How to create the perfect viral campaign

For the uninitiated, this is the process by which a viral is launched onto the net, put in front of the first generation of viewers and given the momentum that will carry it on to greater things. If your content is perfectly viral, then in theory, you should be able to stick it on your Facebook profile and by lunchtime the entire world will have seen it.

On planet Earth, however, things don't always pan out quite like that. Two things make seeding important: other content and timing.

Rise above the rest

As I noted earlier, your viral is in competition with pretty much every other bit of content on the web – and there's a lot of it. The latest mind-boggling stat from YouTube is that "every minute, 20 hours of video are uploaded".

Even assuming that 99 per cent of the 20 hours is unwatchable rubbish, that's still 12 minutes of perfectly watchable stuff being uploaded every minute. To stand even the smallest chance of getting on the radar, you've got to get above all of that.

As for the importance of timing, here's a little anecdote. A few years ago, before YouTube existed, we made a viral for Lynx as part of its Click campaign. It was called 'Webcam girls gone wild', which is about as good a title as you can get for the target audience and it had pretty good viral potential. A couple of days before launch, the client pulled the seeding budget, so we did the best we could, pulled a few favours, and it got 100,000 views or so, then sank. Fail.

About four months later, after the main campaign had ended and the site the viral was supposed to drive traffic to had been taken down, the director sent us a link to it on Google Video. It was number one, and had been for about three weeks. It had had 14million views – just too late to be of any use to the client. Had they not pulled the seeding budget, they would have got all that and more during the campaign, the viral would have been hailed as a great success and they would have been verbally fondled by their superiors.

I recently discussed the nuts and bolts of seeding a viral marketing campaign on my blog. There isn't space to reprint it in its entirety here, but here are the salient points.

Seeding activity breaks down into two sorts: paid for placement and outreach. Paid-for placement, as the name suggests, involves finding websites that you'd like your viral to be featured on (usually because they're influential and popular with your audience), and paying them to feature it.

Outreach is the harder bit and is usually what people mean when they refer to seeding. It involves contacting influential users online and making them aware of your viral. Influential people usually run a blog, or have a highly followed or respected Twitter, Digg or Reddit account.

When they post something, lots more people see it, and many of those other folk will, in turn, re-post it. You can't pay them to take your content, because they would find that insulting. They might accept a gift of some sort, but don't bank on it.

The surest way to get them to take on your viral is to meet these key criteria:

1) Already know them;

2) Make something relevant and good;

3) Give it to them while it's still brand new.

First, of course, you have to find the best people to talk to. This doesn't mean writing one email and then sending it to every address you can get your hands on. That will do you no good at all – in fact it will anger a lot of people.

Samsung sheep

Think about who is most likely to be interested in what you're promoting and, crucially, who will find it worthwhile telling other people about it. Once you've worked that out, you have to get to know them. People generally don't like unsolicited marketing crap from people they've never met.

If your content is brilliant, they might not mind, but if it isn't, beware. If you've already been in contact with them and built up a relationship, though, they're far more likely to respond. Remember to be highly respectful. In their world, these people are well-known and influential – that's why you're trying to get in touch with them, right? So treat them extra nicely, or they'll be rude to you and maybe your client, possibly very publicly.

And that's the last thing you want. In particular, spamming people is the height of disrespect, so contact them personally, whether by phone, email or instant message. Take the time to talk if they're in the mood and if they ask questions, answer promptly and be friendly. Focus on what you can do for them, not the reverse.

Unless they run a marketing blog, it's highly unlikely they'll care what your marketing objectives are. They're interested in anything you can give them that will help them look cool and entertain their audience. Don't expect them to be interested in helping you drive traffic to your site, even if it does have a cool quiz, game, competition or film on it.

There needs to be a quid pro quo arrangement. You have to give them something that attracts traffic to their blog (not forces them to drive people away from it). This means that you should seed embeddable content, in the form of code that they can drop straight onto their page without any messing around.

If you're seeding video, there are lots of different sharing sites you can use to host your clip, and then seed the embed code. If possible, choose YouTube, because it's the one that people trust and it gives the best data.

Route to success

Every viral campaign is different, but certain key aspects remain largely the same. Know your audience, be creative and entertaining, sweat the production but without making it look like you have, seed like the wind, use the force, be lucky, and you too can experience the vertiginous heights, the veritable whirlwind, the smorgasbord of mixed metaphors that is viral success.

Of course, remember that what constitutes viral success is down to the client. You might think it means millions of views, loads of good comments, great ratings, and thousands of blog posts, some on very influential blogs.

But if the client wanted to sell 50,000 widgets and your viral only sold six, none of the above is important. Go back to the original brief you got. Did you achieve the aims outlined there? If you did, then congratulations! Well done! Do you fancy a job?


First published in .net Issue 198

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Matt Smith is Director Enterprise UKI at Citrix and helps to guide his team to think differently and position solutions in partnership with their customers and partner ecosystem.