What is social media viral marketing and is it still working in 2021?
What is social media viral marketing and is it still working in 2021?

Millions of people hearing about your brand for free is a dream of every business. Before you rush to your marketing team and demand “One viral content to go, please,” let’s dive into the phenomenon to understand how it works and how to make the success of other brands repeatable and applicable for your social media accounts. Also, together we will find out if it’s still working in 2022.

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What is social media viral marketing? (In case you’ve been living under a rock.) 

Viral content is a magic video, photo, tweet, etc that instantly becomes popular on social media and is shared by everyone. Social media viral marketing aims to use the same principle to promote a brand. 

The method of promotion relies heavily on people willingly distributing viral-worthy content. Social media users will spread the content like butter on a hot toast across the web on their own. Just sit and relax. 

Unfortunately, viral marketing is not that simple. It can backfire if your content is not well thought out. But if you are lucky enough to go viral for all the right reasons, your brand will be organically seen by millions and gain international recognition. 

Through several real social media viral marketing cases, let’s see what can make a brand go viral.

Related Article: 6 important social media trends in 2020

The bright side of social media viral marketing content

Viral exposure on social media not only provides amazing brand exposure but also can help to multiply your impressions and engagement on social media. Furthermore, it can build a positive image that ultimately will increase the bottom line.

Press coverage is sort of a package deal for viral marketing. Press loves to cover viral content. If you manage to produce something that goes viral publications won’t miss the chance to cover it. As a result, organic exposure will increase all by itself!

One of the recent cases of social media viral marketing comes from Weetabix and Heinz. In a funny tweet, Weetabix—a popular cereal breakfast company asked an entertainingly curious question to its followers.

The bright side of social media viral marketing content - weetabix

The tweet spread through Twitter like wildfire. It generated a lot of creative and genuinely funny replies from other famous brands. As a result, the tweet gathered hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets and remains one of the best social media viral marketing examples of 2021.

What made it even more successful is Weetabix’s witty-minded social media team that managed to reply to most of the replies with creative and relevant tweets. As a result, the thread is a treasury of humor-based marketing on Twitter.

The bright side of social media viral marketing content - Dominos pizza

Just take a look at some of the headlines this tweet generated for Weetabix:

Another notable example would be one from the viral marketing hall of fame—DollarShaveClub’s “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” ad. Now this one was a straight-up marketing video advertising their shaving blades, but they did so in a confident, non-traditional, and funny way that was relatable to thousands.

The ad garnered so much attention because it spoke directly to the consumers in a straightforward tone, addressed an issue with their solution, and managed to entertain them at the same time. It went on to set a standard for many startups that tried to imitate this style for their ads.

The dark side of social media viral marketing content

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies when it comes to viral marketing. Some brands have got it the hard way with going viral. It’s not always that the marketing team can foresee and prevent a campaign from going viral for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure the Peloton marketing team would agree.

The fitness equipment company released an ad for Christmas last year, which at first glance is your average Christmas ad, but ended up offending many women and instantly became infamous. The company ended up pulling off the ad from YouTube and apologizing for it.

As if that’s not bad enough, the company’s stocks dropped significantly after the marketing disaster. And as every viral social media content, it also managed to generate quite the headlines. Take a look at some of the headlines below: 

Peloton Ad Is Criticized as Sexist and Dystopian” by The New York Times

Peloton ad costs the company and shareholders $1.6 billion” by CBS News

Another case of viral marketing gone wrong was a tweet by Burger King on International Women’s Day(IWD). 

As expected, IWD gets social media managers itching to celebrate women but this particular gesture by Burger King was not well received by the public. 

The reception the original tweet got was overwhelmingly negative, so much so that the brand was forced to delete it and apologize,  following abusive comments in the thread.

The brand went ahead to do some damage control and tweeted this to explain their intention, but maybe such bad publicity could have been avoided.

Burger King viral marketing content

This should serve as a lesson to brands to be extra careful when addressing sensitive topics. Every detail needs to be thought and planned out carefully.

Elements of a viral content

A few of the social media viral marketing cases described above probably gave you some hints about viral content’s elements. 

Take the Netflix case for example. The tweet has several elements at once. It not only stood out with a unique brand voice but also utilized Twitter for what it is – a place where people like to ask ridiculous questions. The content wouldn’t go viral the same way on Facebook.

All the past examples of social media viral marketing cases show a pattern of key elements for viral social media content. Cyberclick’s article does a great job of describing those key elements. We’ll briefly go over each element to give you an understanding:
1. Trendjacking: A lot of brands were able to add their penny to something viral and get a moment of fame for themselves. A notable example is Adobe’s response to Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album art of 12 emojis of women in different skin tones. They hopped on the trend and used it to show their different products, with each emoji exhibiting different Adobe Software.

social media viral marketing - Adobe

2. Unique Brand Voice: The MoonPie example has this element as well. This brand’s input would be lost in the sea of memes about the art sale if it wasn’t for its unique brand voice. The same goes for Netflix’s playful tweet discussed above. 

3. Utilizing the Social Landscape: Different platforms, different audiences, different ways of interacting with content. Take the social media platform and its audience into account when developing your viral social media content.

4. Correct Use of Influencers: Having a popular influencer in your campaign may help your content to go viral. Just don’t do it as Pepsi did with their Kendall Jenner ad back in 2017. Their 2018 Cindy Crawford ad is a better example of a successful celebrity endorsement campaign. 

5. Hashtags: The use of correct hashtags or coming up with your own hashtag can help to spread your message or invite people to engage with your content.

Worth checking:

👉 How to use hashtags on Facebook and do they really work?

👉 6 Instagram hashtags myths

👉 How to build a social media marketing strategy

Six of the best social media viral marketing examples to learn from in 2021

1. Starbucks: What’s your name 

For this campaign, Starbucks collaborated with Mermaid—a nonprofit supporting gender-diverse individual, to show support for the gender-diverse and transgender community on a campaign titled #WhatsYourName. Together, they created a TV ad showing the struggles of a teenage transgender called Jemma. 

Starbucks LGBT+ Channel 4 Diversity Award 2019 | Every name’s a story (Extended Version)

The goal of the campaign was to celebrate and welcome every customer irrespective of their social identity and the campaign depicted this when Jemma uses the name James when ordering coffee at Starbucks.

After the ad, Starbucks then started the hashtag #WhatsYourName, where people posted their pictures with a mermaid limited edition tail cookie to show support for the Mermaid community. 

The campaign also doubled as a fundraiser for the Mermaid community and Starbucks through the sale of the special cookies in their stores helped raise over £100,000 for the charity organization.

What they did right: Starbucks created a relatable, inclusive and emotional campaign that touched the hearts of millions. At its core, the campaign simply reflected the values of the company. 

Infusing your core values into your different campaigns can help communicate trust to your customers, letting them know that the values your brand stands for are not just mere words on paper.

2. Spotify: 2021 Unwrapped

At the end of every year, Spotify; the music streaming platform with over 381 million active users, releases a personalized summary of all the music you listened to throughout the year. The wrap shows you different statistics like your most played artist, most played songs, the number of minutes you’ve spent listening to music, and then creates a personalized playlist off all that information.

Spotify 2021 Unwrapped

Every user’s wrapped summary comes with colorful graphics that are instantly shareable on social media and this is a great way to keep users engaged and exploit user-generated content for viral marketing. 

What they did right: Everyone likes to show off their music taste especially if it’s a tad different from the norm. Every year, they simply exploit this human desire and get existing users to market their product for free while satisfying their user’s needs and keeping them engaged.

3. Zoom: Virtual background contest

In 2020, Zoom became the synonym and verb for video conferencing all over the world(even if the actual software being used was not Zoom), because a lot of people started working from home. However, Zoom didn’t rest on their laurels. They were still looking to increase brand awareness while simultaneously getting new people to try the product on free trials, so they introduced the virtual background contest.

Zoom virtual background contest

Zoom users had to share a picture or video using its virtual background feature and every month, the 3 best entries were awarded branded Zoom items as prizes.

They created a specific landing page for the contest entries and a separate Twitter account to showcase some of the best entries. You don’t need a paid plan to participate in this contest, so it is an interesting way to acquire new users while using user-generated content to increase brand awareness.

What they did right: Zoom leveraged the fact that people working from home might not have a suitable and professional enough background to conduct meetings to their advantage. 

They created a feature that met that need and the users in turn( probably without even knowing) helped them meet theirs also, through the contest and the branded prize items.

4. Apple: Shot on iPhone campaign

If you think you’ve seen an iPhone ad or commercial from Apple before you might be mistaken. Instead what you saw was another brand advertising Apple’s product. 

So how then does Apple market its products?

In March 2015, Apple started this campaign with the hashtag #shotoniphone on Instagram. Fast track six years later, and this campaign has generated over 23 million posts on Instagram and those numbers would continue to increase as long there are iPhone users.

Shot on iPhone

The hashtag allows users to show off new features on the latest and trending Apple phone products. It encourages users to share photos and videos taken with their iPhone camera and the winning images are displayed on Apple’s website, Instagram account, and on billboards around the world.

This is a great way to increase brand awareness because when incredible photos and videos are posted by real users using iPhones, this content then helps to convince others of Apple’s product quality.

What they did right: Another example of using user-generated content to go viral. I mean who wouldn’t want their picture displayed on a billboard in London. They also created a branded hashtag, which is one of the key elements of virality on social media.

5. YouTube and BTS: Permission to dance challenge

#BTS #PermissiontoDance challenge only on @YouTube #Shorts starting Jul 23rd.

YouTube partnered with popular k-pop band BTS in July 2021  with the “Permission to Dance ” challenge, to promote its new short-form video functionality—YouTube Shorts. 

To participate in this challenge, users were asked to create a 15 second YouTube Short right from the Youtube mobile app replicating the dance moves from BTS’s new permission to dance music video.

This challenge has generated well over 148,000 video submissions across 84,000 channels, with BTS’ English announcement tweet pulling about 240,000 likes.

Both parties benefited from this partnership as YouTube was able to promote their new feature and BTS was able to increase the reach of their new single.

What they did right: This is an example of influencer marketing, just that this time both parties benefited. Both YouTube and BTS leveraged each other’s established audience to promote their work.

6. Drake’s album cover

Popular Canadian rapper Drake once again broke the internet with the release of his Sixth studio album—Certified Lover Boy. He has developed a reputation for using memes to make his work go viral.  So it comes as no surprise that he inspired yet another meme phenomenon to market this new album.

Days before the official release of the album, Drake announced the new album by posting the cover art of the album. It featured 12 emojis of pregnant women in different skin tones wearing different colored tops.

Drake album cover

Soon enough, another musician Lil Nas X spurred the trend by announcing his new album by posting a similar image of 12 pregnant men. Other brands then began to share their version of the album art.

They all did this to showcase the different ranges of their product.

All of this resulted in the album being the most-streamed album in a single day on both Apple Music and Spotify on September 4, 2021 ( a day after its release). The album also debuted as No.1 on the Billboard 200 charts of most popular albums in the United States and sold over 613,000 in its first week.

What he did right: Drake’s album marketing strategy is a perfect example of letting the media and your fans do all the marketing for you. He understands that the Internet loves memes, so he creates one from his work, which attracts the media and ultimately provides the needed publicity for his album.

Is social media viral marketing still relevant in 2021?

The last decade proved that people are tired of the fake corporate approach to consumers. The success of campaigns like DollarShaveClub’s “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” showed the demand for honest and straightforward brand voices. Many other similar campaigns followed throughout the decade which proved to be successful on the internet. 

Examples from Weetabix and Drake prove that viral marketing is still relevant. The Peloton ad and the burger king tweet, on the other hand, shows that brands are on thin ice and the slightest carelessness in a campaign may break it and leave the brand in cold waters.

Viral marketing is always unpredictable and the general cliche rule of marketing of being authentic is especially applicable. The cases above show how to successfully make your own take on brand authenticity in the era where people expect transparency and straightforwardness from brands they use.

General CTA - social media viral marketing

Sirarpi Sahakyan

Sirarpi is an enthusiastic digital marketing specialist 🙃 She enjoys not only writing content about social media and marketing in general but also she has a passion on help readers by providing unique information.