" billboard which was a viral marketing campaign

Viral marketing campaigns require visual strategy and eye-catching design. Your campaign should tell a story. The best stories use creative elements that resonate with your audience.

Although Twitter used its in-house team to execute the “Tweet It Into Existence” campaign,  it can be worthwhile for you to collaborate with a designer or contractor to execute the visuals of your campaign.

Remember, marketing campaigns don't go viral unless they are unique, engaging, and innovative. Your campaign needs to appeal to your audience visually and creatively in order to catch their attention.

5. Viral marketing is timely

Do you remember Zoom's Virtual Background Competition? In March 2020 during the start of a global pandemic, Zoom launched a viral marketing campaign that allowed users to share videos or pictures using Zoom's virtual background feature.

Zoom's virtual background contest became a viral marketing campaign

If you participated in the Virtual Background Competition, you probably felt a sense of community and resilience in an unprecedented time. The campaign was timely because of current events, and it also took into account the privacy of remote workers at home.

It made what seemed a bleak future an exciting experience – and people looked forward to the monthly prizes and giveaways. Over 50,000 people participated in the competition. The campaign helped spread Zoom awareness and even organic product evangelism when users would share the contest on social media.

Zoom's Virtual Background Competition showed that Zoom was relevant and aware of the times. You may think Zoom's success was the luck of the draw, but it wasn't the only online meeting software. Skype had been around long before Zoom.

The takeaway from Zoom's viral marketing campaign is that it can be achieved by any company as long as you stay on top of current events and anticipate new trends. You can take a page from Zoom's book by planning a holiday challenge relevant to your industry or creating a marketing campaign that gets your audience to share on social media.

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If you want to maximize your sales, implement these tips — you might find that your brand is the one everyone is talking about.

There is no exact formula for making viral content. You can review what has worked in the past and try to recreate it. Ultimately, it's about creating great content and ensuring your ecommerce site performs at its best to handle the traffic from your next viral marketing campaign.

Ensure your site is ready to handle traffic spikes — whether that’s from a sale or going viral. With managed hosting from Nexcess, you’ll experience lightning-fast speeds and streamlined checkout, even during peak traffic.

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Karmen Kendrick
Karmen Kendrick

Karmen Kendrick is a WordPress expert, marketing consultant, and a product marketing manager with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Georgia State University. She is a product marketing manager for LearnDash, a top-ranked learning management software provider. With over five years of experience in the field, Karmen brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her role. Before joining LearnDash, Karmen worked as a service professional, offering WordPress web design and digital marketing consulting to various clients. Her marketing agency helps service professionals book better clients and grow their income using email marketing, website design + management, and lead generation. With a passion for helping businesses succeed online, Karmen is dedicated to driving growth and increasing revenues for her clients.

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