The Six Signs of Viral Advertising


What makes an ad go viral? There are numerous examples of companies trying to make their ad and their message spread like cancer. You can saturate a large audience for minimal distribution costs. Some succeed in getting that buzz flowing. Some fail miserably and people laugh at them for trying too hard.

GM tried to run a user-generated video campaign for its Chevy Tahoe SUV back in March. The car manufacturer created a site that let visitors select text and video clips, and compile them into a commercial. It was all very smart. But they failed to take into account their audience and totally missed the bull’s eye. The campaign backfired, and the Tahoe site that let visitors view the created clips became plastered with anti-SUV ads using the Tahoe footage.

Figuring out “what people want” is so complicated. I don’t think anyone has ever come up with a mathematically precise formula to predict exactly how people will react to an ad campaign. Still, there are a few characteristics common to ads and marketing gimmicks that have successfully gone viral, earning their creators a big return on their initial investment.

1. Fun-ability

Is it fun or funny? Is it something that people have never seen before? How does it score on a scale of lame to awesome?

The video ad for Sony’s Bravia line of color LCD TV’s featured 250,000 colorful superballs bouncing down the steep inclines of the San Francisco streets. The ad literally painted the video screen you were watching with bounding globes of color. It gave you the same child-like fascination of tossing a pebble over the side of a cliff only 250,000 times bigger and more colorful. The next Bravia ad that Sony’s working on purportedly features 70,000 liters of paint raining down from the sky.

Many would agree that Burger King’s Subservient Chicken site, launched in 2004, was a real blast. A Web visitor is confronted with webcam-like video footage of a guy in a chicken suit minding his own business. But if you type a command into the box underneath, the chicken will do it. It immediately captured your attention as you type in outrageous commands to see how the chicken will react. The site’s automated, but the webcam-like style of the video and the chicken’s silly, human-like antics makes you question whether you’re commanding a machine or a real person.

2. Shareability

Is it something that people would want to share with their friends? Do users get some benefit from passing it along?

Pyramid schemes work this way. Participants get more commission by recruiting underlings. Some legitimate online examples include Blingo, a Google-powered search engine that randomly doles out prizes like PSP’s and free movie tickets to its users. Users increase their chances of winning something by inviting their friends to join Blingo. The Free iPods scheme is similar. Users sign up, and once they’ve looked ad a certain number of promotional offers and recruited a certain number of friends to do the same, they get a free whatsits in the mail. Shareability isn’t always so selfish though.

Some services like Gmail rely on their customers’ willingness to share the service’s user experience with others. Social networks like MySpace also spread virally. Users want to be able to interact with their friends within the network, so they encourage them to get their own accounts.

3. Stick-in-your-mindability

Is it something that pops into your mind throughout the day after you’ve turned off your computer?

A lot of good viral campaigns generate buzz offline as well as on. If a campaign can keep people awake at night either laughing their heads off, or mulling over some mystery, they will eventually share it with their friends. Good examples of “mysterious puzzles” were Microsoft’s ilovebees campaign for Halo 2, and the campaign for the Xbox 360. Both involved mysterious websites with counters. Both were supported by cryptic emails to leaders in the fan community, and both involved heavy puzzle solving that drove people nuts and generated an explosion of chatter on gaming forums.

And you can rarely go wrong with humor. I feel I have to point out the Gene Kelly commercial for the VW Golf from 2005, simply because seeing Gene breakdancing to techno music was funny enough to keep me chuckling all the way home yesterday.


  1. The best “viral” advertising is free advertising. That’s right “free”. No PPC. No idiotic chickens. No stupid truck ads. Its the cynical manipulation of the advertising industry that offends, such as trying to get viewers to leverage a brand, as if buying into the damned thing isn’t enough. People want information they can do something about: actionable information. Period! And, if “actionable” amounts to forwarding an ad that’s actionable because of value instead of manipulation – then “viral” will take care of itself. Don’t think so? Ever hear of free AOL e-mail? AOL’s example (for example) is an actionable model that introduces an apparently novel concept these days in advertising, called “value” instead of cynical manipulation.
    Derick Harris
    Cyber ID
    Volcano, Hawaii

  2. Hmm, interesting. What happened to #1, VALUE? I have never (nor do I know any reasonable human being who has) passed on anything online, whether textual, pictorial or video that he/she did not find valuable. VALUE is the #1 thing we are looking to provide via our travel videos. It seems like 8% of our visitors find our videos valuable enough to pass them along to a friend via the good’ol “email to a friend” link.

    Dom Einhorn
    Free Travel Podcasts
    Hosted by Latin Supermodel Estelle Reyna


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