Originally, viral marketing referred to word of mouth advertising. In theory, one person tells all their friends, who in turn tell all their friends, and so on. In practice, this rarely worked out well. Ask anyone who tried to make money with Amway.
With the advent of the Internet, however, Viral Marketing suddenly became something a great deal more viable. You don't have to know your consumer personally to reach them with a blog, video, or web page. Word of mouth can reach hundreds, perhaps thousands, the moment someone hits the post button to talk about it.
Ideally, a viral ad does not seem like an ad at all. Viral marketing techniques usually rely on making something entertaining that people will want to share and subject to Memetic Mutation. Watch It for the Meme is a desired effect. Photoshop and a sense of humour are affordable and useful enough for that task. Catch phrases and stock phrases are cheaper.
Marketers should be wary when treading into the sleeping giant of the Internet, however, as consumers despise paper-thin attempts at viral ads or ads that are demeaning to consumers. As a further point of advice, note that doing this relatively openly (unless it's an Alternate Reality Game, or "in universe") is less likely to arouse ire.
The Colbert Bump is dependent on Viral Marketing.
The political equivalent is "astroturfing" which is a fake grass-roots movement.
Anime and Manga
- Kyoto Animation is particularly well known for this, especially with regards to their breakout hit The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
- Elfen Lied was actually spread almost completely by word of mouth. Not intentionally, what happened is pretty much the same.
- Although not directly related, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann has a character actually named 'Viral', leading to much Memetic Mutation.
- Here is a pic hilariously failed example of attempted viral marketing, where said marketer accidentally copies part of his DC Comics marketing standards into his posted messages.
- Or just a hard-working troll pretending to be an incompetent marketer. It's impossible to tell with 4chan.
- One of the earliest movie examples (possibly the Trope Maker?) is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Posters saying simply "Du mußt Caligari werden!" ("You must become Caligari!") were placed all over German cities, with no explanation whatever.
- The movie Cloverfield was extensively advertised through anonymous videos, Myspace pages, and websites.
- Much of the success of The Blair Witch Project is attributed to the ingenious viral advertising that was used. The viral ads were so convincing that many people to this day believe that the "myth" of the Blair Witch is true.
- The Dark Knight got a huge viral marketing push, starting with the "I Believe In Harvey Dent" teaser site in 2007 (which showed a pre-production photograph of Heath Ledger in makeup as the Joker, revealed one pixel at a time). Afterwards, tons of sites (over 30, by last count) based on Gotham landmarks, a newspaper (called The Gotham Times), Harvey Dent's campaign and the Gotham vigilantes appeared. The 2009 San Diego Comi-Con had fans dressing up as Joker and going on scavenger hunts to get prizes and reveal more information about the film. This led to pictures and video clips (including the first glimpse of Two-Face) being revealed, and finally, a massive scavenger hunt that ended in a site being revealed where people in several cities across North America could sign up to attend a pre-release screening.
- Not to mention:
- Cell phones hidden in cakes hidden in lockers at bowling alleys.
- Said phones containing messages by Heath Ledger & Aaron Eckhart themselves.
- "I Believe In Harvey Dent" campaign trucks handing out flyers, t-shirts et al.
- Certain cities offered free pizzas courtesy of Domino's.
- Some cities offered a viewing of a "Jokerized" trailer; some lucky people even got to take the reel home.
- And other awesome things.
- Disney set up a very realistic site for Buy'N'Large to advertise the movie Wall*E, complete with an extremely humorous disclaimer.
- Serenity, despite being a relatively low-budget film, featured various viral marketing tools, most notably a series of 'interviews' with character River Tam, set before the events of the movie and TV series. As a concession to the (lack of) budget, the interviewer is none other than Joss Whedon himself.
- Watchmen has begun a small viral marketing movement with a website for fictional newspaper The New Frontiersman.
- Monsters vs. Aliens has started a conspiracy website to subtly plug the movie. This gets a Lampshade Hanging and it's pretty hilarious on its own. (get your commemorative alien coins!)
- Prior to the wide adoption of the web (1977), the original Star Wars used viral marketing in the SF specialty magazines, which caused enough of a buzz to get picked up by the mainstream media, which actually covered the opening of the movie as a news event.
- The rival conspiracy websites run by Leo and Simmons from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Real Effing Deal and Giant Effing Robots, exist on the real internet, complete with phony YouTube videos of barely-visible Transformers.
- District 9, while being advertised through standard movie trailers (as more of a documentary at that), established websites and social networking pages for both MNU and an unnamed resistance group. Staying completely in character, the website is a detailed satellite overview of what is presumably Jo-Burg complete with highlighted "non-human zones," "Restricted Areas," and reports of possible non-human illegal activity across the city.
- There is even a sub-page dedicated to a live Community Watch which permits Americans to call in non-human sightings to a hotline and record a message to be displayed on the nationwide map.
- Not to mention "For Humans Only" signs posted on bus stops in major U.S. cities...
- In the UK some phone boxes got the same treatment, combined with the previous entry as they included a phone number to report alien sightings.
- There's also Christopher's Non-Human Rights Blog.
- There are also quite a few of the aliens who have Facebook profiles. There's even a group called MNU Spreads Lies.
- 2012 has the Institute for Human Continuity, an organization dedicated to preserving the human race and society in the face of the inevitable apocalypse predicted to happen in the year 2012. Apparently, the site was so convincing, that people were fooled into believing the 2012 apocalypse theory was real.
- Apple Trailers used to have a page for Nation's Pride, a Nazi propaganda film that is actually a Movie Within A Movie from Inglourious Basterds.
- Iron Man 2 promotions included commercials for Stark Expo (even one from 1974).
- The Tropic Thunder stars parodied this in a skit for the MTV Movie Awards in 2008: Ben Stiller brings Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr. to his office to make a viral video to promote their new movie. Via Stiller's invocation of Role Association and the suggestions of his sullen nephew, most takes involve Po taking groin attacks from Iron Man.
- Black Dynamite has FightSmackInTheOrphanage.org, an organization to help kids get off smack because orphans don't have parents.
- Disney's Tron: Legacy got some In-Universe Marketing with Flynn Lives who are looking for long missing Kevin Flynn with support from his son Sam. You can join the site and as rewards for completing parts of it you get swag like pins, stickers, posters, postcards etc. You can complete games and at one point join in crashing an Encom Press Conference.
- Weeks before The Virginity Hit came out, billboards were spread out asking "Are you virgin? Call [some 555 number]". The billboards also looked legitimate for those not catching up with movies.
- Prometheus featured an extensive viral campaign which was unique for heavily featuring the main cast members. The promotion included a Weyland Industries website, which showcases the early form of what would eventually become the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (and featured explanations of the film's technology, along with a timeline of past events), a viral game that had players solve codes embedded in the site to unlock new pictures and content, and a series of viral videos that included the TED 2023 Talk (with Guy Pearce playing Peter Weyland) and the "Happy Birthday, David" promo (featuring Michael Fassbender), which was also promoted in the New York Times via a full-page "Meet David 8" ad. The film also had a tie-in promotion with Verizon to get more content by playing interactive games.
Live Action TV
- Lost did not invent viral marketing, but it did popularize the idea of making fake websites about fictional companies which were then tied into massive online games (including several held between seasons). Fictional websites for Oceanic Airlines, the Hanso Foundation, the DHARMA Initiative, and Ajira Airways have all been created and tied into alternate reality games.
- The first viral game was the Oceanic Airlines website (now defunct), which had a biography of the company and a full seating chart of Flight 815. Clicking on specific seats or combinations of seats would allow the reader to access pictures, short video/audio clips and background documents. This later led to the "Find 815" campaign (below).
- The game between seasons 2 and 3, "The Lost Experience," is widely credited as restarting the viral marketing movement after the Blair Witch Project (in fact, some news articles incorrectly claim Lost invented viral marketing in the first place). The game featured real advertisements on television during episodes of Lost for the Hanso Foundation and other fake companies, which linked to websites involved in a global clue hunt to assist a new character named Rachel Blake in exposing the Hanso Foundation's nefarious acts. The game was criticised in its later acts for failing to effectively tie into the show, though it did finally lay to rest what the infamous "numbers" mean.
- The game between seasons 3 and 4, "Find 815," was more low-key, a simple interactive website with real video clips of new characters searching for the Black Rock. They instead find the "wreckage" of Oceanic flight 815, and this discovery was actually a major plot point in the series.
- The game between seasons 4 and 5, which never got a true name, involved players being recruited by and taking tests for a remade DHARMA Initiative. However, the game was literally cut short by the September 2008 economic recession, and was replaced by producer interviews in December.
- The first-to-third new series of Doctor Who were accompanied by a slew of fake websites concerned with aspects of the show. Notably, the Who is Doctor Who website, featured extensively in Series One and Two, and updated with each episode. Series Three had a "Vote Saxon" website, obliquely referenced in the show when one character, being imprisoned by Saxon's agents, almost breaks the fourth wall by yelling at observers, "It's your fault! All of you! You voted Saxon! You did this!"
- Breaking Bad had waltswisdom.com for Season One and waltswarning.com for Season Two.
- HBO's Viral Marketing for True Blood, the show based on The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries, is here.
- The Muppets put a series of videos on Youtube in a rather blunt form of this. And it's hysterical.
- Actually, this is a somewhat instructive example of Viral Marketing done well: The Muppet characters were sufficiently adaptable to fit in this context, and the presentation was very much "Found Document", rather than anything that could be construed as Astroturfing.
- Cookie Monster is trying to make his SNL audition tape go viral so he can become a host.
- The viral campaign for The Muppets in 2011 revolved around an entirely fake romantic drama called "Green With Envy", which was promoted (with stars Jason Segal and Amy Adams, and none of the puppets) as a legitimate project, which even had a fake press release and poster drawn up for it. The official trailer was even credited as "'Green With Envy' Movie Trailer", and seems to focus on a pair of star-crossed lovers...until the announcer suddenly starts introducing Muppet characters halfway through, and Segal (in-character) stops the trailer to break the fourth wall and ask if this is a Muppet film! Later online commercials parodied various popular films and shows that were all being released around the same time as The Muppets, and the project got some serious viral promotion.
- Heroes has an appropriately sparse website for the Primatech Paper Company, and a sleeker, more elaborate page on Pinehearst Research.
- Pushing Daisies has an in-character example of how not to do this, with a character who runs in and shouts about the candy store that opened up across the street, and then denies that he works there, saying "I'm just some guy. Some guy who loves candy!"
- Dollhouse had an Alternate Reality Game (it consists of a single website) titled R-Prime Lab. It is about Hazel, a girl trapped in a container being shipped by sea. The container is fitted out with equipment dating back to what was presumably the experimentation that led up the creation of the Dollhouse technology. Video messages from players are read by Hazel on a daily basis, taking hints from the players on how to solve various puzzles that may lead up to a way for her to escape from the container. There is a lot of backstory for the show revealed. Here's a link.
- In universe, Criminal Minds had a technology savvy religious fanatic posting videos of his murders on the Internet. The internet promptly assumed it was Viral Marketing for a movie or game of some sort, and asked for more videos. The Unsub didn't exactly take it well.
- The Battlestar Galactica Spin-Off series Caprica did this with The Caprican, a fictional online news and lifestyle magazine written in an in-universe style. It has numerous articles and offers an expanded look into life on 12 Colonies. Readers can participate in the website through the comments section and are heavily encouraged to roleplay someone living in the 12 Colonies. It is actually quite fun reading stuff written by some of the more creative commentators who have built themselves an entire persona.
- The book Heat Wave written by fictional author Richard Castle from the show of the same name was published as an actual book, written under the pen name Richard Castle. The book actually made the New York Times bestseller list, and a published version of the fictional author's second book, Naked Heat, is currently planned.
- Italian network "Italia Uno" has recently aired bumpers such as this one (see the others in the related videos). GLEE-talia Uno! Evidently Mediaset wants to surprise anyone who doesn't have internet and/or anyone who's never heard of Glee. It's almost sickening.
- Like the Criminal Minds example above, the team on NCIS once realized that someone was stalking them, killing people, and putting cryptic videos up on the Internet. This was all an attempt to become famous, and several twists ensue. Suffice it to say, they don't get their wish.
- Psych has the Hashtag Killer game, a seven week-long mystery where Shawn and Gus, along with the player acting as their new office assistant, must track down and stop the titular serial killer, who is targeting random followers of Psych's Twitter and Facebook pages. Shawn and Gus communicate with the player through a simulated Facebook feed, and each week, the moderators pick someone from the top of the game's leaderboard to become Hashtag's newest victim.
- FOX Television used a very interesting form of viral promotion during the promotion of the first season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Online ads and episodes of several different FOX shows had a barely-visible pair of glowing red eyes that could briefly be seen before disappearing. These glowing eyes appeared directly after the commercial break for several series, and the appearances were eventually posted online by fans, fueling speculation and driving viewer interest.
- While it was arguably more a part of the album's concept than a marketing device, Nine Inch Nails' album Year Zero was preceded by a massive viral campaign. It began with a T-shirt of tour dates that had certain letters highlighted, which led to a web site about a fictional government conspiracy. Various other clues led to a larger network of web sites, phone numbers, and even USB flash drives planted in concert bathrooms which contained further clues and "leaked" songs from the upcoming album. Humorously, some web sites that posted these "leaked" songs were actually shut down, even though the whole point was to share them on the Internet. The campaign was mostly organized by Trent Reznor and 42 Entertainment, the company behind "ilovebees" and many other viral campaigns; the record label was clueless about a lot of it. (It goes without saying that Trent Reznor has not had friendly relationships with his record labels over the years.)
- The amount of information and popularity of the ARG was enough that a wiki was set up for it just to document it all. You can find it all summarized here. It is no surprise, considering the amount of work that went into it, that Trent Reznor once called the Year Zero album "The soundtrack for a non-existent Science Fiction movie."
- Nashville chiptunes musician Makeup and Vanity Set created a thread on The Protomen forums under the Significant Anagram 'tastyvein'. It claimed to have found a tune similar to the Will of One in an old NES game, with an mp3 as proof. It took about 20 pages for the forumites to figure out that it was a plug for M&VS's chiptune version of Act I, with Protomen member Heath Who Hath No Name having to point out the anagram.
- Adverts for with the slogan: "Your own personal Jesus" were placed in British newspapers, with no indication that it was a song (until a number was also printed which when dialed would let you listen to the song) to advertize the Depeche Mode single "Personal Jesus".
- The Subservient Chicken is a viral advertising site by Burger King that proved surprisingly effective.
- On the other hand, Domino's Pizza's "spoiled teenage girl freaks out that her new car is RED instead of blue" series of obviously scripted videos mostly attracted waves of Internet-rage in just plain creepy video comments, and barely any apparently bother with the final video, where Domino's finally gets their Product Placement.
- Hotmail may have been one of the first to use the Internet this way when they attached ads urging people to use their email service to every outgoing email. This model was appropriated by almost every other free, web-based email client, until Gmail came along and made the lack of such ads a selling point.
- The SportKa ads that depicted a cat being decapitated by a sunroof may or may not have been an intentional viral marketing campaign. In response to angry protests, Ford claimed that the clip was "accidentally" leaked by an ad company and hadn't been approved. On the other hand, the ads released at the same time that depicted a pigeon getting squashed by the hood were far better received.
- Will It Blend? A series of web shorts designed to promote Blendtec Blenders.
- GameScience dice can be found being advertised on sites like the /tg/ board of 4chan, by people who know it's viral marketing and are playing this for laughs.
- Compare the Meerkat a series of adverts designed to sell car insurance has become insanely popular in the UK recently.
- The Counter Counterfeit Commission for the BMW Mini Cooper.
- Sony launched a dismal attempt at viral marketing for the PSP in the form of a blog titled All I Want for Christmas is a PSP. It was uncovered in hours, and alienated many consumers for how badly it portrayed Internet culture and Sony fans.
- All I Want for Christmas is a PSP provides an excellent Instructive Example of how not to engage in Viral Marketing: pretending to be a normal person, insulting to the audience in a bad way and, if you'll forgive the marketing speak, more interested in selling product than building the brand.
- ilovebees for Halo 2 was so covert, Bungie was forced to put the requisite Microsoft/Bungie copyright data at the bottom of pages for Halo 3's viral marketing campaign, thus dampening the effect. It should be noted that, besides "The Beast", this thing was pretty huge and sparked a new wave of ARG tie ins to various merchandise.
- A YouTube video of an attractive woman in a t-shirt and her underwear playing Wii Fit's hula-hoop game with the camera aimed squarely at her backside was accused of viral marketing by Nintendo. They, of course, denied the claim.
- Who is Suicide? We'll probably find out around the time that the TNA Impact! video game is released.
- Incidentally, the site originally linked to a then-blank MySpace page that was likely going to be another part of the marketing scheme...until a few posters from 420chan's wrestling board managed to get access to the page and defaced it. The link was removed less than 48 hours later.
- Command & Conquer: KANE LIVES.
- When the footage for Star Wars Battlefront III was leaked with the news that the company who made it lost the rights, some people wondered if this was merely part of a plan to gain interest for the new game. It hasn't helped that Lucasarts has not yet made any comments, even though the game's production is clearly no longer secret.
- Prior to the release of Perfect Dark, websites were set up for the Carrington Institute and dataDyne, the two main organisations from the game. Secret passwords allowed viewers to access "restricted" areas of the sites.
- Before the launch of Portal, Valve created a web site for the in-game company Aperture Laboratories, encouraging people to try to guess the username and password and find out more about the game. The site is still up.
- The former website mir12.com claimed to be a shadowy group called Mir-12 working to reveal a massive conspiracy perpetrated by cold war-era Russia with the cover up still continuing. It did a fairly good job of staying incognito until it posted a design, hypothesising that it was a glove for handling the chemical agent which is the basis for the conspiracy. Not at all coincidentally, the glove looks exactly like the TMD or Time Manipulation Device to be used by the player in an upcoming FPS called Singularity. The site went down because the game went through several changes to its story, and the viral marketing no longer fits the plot, since Mir-12 only exists in an alternate, very different timeline, and not ours. For posterity, the videos can still be found here, with plenty of comments from viewers who not only believe it, but a few who still believe it despite the final video breaking the illusion.
- BioShock (series) 2 was promoted in-universe style via a complex ARG known as Something In The Sea The website updated daily and went through three phases; in the first, the protagonist, a man named Mark Meltzer, attempted to solve the mystery of a spate of kidnappings of young girls associated with mysterious underwater red lights (hence the site's name). In the second phase, Mark's daughter Cindy was herself kidnapped by the mysterious creature (revealed to be the Big Sister), and Mark became obsessed with untangling the mad riddles of a man named Orrin Oscar Lutwidge, who claimed to have found "True Rapture". In the third phase, Mark set to sea in search of Rapture himself. The game included voice recordings from multiple characters, riddles, puzzles, journals, and all manner of period-appropriate documents. Fans who wrote Mark a letter at the posted address could receive swag such as records of Rapture's anthem, and particularly interesting fan letters were posted on the website as correspondence received by Mark. Later phases upped fan involvement to include objects supposedly washed ashore from Rapture planted on beaches worldwide, book pages and postcards mailed to fans with instructions to get them to Mark, and later weekend-long events requiring the collaboration of fans in multiple states or in one case countries to solve puzzles. At the end, one such event led fans to the Bioshock 2 launch party. Fan response to the ARG was strong enough to prompt 2K to add Mark as a character in Bioshock 2.
- "What is 'bob's game'?"
- The creators of Grand Theft Auto has long been known to employ In-Universe Marketing online, launching various fake websites tied to the series' in-game universe prior to game releases during much of the early 2000s. One of its more intricate endeavors is a rendition of the Liberty Tree online news website for Grand Theft Auto III, which not only updated monthly with new "news reports" over the course of 2001, but also revealed snippets of the game's backstory in the months leading up to the game's events.
- Metroid Prime 2: Echoes had two viral promo sites: "Orbis Labs", a weapons-designer creating a "battle sphere" which soldiers could roll up into (which was stated to be unsuitable for male body types), and "Channel 51", a conspiracy-theory site from "Samantha Manus" of "Sumas, WA" investigating alien footage which consisted of blurred-up clips from the game. A third, "Athena Astronautics", which advertised sending women into space, offered job positions for bounty hunters - 25 people who replied to the offer received a copy of Echoes as an "interactive training manual".
- 4Chan's /v/ board tends to be a frequent stomping ground for viral marketers. In the past, Atlus employees would frequent the site to advertise its lesser-known games, and Gearbox Software did the same for Borderlands. This caused Memetic Mutation where talking about any hyped game meant you were a "viral marketer". Why anyone would try to advertise their game on a board populated primarily by pirates remains a mystery.
- Also, ANYONE who wants to talk about Katawa Shoujo on /jp/ is a KSdev.
- Minecraft creator Notch has been accused of this in and out on the board. It's actually entirely possible, but more like Notch was a regular on /v/ and said "hey guys, check out this game I made in Java." Doesn't help that one of the random subtitles on the Minecraft splash screen is "Woo, /v/!"
- It Got Worse. Nowadays /v/ will accuse you of viral marketing for trying to talk about any game at all, even if they're free to play or over a decade old. The few people on /v/ who don't do this have theorized that it's because /v/ thinks all video games are terrible, so if you actually have anything nice to say about any of them then you must work for the company that made it and are trying to trick people into buying your shitty game. It hasn't helped that there have been trip-code users of the board who have admitted to being hired as viral marketers (including a supposed EA employee called 'Andromeda'). It's gotten so bad now that 'viral marketing' has become a filtered word, and complaining about viral marketing is a bannable offence.
- Unwitting Pawn. Due to /v/ falling so hard for the Borderlands viral it now regularly garners the attention of viral marketers abroad because Gearbox's endeavors were so notably successful, this success invited in good old fashioned shameless advertising which in turn forced /v/ into a state of reactionary perpetual paranoia.
- Elemental War of Magic has a campaign to get users to advertise the game.
- The viral campaign for Shadow of the Colossus was based around Giantology , a blogger reporting on giant monsters found around the world. The campaign featured videos - both amateur and professional - of five of the Colossi being unearthed.
- Word of mouth was a key element of Tokimeki Memorial 1 's surprise massive success in Japan.
- Plants vs. Zombies had a rather successful Youtube campaign with their music video and videos of zombie cosplayers.
- To advertise the release of Angry Birds Space, Roxio hung a 35 foot wide Red Bird from a slingshot attached to the Space Needle. Residents of Seattle were encouraged to stop by the Space Needle and try the game for free. Images of this spectacle quickly spread across social networking.
- Lonelygirl15 is a perfect example, as it was to build hype for a trio of aspiring filmmakers. The resulting notoriety was exactly what they were looking for.
- The web series Wormtooth Nation relied almost entirely on word of mouth to advertise.
- Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was advertised almost exclusively by word of mouth online. This proved so effective that the server crashed under the sudden, unexpected load, and when the show was released on iTunes it was the #1 download for five straight weeks.
- Word of God on the blog The Realms Of Neldak is that it was created specifically to hype the as-yet unfinished novel E.H.U.D.: Prelude to Apocalypse.
- Sean Malstrom exhibits a tendency for believing that those who disagree with him are not true gamers, but viral marketers who are afraid of their covert gaming forum marketing campaigns being jeopardized. He also notes how Fan Dumb and Viral Marketers are alike.
- The infamous January 31, 2007 Boston bomb scare consisted of LED signs featuring Mooninites to advertise the upcoming Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie.
- The Secret Saturdays started out as a series of advertisements that consisted of homemade videos of cryptids showing up in otherwise mundane situations, with the URL for a website entitled "Cryptids Are Real", which posed as the website for a periodical of the same name, devoted to recording sightings of cryptids around the nation. Later, a website for a show called "Weird World", which would apparently reveal "the truth about Cryptids", appeared, with corresponding ads. The main characters of the show wouldn't appear in advertisements until about a month after the campaign began. "Weird World" turned out to be the villain's Show Within a Show.