Viral Marketing: Basics and Advantages

Viral Marketing - Toolshero

Viral Marketing: this article explains the Viral Marketing in a practical way. In addition to explaining what it is (definition) and the basic theory, the article also explains the origin plus examples, how it works, the contamination, advantages and disadvantages of this marketing method. Enjoy reading!

What is Viral Marketing? Definition and theory

Viral Marketing is a relatively new marketing technique. It spreads over the internet like a virus. It can be defined as a way of word-of-mouth advertising that can reach a large group of people very quickly thanks to modern communication technology.

The American media critic Douglas Rushkoff was the first to coin the term Viral Marketing in his book ‘Media Virus‘ from 1994. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, play an important role in Viral Marketing.

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Platforms where information can be shared are particularly suited for this type of marketing.

The goal is to spread the marketing message like a viral epidemic.

That makes Viral Marketing a relatively cheap way to reach a large audience.


The term Marketing comes from the words ‘market’ and ‘getting’; conquering the market. The term marketing has been around for over a 100 years. Today, it’s still about large companies wanting to conquer the market, gain market share and (new) customers.

Marketing methods are comprehensive and Viral Marketing is a relatively new way. This technique increases the awareness and reach of a product or brand by using social media. It’s word-of-mouth advertising using the internet. The more people who know about it, the better.

Each company that uses a marketing communication goal to express a specific marketing message can do so by publishing digital video clips, for instance.

These days, commercial organisations employ viral marketing to generate brand equity and recognition, launch a new product or draw attention.

Viral Marketing: How does it work?

The use of this marketing technique is relatively simple. It’s about the fact that people pick up and pass on the marketing message on the internet and social media.

That’s why it’s important to first come up with a marketing campaign that’s not just inspirational, but also easy to share via for instance Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or LinkedIn.

The marketing message needs to grab people’s attention and generate interest right away. It’s also a good idea to choose a specific target group that is almost certain to pass the message on in their network.

That’s why it’s wise to choose a marketing message that’s easy to share with friends, fans or followers. That way, the message can spread across the internet like an oil spill, and even influence other groups via the target group.

Viral Marketing is like an Infection

Viral Marketing is about ‘infecting’ people. If each ‘infected’ individual shares the marketing message to a single other individual, the viral epidemic will gradually grow in a logic curve.

As long as each individual passes the message on to one other person, the marketing campaign can continue to grow until each member of the potential audience has been reached.

Eventually, the campaign will generate less interest from the target group and the curve will taper off; the campaign is dying out.

To start this marketing technique, companies use ‘seeding’. A seed is planted, it grows, creates new fruit with seeds that subsequently distribute its seeds.

That means that a marketing campaign gets a nudge in the right direction; people are actively informed about the new campaign via social media.

They’re stimulated to watch the expression. That gives the originator influence over the direction and the result of the viral marketing campaign.


The most famous expressions of viral marketing are videos and ads.

Its strength comes from the fact that people like to share information they find fun and interesting with others and send it to each other via social media.

For instance, think of ads in the form of funny videos, images, texts or an interactive Flash game. It can be risky though. People generally don’t like to forward messages that are clearly commercial.

It can also happen that the wrong audience is approached and the message doesn’t reach the right people. That could be bad for public relations.

Viral Marketing advantages

There are a lot of advantages to viral marketing, making it worth considering this new marketing technique. The most notable ones are listed below:

  • It’s relatively cheap compared to traditional marketing.
  • The range is large and it’s generally easy to address a younger audience.
  • The communication threshold is low, because it uses existing social groups that are already interested in the marketing expression in one way or the other.
  • The distribution of a viral campaign happens very fast and doesn’t require an initial phase to make enough people familiar with the ad.

Disadvantages of Viral Marketing

In addition to the advantages, there are also a number of disadvantages:

  • Designing and creating a successful marketing campaign is not child’s play and requires specific skills that must be employed by professionals. If not, the chance of failure is very real.
  • Once the campaign has been launched, the people that started it have no control over it anymore.
  • If the campaign isn’t well-received by the target audience, it’s practically impossible to get the campaign completely off the internet. That’s different for, for instance, a television ad campaign that backfires. In that case, it only takes a few hours to take it down.
  • Once it’s clear to the target audience that the message is commercial, attention will waver considerably.
  • Techniques of previous, successful campaigns, often don’t work again in the future. That means people have to keep coming up with new ideas; not always easy and sometimes costly.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Have you ever heard of Viral Marketing? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for setting up and executing a good marketing strategy?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Leskovec, J., Adamic, L. A., & Huberman, B. A. (2007). The dynamics of viral marketing. ACM Transactions on the Web (TWEB), 1(1), 5.
  2. Richardson, M., & Domingos, P. (2002, July). Mining knowledge-sharing sites for viral marketing. In Proceedings of the eighth ACM SIGKDD international conference on Knowledge discovery and data mining (pp. 61-70). ACM.
  3. Rushkoff, D. (2010, 1994). Media virus!: hidden agendas in popular culture. Ballantine books.
  4. Wilson, R. F. (2000). The six simple principles of viral marketing. Web Marketing Today, 70(1), 232.

How to cite this article:
Mulder, P. (2018). Viral Marketing. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 03/20/2018 | Last update: 01/18/2024

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Patty Mulder
Article by:

Patty Mulder

Patty Mulder is an Dutch expert on Management Skills, Personal Effectiveness and Business Communication. She is also a Content writer, Business Coach and Company Trainer and lives in the Netherlands (Europe).
Note: all her articles are written in Dutch and we translated her articles to English!


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