15 Viral Marketing Examples Over the Past 5 Years

From a towel-wearing man dispensing advice on YouTube, to a snobby mustard refusing Facebook fans, it’s pretty amazing to think about all the incredible viral marketing that has come out in the past half-decade. I thought it would be fun to take a trip down memory lane and review a handful of the best examples over the past 5 years.

2009 Campaigns

Ashton Kutcher Reaches 1 Million Twitter Followers

The social Roger Bannister of his day, Ashton Kutcher proved his tech-savvy by becoming the first person ever to break the 1 million follower barrier.

This was a key moment in social media history. It helped legitimize a growing social network and showed just how much popularity and influence Twitter could have. Unfortunately, it also contributed to the practice of gaining as many fans and followers as possible without considering if they were the right fans and followers first.

Ahston Kutcher Twitter 1 Million

Mad Men Yourself

To help create buzz around the third season of Mad Men, AMC launched Mad Men Yourself, an avatar creator that allowed you to make a stylized ’60s version of yourself. The site received half a million visitors in the first week and the Season 3 premiere saw record ratings. Perhaps the most impressive part about this campaign is it’s still going strong five years later, receiving updates with every new season.

Mad Men Yourself AMC

Paranormal Activity

Five years later and I’m still amazed that a small independent movie with a $15,000 production budget was able to become one of the most profitable movies of all time. Its success was due in no small part to a fantastic viral marketing campaign.

The movie was initially released to a small number of cities; however, after the goose-bump inducing trailer, a call to action appeared prompting fans to “demand” the movie play in their city.

Paranormal Activity Eventful

Through a partnership with Eventful, Paramount created a petition system. If a city reached a certain number of people demanding the movie, it would play in that city.

If there’s anything that piques people’s interest, it’s not having access to something.

Volkswagen: The Fun Theory

In Volkswagen’s The Fun Theory, the brand used a series of experiments to find out if you could make people healthier, more environmentally conscious, safer, etc., if you made a mundane activity more fun. In addition to piano stairs and the world’s deepest trashcan, the brand invited creative people to come up with their ways of making boring things fun.

It’s difficult to tell how a campaign like this can specifically affect sales, especially when the branding was so subtle – almost as if it was an afterthought. However, it did create a nice parallel between the brand and the idea that innovation can make people happier and their lives more enjoyable.

Also, whether intentional or not, it was a fantastic case study that proved how easily you can positively affect human behavior by taking an everyday activity and making it more fun.

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2010 Campaigns

Ben Folds: Ode to Merton the Chatroulette Pianist

Although it seems like the Chatroulette fad was eons ago, it’s really only been three years since the video chat site exploded in popularity. During this time, the improvising piano player known as Merton created the highest-rated video on YouTube by singing to whoever popped up in his chat window.

Many viewers commented that he looked a lot like the singer/songwriter Ben Folds. In an ode to the original, Folds performed an improvised Chatroulette performance in front of a live audience at one of his shows, becoming a viral success in and of itself.

(Warning: NSFW Language)

The example demonstrated that celebrities and brands could piggyback on Internet trends to achieve their own success.

KLM Surprise

In a fantastic example of a surprise-and-delight style campaign, Royal Dutch Airlines used Foursquare check-ins and Twitter to identify passengers waiting for their flights. Then KLM representatives stalked scanned the passengers’ profiles to find out more about them and presented them with thoughtful gifts.

The act itself would have been fine, but having a camera crew around with them while they did it was a crucial piece of the promotion. This example shows that not only do you have to use effective marketing to appeal to your consumer, you also have to market your marketing.

Old Spice Man Responses

Riding the wave of success from Isaiah Mustafa’s brilliant portrayal of The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, Old Spice brought the character to the social world with Old Spice Man Responses. The brand uploaded 185 videos to YouTube over the course of two days, responding to comments on various social networks with the same quirky wit featured in the commercials.

I could go on about the millions of impressions and views, but the real legacy of this example is that it will go down as one of the most memorable social media-related campaigns ever.

2011 Campaigns

Internship.com and Charlie Sheen

Back when Charlie Sheen had one of the most entertaining meltdowns of all time, the folks at Internships.com pounced. The man himself invited pretty much everyone in the world to be his social media intern when he tweeted out this message:

How successful was the endorsement? The website saw 74,000 applicants in the first 48 hours following Sheen’s first tweet and over 1 million unique visitors during the length of the campaign. So… pretty successful.

Take This Lollipop

At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard the wise advice to “never take candy from a stranger.” This microsite asks you… no, dares you to do just that. Using Facebook Connect, Take This Lollipop accesses your friend’s list, photos, address and any other relevant information it can find to scare you.

The app then makes a video of a frightening looking man in a dark, dank basement stalking you on his computer. What’s interesting about this campaign is that instead of appealing to an emotion like humor or nostalgia, it used fear as a motivator, which, as it turns out, is quite powerful.

Take This Lollipop Viral Campaign

2012 Campaigns

Dollar Shave Club

Addressing a common pet peeve with humor is always an effective way to connect with your audience. As a man, buying razors is an annoying process. Dollar Shave Club sought to remedy that with a razor subscription service. But it wasn’t the service itself that made it a popular water cooler topic, it was the way the service was marketed.

In a hilarious, near-stream-of-consciousness-style monologue, founder Michael Dublin extolled the virtues of Dollar Shave Club and it was an instant hit. DSC is a private company and hasn’t released any revenue numbers, but it does have over 200,000 customers due in no small part to this brilliant video.

This video also shows that you can use profanity in your marketing, provided you have the right audience.

Dumb Ways to Die

Marketing something… I’ll just go ahead and say it, boring, like public transportation safety, can be very challenging. Reminiscent of The Itchy & Scratchy Show from The Simpsons, this public service announcement campaign by Metro Trains in Melbourne, Australia became a viral sensation.

Why was it so successful? Well, it’s cute, catchy, and violent – three factors that always get people’s attention.

Honda Pintermission

Pinterest is a great platform to find new crafts, exercise routines, life hacks, and general inspiration to do something really fun and different with your life. Unfortunately, some people spend so much time on Pinterest, they never realize any of their pinned aspirations.

Honda set out to change that by offering Pinterest users $500 to pursue their goals. This campaign stood out to me because in addition to being a great piece of marketing, it also produced a fantastic content series. And in a place like the Internet, where good content is king, adding that aspect to any marketing is a big win.

Honda Pintermission

Tipp Ex: Hunter and Bear’s 2012 Birthday Party

Back in 2010, Tipp-Ex, a European whiteout manufacturer, launched a choose-your-own-adventure YouTube channel involving a hunter and a bear. By typing in a command, you could instruct how the hunter should handle the situation. It was a viral success, and two years later, they made another one.

2013 Campaigns

Dove Real Beauty Sketches

What may go down as the viral campaign of 2013, Dove once again challenged our perceptions of beauty. With Dove Real Beauty Sketches, the brand invited a group of women to sit down with a sketch artist and describe themselves to him. The brand then asked strangers to describe the same women. The artist then showed the pictures side by side showing the negative perception many women have about their own looks.

The brand wasn’t pushing a specific product. It was making a statement and a powerful one at that. What I most love about this campaign is that it shows if you make a fantastic piece of content, people will do the viral marketing for you. If there’s one thing you can take away from reading this blog post, please let it be that.

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Grey Poupon Society of Good Taste

Since Pages have existed, brands have been trying to acquire as many fans as possible. However, Grey Poupon decided to go against that practice and actually reject people who weren’t “sophisticated” enough. The Society of Good Taste used Facebook Connect to access a rather large amount of data from your profile to decide if you “cut the mustard.”

Grey Poupon Society of Good Taste

If your grammar was too poor, photos too scandalous, or friends too unseemly, you might not make the cut. This alternative approach proved to be extremely successful to the tune of 100 million impressions and fan increase of 3000%.

Final Thoughts: A Pet Peeve

In closing, I would just like to address a big pet peeve of mine. Don’t start off brainstorming by saying, “let’s create a viral marketing campaign” or “let’s make a viral video.” That’s like an NFL team saying let’s have a championship season. I appreciate your optimism, but you’re not a champion unless you’re raising the Super Bowl trophy above your head. The same story goes for marketing. A campaign isn’t viral until after it’s hugely successful and everyone is talking about it.

This is only a small sample of viral marketing executed over the past five years. If you’re trying to enhance your social media marketing strategy with a viral marketing campaign, reach out to our team using the form below!

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