Viral marketing can generate a lot of buzz—but that doesn’t always translate into conversions, return on your investment, or real value to your loyal customers and clients.
We’ve taken a look at the factors driving the most effective viral marketing campaigns, and distilled them into our latest Jack POV, The New Viral: effective, not just infective.
Using New Viral techniques, your marketing campaigns will reach exactly the right people and create the right conversations, strengthening your brand’s image and fostering consumer loyalty—in pandemic proportions.
In fact, we used these methods in our work with Eaton, who saw a 1028% return on investment and a 34% increase in brand awareness from the campaign.
So read our POV, and learn how to create campaigns that are not only infective, but also extremely effective.
How are we
going to make
Oh, the early aughts. A time when marketers
became obsessed with the idea that “going
viral” was the cure to all marketing ailments.
Thankfully, that time has passed. Google
Trends says that since 2004, search queries
for “viral marketing” have decreased by
Concurrently, marketers’ appetite for
marketing accountability has been rising.
Today, it’s not enough for marketing
to be infective. It must be effective.
This dawning of a new efficacy-obsessed
era has inspired us at Jack to consider how
far we’ve come since the early days of “viral
marketing,” to document some of what we’ve
learned and to share how we—and our top
clients from around the world—are thinking
about the future.
We call it the New Viral and look forward to
hearing your thoughts.
Jack Morton Worldwide
Finding an answer to
the perrenial question:
VP, Strategy Director,
2The New Viral
The problem with virality.............................4
Old Viral vs. New Viral................................8
The New Viral landscape...........................10
Introducing the New Viral approaches.......12
How to accomplish the New Viral..............22
About Jack Morton....................................27
3The New Viral
Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, the creators of free email service Hotmail,
first popularized the term “viral marketing”*
to describe the company’s rise
to primacy in 1996. In its first 18 months, Hotmail signed up over 12 million
users with less than $500K in marketing, a dramatic feat when compared to
Juno’s $20MM spent yielding a fraction of the users.
How did it happen? Every single email that went out of the system included a
simple advertising message: “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail.”
Without looking at the email address, the recipient knew that the message
had come from a Hotmail user and, thus, that the service was working. It was
bolstered by a tried and true word-of-mouth principle: there was an implied
endorsement that came with each message by someone who the recipient
knew personally, lending second-party endorsement.
What led to this technique being dubbed
“viral” were its virus-like qualities:
The word-of-mouth endorsement
The service spread contagiously, an
effortless transmission from human
*Two other sources are cited for the term “viral marketing”:
1) A 1989 PC User Magazine article describes the rapid adoption of Macintosh SEs instead of Compaqs: “It’s viral marketing. You get one or two in and they spread throughout the company.”
2) A 1996 Fast Company article called “The Virus of Marketing” cites tips as well as the term: “When it comes to getting a message out with little time, minimal budgets, and maximum effect, nothing on earth beats a virus. [...] It’s time to stop shying away
from the ominous sound of it and embrace the enemy: viral marketing or v-marketing, if the term is too harsh.”
The New Viral The problem with virality 5
As the late 1990s and early 2000s gave
rise to viral marketing buzz, brands took
notice. Agencies and clients alike became
obsessed with the pass-along value, talk-
worthiness and, of course, the virality
of their work. A dangerous assumption
started to form: getting lots of eyeballs
(or impressions) meant a highly effective
In 2000, Budweiser dominated pop
culture with its breakthrough “Whassup!”
campaign, deemed a viral sensation, won
every major industry award, including the
Grand Prix at Cannes. “Whassup!” had
captured unimaginable eyeballs globally.
But this buzziest effort did not necessarily
correlate to efficacy. During ”Whassup!”,
Budweiser’s US market share fell by 1.5–
2.5% and its barrel sales dropped 8.3%.
So while these early initiatives may have
been infective—spreading involuntarily
and widely—eyeballs gained by viral
initiatives were never a straight line to
Do not give
Facebook a single
dollar unless it’s
value. I don’t care
VP Global Marketing
The New Viral The problem with virality 6
Again. There’s no debating that, while
virality may not be the holy grail of
marketing success, it has also been
associated with success.
Just ask Blendtec about what its
“Will It Blend” video series did
for its business. 150 videos and
250MM views later, Blendtec’s
retail sales are up a reported
700%, and its YouTube channel
has over 800,000 subscribers.
Major mainstream outlets like The
Today Show, The Tonight Show, The
History Channel, the Wall Street
Journal, and others picked up on
its popularity, furthering the brand’s
reach through media coverage.
Asking for a campaign to
“go viral” was and is the
wrong ask. Increasingly, the
best viral marketing is just
the best marketing period.
Strong creative that’s deemed
worthy of people’s attention
and influence can indeed be
effective as well as infective.
The “New Viral” era is one of
increased rigor and discipline,
demanding brands do much more
than count views.
The New Viral The problem with virality 7
Achieves success by becoming rapidly popular
due to mass peer-to-peer sharing and the
accumulation of views.
Achieves success by gaining targeted
engagement through advantageous contexts to
achieve business goals.
Relying entirely on peer-to-peer sharing meant that
brands messages were inherently spread indiscriminately.
Content that reached the broadest possible, and thus
untargeted, audience was considered successful.
By leveraging new native advertising capabilities and
increased targeting capabilities, brands can carefully
reach the people that matter in the right places, rather
than relying on haphazard spread.
Because brands prioritized rapid spread and popularity
of their content, they believed “shock value” and big risks
were synonymous with virality.
Old Viral thinking was that brands were getting a deal
by earning or—in less savory contexts—forcing the
spread of their content regardless of who it reached.
Modern research demonstrates that strong positive
emotions are far more powerful than shock. Additionally,
the New Viral calls for brands to be calculated with
content, prioritizing efficacy over popularity.
A diverse set of digital platforms, influencers, and
native advertising, mean brands gain traction through a
combination of earned and paid media to amplify their
content in a more calculated way.
The New Viral Old Viral vs. New Viral 9
Brands intent on having initiatives “go viral” placed big
bets on individual ideas or pieces of content—many of
which flopped. No surprise given the rate of content
virality was below 1%.
Most early viral efforts consisted of a fairly shallow
experience whereby audiences viewed content and
chose whether or not to share that content.
Old Viral approaches often relied on a level of novelty or
incredibility to incentivize users to share the content.
Top brands invest in creating diversified and serialized
content that curbs risk by addressing increasingly
splintered audiences. This builds more sustainable
audiences instead of reliance on one-hit-wonders.
Today, users are engaged through a broad variety of
interactivity that creates experiences with brands that are
far more powerful than previous models. Brands now
respond to users and co-create with them.
Today the focus for brands goes beyond simply getting
consumers to share—they want individuals to remember
the brand, shift their perception and, increasingly, buy
into a movement.
The New Viral Old Viral vs. New Viral 10
Despite the disappointing results after viral
marketing’s initial hype (eMarketer Senior
Analyst Paul Verna calling it “art and a
crap shoot”), the core concept behind
gaining incremental reach though peer-to-
peer sharing is not dead at all. Microsoft’s
Daniel Goldstein and Sharad Goel point
out that, “while things don’t go viral like
the flu, they can get a 20 percent return—
for every 10 adoptees of a conventional
marketing effort, another two people will
adopt something organically.”
Today’s landscape is particularly prime
for achieving those gains thanks to three
1. Content marketing’s rise:
Brands recognize the power of storytelling;
90% of organizations now market with
content. But ROI tracking remains elusive
2. Digital video’s rise:
People have a seemingly endless appetite
for video. Consumer internet video traffic
will be 80% of all internet traffic by 2019,
up from 64% in 2014.
3. Higher demand for word-of-
mouth advice, especially face-to-
Peer-provided recommendations (not just
digital sharing) cut through the clutter,
helping consumers navigate more options
So, as New Viral
marketers, we must be
vigilant about creating
initiatives that do more
than gather eyeballs.
They must be shared
among the right people
to get the right result.
Long live viral.
The New Viral The New Viral landscape 12
Brands with specific,
are favoring deeper
along over surface
exposure to broad
Brands that have
can still create ideas
that are designed to
spread and impact
the bottom line; the
key is thinking about
context that will
allow for the right
Brands are focusing
efforts on creating
content across a
plethora of different
optimizing in real-
is being placed
consumers turn to
brands for more than
just a one-hit-wonder,
instead seeking out
the brand’s content.
Here’s how these New Viral prescriptions are working in the real world...
There’s no need to blindly stumble around for guidance on reaching today’s audiences. New models for
the New Viral are emerging, each with distinctive goals best suited to particular business challenges:
1. 2. 3. 4.
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 14
Microviral targeting can include:
Many brands have a very specific, niche audience to pursue (e.g. IT
buyers or parents of children with gluten allergies). An approach that
reaches millions of random people may rack up a lot of views, but
wouldn’t be very effective. Instead, brands are focusing on how to
resonate with, then generate pass-along within, targeted audiences.
Some topics are not relevant to all consumers at all times. But just
because it’s a topic that isn’t broadly interesting, and thus won’t
accumulate millions of views, doesn’t mean it’s the topic the brand
should skip. Brands are creating content that serves a very specific
purpose without mass exposure.
As consumers integrate devices into their daily lives, brands that are
there with them the moment a consumer realizes they have a need or
an interest, are brands that become their go-to solution. For example,
a consumer frustrated with their internet service provider is a prospect
ready to make an immediate purchase decision.
Many brands stand to benefit
more from content with smaller
distribution, but bigger impact on
business, rather than striving for
Super-Bowl-sized reach for reach’s
Specificity is king here.
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 15
My IT Empire
In an effort to generate brand familiarity and leads
amongst IT professionals, Eaton launched a digital tool
that created custom infographics representative of its
buyers’ IT Empires.
Through the engaging digital process of making
infographics, IT pros divulged 48 data points per user—
generating quality lead profiles and creating valuable
content that spread through IT-focused social network
Spiceworks and Reddit forums to other IT pros. The
initiative generated 1028% return on investment (ROI).
Gillette BODY Launch
When Gillette needed to target a rapidly expanding
audience of body-grooming men, it generated a series
of tutorial-style videos that men would naturally find via
personal research and through targeted native ads that
were optimized in real-time.
The campaign drove awareness for Gillette BODY among
true prospects, delivering more than 500K clicks-to-buy
and surpassing sales expectations by up to 4X across
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 16
Many mass-market brands can still benefit
from mass distribution of content. The key?
Using powerful insights as a springboard
to that content. Provocative ideas, potent
evidence, counterintuitive findings, clever
comparisons, anything to spark a new
thought, and then a word-of-mouth, media-
fueld conversation that carries the brand.
Now, creating marketing that serves
as conversational carriers isn’t easy.
Expectations need to be managed.
Thinking a consumer is going to share
something with her entire social network is
delusional. The mean size of a sharing tree
is 1.1–1.4 (meaning most content reaches
one recipient who does not share it).
Perhaps the best tactic is to aim for each
person to share with one or two others.
Simple maneuvers like adding a ‘share’
link can bump up returns by 30–40%. So
instead of swinging for the fences every
time, think about how to start a smaller
conversation that will be sustainable.
Going viral isn’t
the goal for most
people … what you
really want to do
is get each person
you’ve reached to
tell just one or two
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 17
Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches
Back in 2006, Dove’s seminal “Evolution” campaign
defined what Old Viral success looked like. Times
changed and tactics needed to as well.
It took almost eight years for the brand to achieve
another massive hit, Real Beauty Sketches, which struck
a conversational nerve about how women perceive their
own appearance versus, carrying the brand forward
with it. With over 163MM views and 4.6B media
impressions, the 2014 initiative leveraged a heavy
paid, earned, and owned amplification plan to drive its
success—a key trait of the New Viral.
Biggest 7th inning Stretch Ever
T-Mobile leveraged its sponsorship of Major League
Baseball during the World Series, which is the highest
conversational point of the year.
It launched a crowd-sourced effort to create the
Biggest 7th Inning Stretch Ever, by asking fans to grab
their phone, grab their friends, sing “Take Me Out To
The Ballgame,” and upload a video selfie to T-Mobile’s
custom tool for the chance to be featured in a 60-second
spot during the World Series. It worked, generating
over 231MM social media impressions and 500K
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 18
Google data show that 90% of users start
an activity on one device and finish on
another. Meanwhile, consumers encounter
18 or so brand touchpoints prior to making
a purchase. In this fragmented media
environment, to achieve meaningful scale—
Pandemic Proportions—ideas and content
must be optimized for transmission through
a variety of channels.
An effective content diffusion strategy needs
to address a higher quantity of different
environments/devices/media and do so
with customized content best suited to each
channel. In other words, just posting a
video to YouTube doesn’t cut it anymore.
Once brands have a proper diversity
of content, a careful communications
plan must be put in place that properly
leverages a combination between earned,
paid, and owned media to distribute that
content. It’s also important that brands
realize that 80% of the work happens
after an initiative is launched. In a digital
ecosystem, optimization and responding to
the tides of public opinion and attention is
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 19
I Will What I Want
Under Armour flipped a negative viewer perception into
a powerful viral campaign that transcended channels
and attracted pandemic attention. Consumers didn’t
connect with TV spokeswoman Gisele Bündchen citing
her as “just a model.” The company created a reaction
video with Gisele called “I WILL WHAT I WANT,”
showing her punching through the negative feedback.
With 3MM+ YouTube views,1.5B media impressions,
and a 28% increase in Under Armour sales, the response
video surpassed the original commercial’s popularity and
Piper-Heidsieck champagne needed to be viewed as
an affordable luxury to be enjoyed frequently, not
just on holidays. The brand created a year of “Piper
Moments.” This content lived through a diverse set of
channels including digital video, social media presences,
influencer events, and public relations outreach.
The campaign generated more than 6.3MM media
impressions and contributed to a 25% sales increase
in the first seven months of the year, demonstrating the
power of varied distribution of a single concept.
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 20
Providing consumers with helpful,
interesting content is a great way to
start and grow relationships with them
on an ongoing—chronic—basis.
This technique has become even
more important as consumers interact
continuously with digital media;
brands need to be where their
buyers are—physically, digitally, and
psychologically—along every stage
in a purchase journey. This New Viral
approach emphasizes the importance
of being prepared to reach and deliver
value to consumers when they’re most
susceptible to the brand’s message and
As Marriott’s David Beebe puts it: “If
you give them content that adds value,
they will allow you to market to them at
that point because you did something
for them first, rather than going straight
for the sale.” Marriott is so committed
to producing consistently engaging
content targeting next-gen travelers, it
has started a content studio dedicated
to filling its New Viral pipeline.
It’s not about one-
hit wonders. It’s
jumps at every
new song you
release (or in this
Tara Walpert Levy
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 21
Mom’s Champion of Health
Lysol has launched a content ecosystem designed to
position the brand as an ally to mothers as they tackle
the daily challenges of their growing families’ lives. The
campaign includes content meant for moms-to-be, new
families, parents of kids going to school for the first time,
By tightly aligning with mothers’ needs and emotional
states, Lysol has seen a 30% sales gain, over 301MM
added value impressions, and a 13X increase in monthly
engaged users on its Facebook page.
Red Bull Media House
Created in 2007, the Red Bull Media House operates
as its own, independently profitable media company. It
employs over 400 people, runs over 900 domains, and
offers web TV, web radio, online games, newsfeeds, and
Its fierce dedication to producing Chronic Content has
made it one of YouTube’s top 5 sports content producers
(over 1B views) and has led to 7% spikes in sales with
efforts like Red Bull Stratos.
The New Viral Introducing the New Viral approaches 22
Having models of the New Viral is all well
and good, but how do brands accomplish
At Jack, our experience with some of the
world’s most admired brands has proven
that it pays to do something extraordinary.
Too often in an era of social media
demands, brands end up obsessing over
what they’ll post next rather than thinking
about what they’ll do next that’s worth
The New Viral starts with an
extraordinary idea. A way the brand
can stand out and stand up for something
that’s meaningful and memorable to
people in their lives.
But good ideas aren’t enough. Truly
extraordinary impact is the product
of careful communications planning,
measurement, and optimization. It’s about
resonantly reaching the people who matter
most to the brand.
When, and only when, extraordinary
ideas and extraordinary impact come
together do we believe the New Viral is
The New Viral How to accomplish the New Viral 24
So how do we know an
idea is ripe for sharing?
Researchers like Jonah
Berger and Karen Nelson-
Field, among others, have
established common traits
for promising viral ideas:
Ideas must have stand-out power in consumers’ minds
and feeds. This power derives from high-arousal content
that seizes people’s emotions—whether it’s soaring
positivity or simple entertainment.
People share things that shape others’ perceptions of
them: “You are what you share.” Consumers widely
admit to sharing content to make themselves look good,
whether that means supporting a cause, being helpful, or
Ideas must be translated into easily transferable social
artifacts with clear storytelling. Videos, infographics,
listicles, and more have all provided seamless ways to
share information. Once optimally packaged, momentum
and popularity can take over as users seek to jump on a
bandwagon in motion.
Why do people share
* n=1,000 ages 18+
Source: Fractl,”The Link Between Content Sharing &
Identity,” November 10, 2014
1% To learn something
44% To entertain
25% To educate
20% To share something
that reflects who they are
10% To support a cause
The New Viral How to accomplish the New Viral 25
While producing highly-
sharable content is the first
step to New Viral success,
achieving truly extraordinary
impact requires content
with disciplined attributes of
Content must reach the right people at the right scale
for the brand. As such, it’s crucial that marketers
assemble strong communications plans to ensure proper
“Viral videos” can gain great pass-along numbers,
but without memorable branding, but those videos are
unlikely to truly work for your business. Effective content
must be memorably branded—cleverness is fine so long
as viewers have no doubt as to the content’s brand
origins—to attain mindshare and stickiness capable of
changing peoples’ perceptions and behavior.
View-counts and impressions are okay as a snapshot
evaluation. But rigorous measurement that demonstrates
brand health lifts, full funnel impact, and/or lifetime value
must be implemented to truly understand how well an
The New Viral How to accomplish the New Viral 26
From our POV, New Viral
success depends upon
establishing and maintaining
high-quality brand behavior.
The following proven
principles help us establish
a due North, creating a
path for joining some of
the world’s most admired
Is there a way for people to get involved
and make this a two-way interaction?
Is this initiative inspired by a human
insight, rather than your brand’s agenda?
Be a destination:
How can your brand be a person’s
destination—or at the very least on, not
in, the way?
Does a non-purchase interaction with
your brand leave consumers better off
than when they came to you?
What would motivate a person to share
this, and what would they get out of
If your initiatives pass these criteria, then
chances are you have an Experience
Brand on your hands—one that
consistently fulfills its brand promise by
delivering tangible proof. If not, it may be
worth bringing in some fresh perspectives
to nail down a brand experience worth
Clearly, there’s a lot more to the New Viral
than just eyeballs, but with the right idea,
the right impact, and the right principles,
efficacy is in sight.
The New Viral How to accomplish the New Viral 27