Last Updated: December 1, 2020
Believe it or not, one of the most successful viral marketing campaigns in history occurred years before YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and most modern conceptions of the Internet even existed.
In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez began drumming up buzz for their now-legendary movie, The Blair Witch Project, using innovative techniques made possible by the relatively new culture of the Internet. The film is an early example of the “found footage” style that is made to look like amateur video shot by real people. Myrick and Sanchez, along with Artisan Entertainment, capitalized on the realistic look of Blair Witch to build a campaign around it that suggested the footage actually was real.
The Blair Witch Project marketing campaign used a website designed to convince people that the horror/mystery scenario of the movie was an actual missing persons case. Myrick and Sanchez also visited online message boards to spread rumors about the mystery. The campaign was so successful that many people still believed the movie depicted actual events by the time it was released in theaters.
On a budget of less than $1 million, The Blair Witch Project grossed nearly $250 million. The buzz stemming from the innovative, Internet-based marketing campaign turned what could have been just another horror movie into a national phenomenon. (See also Buzz Marketing)
What is viral marketing?
Viral marketing is a business strategy that uses existing social networks to promote a product. Its name refers to how consumers spread information about a product with other people in their social networks, much in the same way that a virus spreads from one person to another.
The basis of viral marketing is in the spread of information by word-of-mouth (see Word-of-Mouth marketing), but modern technology has allowed the viral effect to include many Internet-based platforms as well.
Avenues of Viral Marketing
The viral effect can spread through many different networks, including:
- Social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc)
- Video sharing sites (Youtube, Vimeo, etc)
- Web forums
Viral marketing typically supplies its audience with something of value for free. This can be something as simple as an amusing song or game. Whatever the viral content is, it must encourage people to share with others so as many people as possible receive the content’s message.
Who implements viral marketing campaigns?
Viral marketing is useful as a stand-alone marketing tool or as a part of a larger campaign that uses multiple kinds of marketing. It is especially attractive to smaller businesses or companies because viral marketing can be a cheaper alternative to traditional marketing efforts.
A new energy drink company, for example, could create an Internet video featuring a person who consumes the energy drink before performing a seemingly impossible bicycle jump. If the video is made to look real, it may encourage people who see it to share it with others. After the video receives enough views, the company could reveal its true purpose, convincing its viewers to seek out more information about the drink without ever using a traditional advertisement.
Viral marketing is often used in conjunction with other methods of marketing, such as in the case of the Blair Witch Project. The viral aspect of the campaign generated buzz about the story long before the release of commercials, trailers, posters, and other forms of traditional marketing. This caused many people to already talk about the movie before it was officially announced to the public.
Content does not have to be covert to be viral. Political campaigns often create videos featuring sound clips of an opposing candidate saying something people may find offensive. Politicians hope that by pointing out an outrageous statement, the video will go viral and cause others to develop a negative attitude toward the targeted opponent.
Burger King Goes Interactive
To promote its new Tendercrisp sandwich, Burger King launched a website that allowed users to give commands to the “subservient chicken,” a man in a chicken costume. In an era when most people leave websites within eight seconds of visiting, many of Burger King’s 15 million first-week visitors to the subservient chicken page spent six minutes or more engaging with the content.
Implementing viral marketing techniques
There is a common misconception that viral marketing depends on the ability to reliably create something extremely popular. In reality, a successful viral marketing campaign rests more on understanding how to connect with specific demographics by presenting them with valuable content.
Viral marketing is a customer-focused approach, so the first step is to identify the target demographic for a product and what they value the most in products, requiring marketers to research and analyze demographic data. During the Blair Witch campaign, the filmmakers and main marketing agents for the movie were accomplished film students. They examined what made horror movies compelling for the demographic of teens to young adults they were targeting, as well as explored how that demographic shared information. They used this information to focus on their product’s mystery, and they concentrated their early efforts on the Internet where they knew they would have the best chance of reaching a younger audience. (See also Youth Marketing)
Going Mobile is Going Fast
The faster a marketing message spreads, the more likely it is to go viral. Today, information shared via mobile technology is by far the fastest-moving information in the world.
Speed of Mobile Information
- Average response time to a text message: 90 seconds
- Average time to report a lost or stolen mobile device: 68 minutes
- Percentage of mobile searches for product info resulting in a purchase: 70%
Sources: www.ctia.org, www.unisys.com, www.mobilemarketer.com
Once a company knows what its target demographic wants and how they communicate, they begin creating content those people will want to share. The Blair Witch team created websites, message boards, and fake news stories that heightened the horror and mystery of the movie’s story. The content encouraged people to look for more information about the story, and even collaborate with their friends in their investigations.
Viral marketing is a continual, interactive process. A company that implements a viral compaign shouldn’t simply let it run its course without adjustment. The Blair Witch campaign remained active on Internet message boards, interacting with real fans and regularly updating websites with more information based on fan discussions. It, like most viral campaigns, succeeded because it grew along with the interest in the product.
Careers in viral marketing
Viral marketing requires careful planning and a team with a strong understanding of modern media. This means there are many career opportunities in the field, including:
What do they do?
Viral Marketing Salaries
- Web Designer
Highest Earners: $80,000
- Content Specialist
Top Earners: $72,000
- Market Researcher
Top Earners: $65,000
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
The majority of viral marketing campaigns involve Internet platforms. Any company that wants to succeed in viral marketing needs the services of a skilled web designer to create websites and other online materials. Web design is a highly technical field involving several computer programming languages and a good sense of visual composition.
Education and Skills
A web designer should have a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing, computer science, or new media, or an arts degree in design. In addition to a resume with computer-focused work in it, web designers often have to provide work samples demonstrating their ability to create websites.
What do they do?
A viral campaign is only as good as the content it wants people to share. Content specialists create materials like videos, games, blog posts, and other things consumers will want to share with others. This requires a diverse range of skills in new media, creativity, and communications.
Education and Skills
Content specialists should have bachelor’s degree in marketing, communications, public relations, or business. Previous experience in a media-focused position is very helpful as well.
What do they do?
Most forms of marketing, viral strategies among them, benefit greatly from research into the trends and habits of consumers. A market researcher reads existing consumer data and conducts original research to determine what consumers want and how to reach them. These tasks demand great attention to detail, computer literacy, and strong communication skills.
Education and Skills
Market researchers should have a bachelor’s degree in marketing, business, psychology, sociology, or data analysis. It is useful to also have a background in database management or statistical analysis.
How can a marketing school help you succeed?
Our Recommended Schools
Grand Canyon University (GCU)
GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)
Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.
Viral marketing may be one of the most popular, fastest-growing strategies in the field, but it is often used in conjunction with more conventional forms of marketing. Those who are interested in pursuing viral campaigns can develop a diverse consumer-oriented skillset in a marketing education program.
Marketing programs start with foundational courses that concentrate on fundamentals such as budgeting, company culture, brand development, and other concepts common to all strategies in the marketing business. Marketing professionals will need to use these skills regardless of the companies and products they manage.
Students in marketing programs will also learn how to use tools like word processors, database management software, and many forms of new media for Internet campaigns. Computer technology is essential to every kind of marketing employed today, from ultra-modern viral campaigns to straightforward classics like direct mail.
Late-program course work asks students to engage in hands-on classes that apply what they have learned from the books and case studies they have read. This often takes the form of business simulations that task students with creating their own marketing plans, developing their own teams, and conducting their own market research. This is the last and most valuable test in a marketing education. Students who can succeed at this stage are ready to pursue a position in the fast-paced world of modern marketing.