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There seems to be an idea floating around the marketing industry that viral marketing also means free marketing. Whenever I speak with a group and they discuss their budget limitations, they always speak whimsically about the opportunity for their message to go viral, thereby giving them a substantial return for no investment.

But that’s the problem, there is almost always an investment required to make something go viral.

I’m not just speaking about the costs associated with creating the content; whether it be video, images, or writing. I’m speaking about the advertising costs associated with making something go viral. Don’t get me wrong, there are opportunities for content to go viral with little or no investment, but those are incredibly rare. And oftentimes, the things that go viral that everyone thinks came out of nowhere actually had very large budgets and were advertised aggressively.

Below I’ll outline the best steps to ensuring your message goes viral as well as how to promote it.

Make them laugh, make them cry … just make them do something!

One of the best ways to help your marketing campaign go viral is to first create something that engages the audience on an emotional level. If you’re expecting your dry ebook or case study to go viral, I have news for you: It won’t!

Your customers want to be entertained. So entertain them. Just because you’re making them laugh, think, or cry, doesn’t mean you can’t also get a marketing message across. So make sure the piece also has substance. If you create a cartoon that goes viral but has nothing to do with your brand or your audience, it will have much less impact than something that’s targeted and contains valuable content.

Judge the book by its cover

I know, I know. You’ve been told your whole life not to judge a book by its cover. Well, guess what. Everyone does it. Including you. So use this to your advantage.

Ensure that the “cover” of your marketing message is something that will grab your audience’s attention and make them want to engage with it.

You should experiment with dozens of photos. Ask for friends and family to focus group the photos so you can ensure you’re picking an image that will really grab your customer’s attention. The image you select for your message is almost more important than the message itself.

Next, you need to think of the headline. Why should your audience engage with your campaign? What’s the payoff for them? You need to answer these questions in one single sentence. There’s a reason you see lists on every media outlet. Lists get clicks. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see the “10 Best So-and-So” on every single website. So use this to your advantage. Choose a headline that engages your customer right away. Again, you should ask for feedback regarding this and experiment with a few variations.

Open up your wallet

This is the hardest idea for a marketer to wrap their head around. As I stated earlier, just because it went viral doesn’t mean it did so for free. If you’ve created a video, you can pay for placements on YouTube. If you wrote a compelling blog post, you can promote it via Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Regardless of what you’ve created, there’s a platform that will allow you to promote it for relatively cheap. If you’re good and you spend the time on it, you can have thousands of eyeballs on your marketing message for the cost of a can of soda.

What makes it even easier to boost a message’s chances of going viral are the social media algorithms. They share the activity of their users with the user’s friends. Thus, if you spend money to get one user to like, share, or retweet your message, it will be seen by that user’s connections at no cost to you.

There can be a snowball effect that is generated from this type of marketing. Once a message has been shared enough, it can take on a life of its own and perpetuate its growth without additional dollars. But giving that snowball the initial push down the hill can cost money.

Lean on the thought leaders

Do you want to know the secret to getting your message shared by an industry luminary? Come closer …
You have to ask.

That’s it. You’ll be shocked at how easily you can get a thought leader to promote your content by simply asking them. These thought leaders and industry giants are people just like you and I. If you were asked by someone who was much less able than you for help, you’d probably oblige. Unless you’re an ass. In that case, this will all seem foreign to you.

Similarly, industry leaders are happy to help out as long as you ask the right way. This means no spamming them. You also cannot mass email them to save time. In fact, if you’ve ever thought that was a good idea, you should stop reading this and go read an Interpersonal Relationship 101 book.

Instead, what you do is politely explain what you’re asking for. You then share with them the information. Then you wait and see if they oblige. If they don’t, a single followup contact is adequate, but do not pester them. If you do, you’ll burn that bridge forever.

So there you have it. Your primer for making something go viral on the Internet.

Mike Templeman is CEO of Foxtail Marketing, a digital marketing agency specializing in content marketing. When he’s not writing about the tech industry, startups, or marketing, you can find him hiking a mountain near his home in Utah. You can follow him on Google+ or on Twitter.

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