What is the truth behind viral content


Viral Marketing - Definition

What is viral marketing?

Viral marketing is a modern form of marketing that uses social media. It has therefore only developed strongly in the last few years and is now considered one of the most tried and tested ways of spreading advertising messages and other messages. [1]The word "viral" originally comes from medicine. It describes a disease or infection caused by a virus. Features of a viral infection include the rapid spread and ineffectiveness of antibiotics against the viruses. As a sick person, you cannot do anything to actively intervene in the recovery process, only the symptoms can be alleviated. [2] Viral marketing on the Internet is spreading just as quickly and persistently as a viral infection. At first glance, the content of such a marketing measure is unusual in order to attract users' attention. This is usually used to make a brand or product known. The success of viral marketing is classified as very high due to the minimal financial outlay. [3]

Forms of viral marketing

The form of viral marketing can be categorized into four different types. Two of these arise from the activity of the distributor and the other two from the scope of the marketing function. They are briefly explained below: [4]

  • Activity of the disseminator
    • Passive viral marketing
      This means that the message is spread solely through the use of the products by the users themselves.
    • Active viral marketing
      The disseminator must try to ensure that the message is shared and that it reaches as many other users as possible. He has to start the "virus" in the world and spread it. The prerequisites for this are of course the motivation and the technical possibilities.
  • Scope of the marketing function
    • More advertising oriented approach
      The focus is on communication and promotion of a product or a brand. A high degree of dissemination is aimed for in order to achieve various marketing goals. This often includes increasing awareness or branding.
    • Holisticmore oriented approach
      In addition to the advertising aspect, this approach also has other functions, such as market research, pricing or product design. The early integration of the consumer should support the entire marketing process. The involvement of the target group enables a higher level of user identification with the product or the brand.

Ways of spreading

The spread of viral marketing messages mainly takes place in the digital space. Even if the classic word of mouth is to be named as a possible distribution, the focus is mostly on technical functions and the media environment. [5] In order to provide a brief overview, the most common distribution channels are listed below: [6]

  • Tell-a-friend functions
  • Email forwarding
  • Weblogs
  • Contributions within communities
  • SMS / MMS
  • Communication with influentials

Basic requirement for viral marketing

The content of viral marketing is intended to lure users and arouse their curiosity. For this it is an advantage to make the content as entertaining and original as possible. The message has to be surprising, unique and, most importantly, free. Dissemination can be spurred on by factual or monetary rewards and actively encourage users to share the message. [7] When it comes to the strategic and target group-specific placement and distribution of viral web messages, one speaks of “seeding”. The word, which comes from English, means "to sow". Only a “seed” should be spread in the digital world. The growth and thriving of the "plant" is then taken over by the users of social media, etc. As in the plant world, care must be taken to ensure that the environment is good (fertile). [8]


Excursus: recommendation marketing - EWOM

Definition of WOM and EWOM

The term “recommendation marketing” is made up of the words “recommendation” and “marketing”. The word "marketing" comes from the English verb "to market" and means "to do business" in German. [9] The term “recommendation” is translated as “recommendation” in the Anglo-Saxon language area.

The literature currently does not provide a generally applicable definition of the term referral marketing. It should be mentioned here that it in no way denotes a clearly defined research area. Science provides a wealth of related terms in this area. [10] First of all, the “recommendation” can be derived from the Anglo-American term “Word-of-Mouth” (WOM), in German “word of mouth” or “word of mouth advertising”. [11] Therefore, in the following, the meaning of the WOM will first be considered.

The WOM communication is considered to be one of the oldest solutions for conveying reliable information about people, products and services, the quality of which is still unknown before the purchase. [12] As early as 1967, Arndt defined WOM as a verbal act of communication between a sender and a recipient about products, services and brands. The recipient perceives this communication as neutral, as he does not assume that the sender has any commercial interest. [13] Buttle complements and distinguishes this definition from Arndt, with the following properties: [14]

  • Valance: Positive or negative WOM
  • Focus: Concentration of the WOM on customers, suppliers or employees
  • timing: Timing of the WOM before or after the purchase process
  • intervention: Active or passive influence of the WOM
  • Solication: WOM is either initiated by companies themselves or not

This understanding of WOM, which enables consumers to share information and experiences with other consumers, is also represented by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). WOMM is only spoken of by influencing the communication between consumers. The influence takes place by a company or by third parties acting on behalf of the company, i. H. give consumers an opportunity to talk about products and services. For WOMMA, the term WOM functions as a generic term, to which WOMM is subordinate. [15] In this work, WOMM is used as a synonymous generic term for recommendation marketing.

The management consultant and author Schüller, who has specialized among other things in customer loyalty and referral marketing, implies with a recommendation an "over the pure communication [..] influencing instruction, be it positive or negative nature, which in most cases an own experience precedes the respective offer [...]. "[16]

Based on the definition approach of WOMMA, according to Kozinets et al. WOMM defined as the active influencing of the customer's communication process through professional marketing techniques. [17] A summary of the central features of WOM and WOMM can be found in Table 1 below.

objectAuthor and yearfeatures
WOMArndt, J. (1967)Verbal act of communication that is independent and non-commercial
WOMButtle, F. A. (1990)·       Valance: positive or negative

·       Focus: Customers, suppliers or employees

·       timing: before or after the purchase

·       intervention: active or passive

·       Solication: initiated by the company or not

WOMMWOMMA (Ed.) (2005)Influence on communication activities by a company or a third party
WOMMSchüller, A. M. (2008)positive or negative indication of action which is preceded by one's own experience
WOMMKozinets, R. V. et al. (2010)Influence on communication actions through professional marketing techniques

Tab. 1: Central characteristics of the WOM and WOMM [18]

From the point of view of the management consultant Schüller, recommendation marketing is suitable for both business-to-consumer and business-to-business markets (B2C or B2B). [19] Other authors, on the other hand, see this instrument primarily in the area of ​​B2C. [20]

Viral Marketing - EWOM

In addition to the concept of traditional WOMM, digital word of mouth, also known as Electronic Word of Mouth (EWOM), is very topical. In the course of internet-based communication, the number of recipients of information has increased many times over that of the traditional WOMM. [21] EWOM can be described as "any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the Internet" [22]. This means that both positive and negative statements from potential, current or former customers about a product or company are made available to a large number of people and institutions via the Internet.

There are many ways of doing digital word of mouth on the Internet. Examples are discussion forums, chat rooms, blogs, social networks, websites, etc. [23] EWOM communication is therefore mostly in written form over the Internet. In addition, messages spread faster and Internet users retain a certain anonymity. In addition, Internet communication is stored and can be accessed at any time. [24] In addition, the subgroups of recommendation marketing viral marketing, social media marketing, buzz marketing, community marketing and influencer marketing should be mentioned at this point. All of these forms are based on the basic principle of the WOMM. [25] The first two subgroups mentioned are briefly explained below. "Viral marketing describes the targeted triggering of word of mouth for the purpose of marketing companies and their services." [26] Essentially, viral marketing spreads messages quickly and efficiently like a "virus" within a network. Social media marketing, on the other hand, focuses on the interactions of the users of social networks. The speed of the spread of WOM takes a back seat in social media marketing. However, interactions in social networks can have viral effects. [27]

Comparison of WOM and EWOM

A comparative consideration of WOM and EWOM is undertaken in the following. In the context of classic word of mouth, the recipient is an active part of interpersonal communication, whereas this is not the case with electronic form of word of mouth. [28] Emotions and interpersonal relationships take a back seat at EWOM. Both forms can lead to both positive and negative word of mouth. However, a positive EWOM has a high impact on the success of a company and its products. [29] In this context, it should be noted that classic customer recommendations are a close supplier-customer relationship that has existed for a long time. If the customer's quality requirements are met at the beginning of a customer relationship, the customer will be ready to make a recommendation. For viral marketing, on the other hand, the duration of a relationship is of little importance, because the focus here is on "recommendations for opportunities" that are temporary and situational in nature. This includes tips for a website and unspecific recommendations such as storytelling, in which the author tells the content to be conveyed in the form of a story. [30]


Advantages and disadvantages of viral marketing

Benefits of Viral Marketing

Viral marketing offers you the opportunity to achieve a large reach at low costs. Because with the help of free social media, which includes Facebook, for example, content can be distributed easily and uncomplicated. Good content is sometimes shared again and again by users and thus circulates on social media even after months and years.[31] This multiple sharing of the content can thus achieve a large reach and the users become direct advertising ambassadors. This includes another benefit, because social media users perceive the content as more trustworthy when it is shared by friends or influencers. This enables you to achieve a positive image for your company.[32]

Viral marketing content gives you the additional advantage that users do not perceive this content directly as advertising. This is displayed within the users' news feed and, in contrast to classic advertisements, cannot be filtered out by ad blockers.[33]

The advantages of viral marketing at a glance:

  • Inexpensive marketing method
  • Large ranges possible
  • Viral content is not directly perceived as advertising
  • Users become advertising ambassadors

Disadvantages of viral marketing

In addition to the advantages, viral marketing also has some disadvantages. This includes, among other things, the fact that once you publish it, you can no longer pause or control your viral content.[34] You also have no influence on whether the correct target group you want is addressed.[35] In addition, there is a risk that the user does not understand the message of the content correctly and that this leads to negative user-generated content (UGC), which can also have a negative effect on your image.[36] In addition, the success of viral marketing cannot be clearly predicted and measured in detail.[37]

Overview of the disadvantages of viral marketing:

  • Published content can no longer be stopped or influenced
  • Exact target group addressing is not possible
  • No control over the distribution and the UGC possible
  • Negative effect on image possible


Expert tips for your viral marketing

To make your viral campaign as successful as possible, we will show you tips and tricks from social media experts for successful viral marketing:[38]

Tip 1: evoke emotions

The content of your viral campaign should be original and evoke emotions in the users. B. exhilarate, touch or support and help in certain situations. (Philipp Steuer, Social Media Manager)

Tip 2: Identification with the topics

The target group should be able to identify with the content of your viral campaign and be able to have a say so that they can actively deal with the content. (Dominik Schwarz, VP Marketing & Communications, HomeToGo)

Tip 3: the right time

Publish your content at the right time and where your target audience is. With the help of, for example, bookmark portals, current, interesting topics and trends can be observed and recognized. (Nicole Mank, Junior SEO Consultant, SEOSEO GmbH)

Tip 4: emotional pictures

Pictures and cartoons or caricatures that convey emotions or take up current events achieve great viral effects. (Jan Stranghöner, Junior Product Manager SEO & Social Media, DuMont Net GmbH & Co. KG)

Tip 5: Influencing by influencers

Identify influencers who are active within your target group, e.g. using social scoring platforms. This allows you to have a strong influence on your target group. (Stefan Oversberg, Semper Superior, Online marketing advice)

Tip 6: Target group-oriented approach

The stronger the author of your content has an emotional connection to the respective topic, the more a target group-oriented approach can be achieved. (Helen Schrader, SEO Consultant, SEOPT e.K.)


Examples & best practice for viral marketing

EDEKA super cool

Sparkasse: The naked truth about the speedster Grandpa

Video game Moorhuhn and Johnny Walker

One of the first examples of viral marketing was the advertising game Moorhuhn, which was developed by Phenomedia AG for Johnnie Walker. Within a very short time, the game developed enormous popularity and notoriety. This then carried over to the whiskey brand Johnnie Walker. [39]

Ice Bucket Challenge

In addition to viral campaigns with a direct advertising purpose, there are also campaigns with a social background in viral marketing. The Ice Bucket Challenge was one of the most successful viral campaigns in 2014. People filmed themselves pouring icy water over their heads and pledged donations for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In addition, other members of their social network were asked to imitate them. In the end, more than 28 million people accepted the challenge and donated a total of $ 115 million. [40]

More examples of viral marketing

Selfie by Ellen de Generes at the Academy Awards 2014 - Viral Marketing by Samsung [41] 

Do it like Amazon - viral marketing on the weekly market [42]


Viral Marketing - Developing a Campaign

To develop a successful viral marketing strategy, keep the following points in mind: [43]

Goal definition

First of all, the objectives of the campaign must be defined and how they are to be achieved.Some of the goals of a viral marketing strategy include:

  • Increase the range
  • Increasing attention
  • Improvement of the image
  • Reaching new target groups
  • Increasing the traffic on the website

Of course, these goals can also be achieved with other marketing strategies. For this reason, you should decide in the company whether it would not make sense to first promote the development of a community in the social networks with the available budget. Establishing a certain fan base is essential to get viral marketing off the ground successfully.

Presentation of the content

The advertising message in viral marketing can be conveyed to the target group of your company in various ways. Videos in particular make up a very large proportion of this, as the best practice examples show. In addition to videos, there are also other campaign goods available for viral marketing:

  • Images, photos, infographics
  • PDF files or presentations
  • Online games
  • Apps and software
  • E-books, documentation, white papers, tutorials

Added value and benefits

A successful campaign must always have a benefit and offer the viewer added value so that they can publish it. The benefit can be expressed, for example, in the form of entertainment value or fun. In addition, a campaign can also have an informative benefit or significantly simplify the life of the target group.

Only if there is a redirect incentive for the user is he ready to share the content via different platforms. Viral marketing uses existing behavioral patterns, e.g. the need to communicate, to belong to a group or the need for attention. Your viral campaign needs to address these needs in order to get users to actually spread the viral message. You must always have the feeling that the forwarding brings you more benefits than risks.

Emotions and unique ideas

For the successful implementation of a campaign for viral marketing, emotions must be evoked in the consumers. This enables the viewer to better remember the conveyed message or the brand. Emotions such as joy, astonishment, interest and curiosity can best be conveyed through pictures and videos. Generating emotions also means that users are more likely to spread the word, and this is the only way that the campaign has the potential to spread virally. In addition to the emotions and benefits, the uniqueness, individuality and creativity of the campaign also play a major role in terms of viral distribution.

Spread of the viral campaign

Companies that believe viral marketing consists of publishing the individual campaigns on their website and on social media are quite wrong. Anyone who thinks this way lets the effects of a viral marketing campaign bypass largely ineffectively. The message must be actively spread in a targeted manner in order to be successful. For example, it can be done via selected multipliers and influencers in your industry. In addition, it is important to use networking to identify and maintain personal contacts with people who are very broadly networked.

Success measurement for viral marketing

Measuring the success of your viral marketing is usually quite time-consuming, as there is not just one tool that can be used to measure the spread of a campaign. In addition, the success of a viral campaign also depends on your pre-determined goals.

Tools for measuring success:

  • Social media monitoring tools
  • Research tools to find influencers
  • Alert tools such as Google Alerts or Talkwalker
  • Web analysis tools such as Google Analytic
  • Online clipping services in the print, online and broadcast sectors
  • Email marketing software, such as Cleverreach or Evalanche, provides extensive reports




[1] See Heymann-Reder, D. (2012), Social Media Marketing. Successful strategies for you and your company, p. 31

[2] Cf. Trupkovic, T. et al. (2012), Antimicrobial Therapy in Patients After Burn Trauma, p. 256

[3] See Heymann-Reder, D. (2012), Social Media Marketing. Successful strategies for you and your company, p. 31

[4] Cf. in the following Schulz, S. / Mau, G. / Löffler, S. (2011), Motive und Effects im Viralen Marketing, p. 220 ff.

[5] Cf. Schulz, S. / Mau, G. / Löffler, S. (2011), Motive and Effects in Viral Marketing, p. 218

[6] See below Weis, C. (2015), http://www.business-on.de/virales-marketing-definition-virales-marketing-_id40892.html; Access: May 21, 2018, o. P.

[7] Cf. ibid

[8] See Kientzler, F. (2018), https://suxeedo.de/content-seeding/; Access: May 21, 2018, o. P.

[9] See Bibliographisches Institut GmbH (Hrsg.) (2018), https://www.duden.de/…; Access: 05.02.2018, o. P.

[10] Cf. Schüller, A. M. (2008), Zukunfttrendempfehlungsmarketing, p. 26; see Schüller, A. M. (2013), Touchpoints. Getting in touch with today's customer, p. 112; see Weiber, R. / Wolf, T. (2013), Word-of-Mouth Marketing. The use of consumer-side communication for marketing, p. 211

[11] Cf. Holzapfel, F. et al. (2015), Digital Marketing Evolution. Classic advertising dies, p. 267

[12] Cf. Radic, D. / Posselt, T. (2009), Word-of-Mouth Communication, p. 251

[13] Cf. Arndt, J .: Word of Mouth Advertising and Informal Communication. Boston, 1967, p. 190, quoted from: Weiber, R. / Wolf, T. (2013), Word-of-Mouth Marketing. The use of consumer-side communication for marketing, p. 210

[14] Cf. in the following Buttle, F. A. (1990), Word of mouth: understanding and managing referral marketing, p. 243 ff.

[15] See Word of Mouth Marketing Association (Ed.) (2005), http://www.nick-rice.com/…; Access: January 24, 2018, p. 2

[16] Schüller, A. M. (2008), Zukunfttrend Recommendation Marketing, p. 27

[17] See Kozinets, R. V. et al. (2010), Net worked Narratives: Understanding Word-of-Mouth Marketing in Online Communities, p. 71

[18] Own illustration

[19] Cf. Schüller, A. M. (2008), Zukunfttrend Recommendation Marketing, p. 27

[20] Cf. Rankel, R. / Neisen, M. (2013), This is how recommendation marketing works today, p. 17; see Tropp, J. (2014), Marketing Communication as Part of Corporate Communication, p. 1115

[21] See Schüller, A. M. (2006), recommendations can be planned. Classic marketing is reaching its limits, p. 42; see Lis, B. / Korchmar, S. (2013), Digitales Recommending Marketing. Conception, theories and determinants of the credibility of the Electronic Word-of-Mouth (EWOM), p. 11

[22] Hennig-Thurau, T. et al. (2004), Electronic word-of-mouth via consumer-opinion platforms: What motivates consumers to articulate themselves on the internet ?, p. 39

[23] See Hennig-Thurau, T. et al. (2004), Electronic word-of-mouth via consumer-opinion platforms: What motivates consumers to articulate themselves on the internet ?, p. 39; see Schüller, A. M. (2006), p. 42

[24] See Hennig-Thurau, T. et al. (2004), Electronic word-of-mouth via consumer-opinion platforms: What motivates consumers to articulate themselves on the internet ?, p. 43

[25] Cf. Tropp, J. (2014), Marketing Communication as Part of Corporate Communication, p. 1115; see Word of Mouth Marketing Association (Ed.) (2005), http://www.nick-rice.com/…; Access: January 24, 2018, p. 3

[26] Langer, S. (2009), Viral Marketing. How to trigger word of mouth in a targeted manner and use it profitably, p. 27

[27] Cf. Tropp, J. (2014), Marketing Communication as Part of Corporate Communication, p. 1115

[28] Cf. Lis, B. / Korchmar, S. (2013), Digitales Recommending Marketing. Conception, theories and determinants of the credibility of the Electronic Word-of-Mouth (EWOM), p. 6

[29] Cf. Lis, B. / Korchmar, S. (2013), digital recommendation marketing. Concept, theories and determinants for the credibility of the Electronic Word-of-Mouth (EWOM), p. 12

[30] See Langer, S. (2009), Viral Marketing. How to trigger word of mouth in a targeted manner and use it profitably, p. 30

[31] For this section, see Aufgesang GmbH (publisher) (o. J.), https://www.sem-deutschland.de/inbound-marketing-agentur/online-marketing-glossar/definition-viral-marketing/; Access: May 18, 2018

[32] See on this section Fischer, J. (2018), https://www.marketinginstitut.biz/blog/virales-marketing/; Access: May 18, 2018

[33] Cf. on this section Beilharz, F. (2018), https://felixbeilharz.de/experten-tipps-fuer-virales-marketing/; Access: May 18, 2018

[34] See Gay, R. / Charlesworth, A. / Esen, R. (2007), Online Marketing. A Customer-led approach, p. 414

[35] See Aufgesang GmbH (publisher) (no year), https://www.sem-deutschland.de/inbound-marketing-agentur/online-marketing-glossar/definition-viral-marketing/; Access: May 18, 2018

[36] See SEO-Küche Internet Marketing GmbH & Co. KG (ed.) (No year), https://www.seo-kueche.de/lexikon/virales-marketing/; Access: May 18, 2018

[37] See Fischer, J. (2018), https://www.marketinginstitut.biz/blog/virales-marketing/; Access: May 18, 2018

[38] See below Beilharz, F. (2018), https://felixbeilharz.de/experten-tipps-fuer-virales-marketing/; Access: May 18, 2018

[39] Cf. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virales_Marketing; Access: May 22, 2018

[40] Cf. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/gesundheit/psychologie-virale-strohfeuer-1.3378220, accessed: 11.03.2018

[41] Cf. http://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/unternehmen/ellen-degeneres-selfie-samsung-kauf-sich-einen-oscar-auftritt-12831037.html

[42] Cf. https://www.romankmenta.com/quermachen-mach-es-wie-amazon/; Access: May 22, 2018

[43] See below https://tusche-online.de/wie-funktioniert-virales-marketing/; Access: May 22, 2018