There’s clearly no secret formula for viral success otherwise we’d all be doing it. 

In fact, there’s nothing worse than a client briefing an agency to devise a viral campaign as it completely misses the point about how good ideas are generated. 

A viral campaign is a desired outcome, not the basis for developing break-through campaigns or memes. That said, there are definite skills, techniques and approaches which we can deploy to improve our chances of viral success.

In fact, Propagation Planning is a relatively new school of thought which is dedicated to this very concept. In theory, the more we understand how communities behave and share ideas, the better we’ll get at creating compelling advertising campaigns which self-propagate.

As Griffin Farley, Strategy Director from BBH succinctly puts it “Plan not for the people you reach, but for the people they reach”.

There are several dimensions to content generation which can help improve the chances of viral success:


Viral content ideally needs to be comedic, political, sexy, controversial or newsworthy to have any social currency (or a combination of each). 

For example, Lynx’s Fallen Angels augmented reality experience in Victoria Station is entertaining with sexual undertones.  

Likewise commercials, videos or campaigns which are edgy or cool are more likely to be shared than those more conservative in nature.  

What people share is a reflection of their own identities or image they wish to project so people are more likely to share with their peers if it has some intrinsic value or kudos factor.


There’s a saying which claims ‘ideas are useless, execution is everything’. The point I’m making here is that the craft which goes into delivering the communication is as important as the idea itself. 

Sometimes you need high production values such as Evian babies, Philips Carousel, Honda Cogs or Google Chrome Speed Test ads. But equally, low production values can work just as well – think Cadbury’s eyebrows campaign.

In either case, it’s the careful execution of the idea which makes it distinctive and unique, which in turn gives it so much social currency. 


The art of good storytelling is to have a strong protagonist and a compelling plot which keeps your audience engaged until the final denouement. It follows that the more unexpected the final outcome the more likely your asset will be shared.

John Lewis’s Christmas commercial is a classic example of this. So too is ‘The Force’ commercial by VW where they’ve used a young child as the key protagonist and kept everyone guessing until the final end frame. 

The fact he’s masquerading as Darth Vader is also no coincidence but rather a deliberate ploy to create an instantly recognisable character which older male car buyers can all identify with from their own childhood.

Cultural relevance

Those which tap into the zeitgeist in some way tend to spread more easily. This isn’t easy to do but if the content reflects some technological, social, lingual, economic or political dimension of our times, it’s much more likely to resonate and have cultural relevance.

It is also more likely to be picked up by niche communities with vested interest in that zeitgeist. Dove’s classic campaign for real beauty gained worldwide recognition not because of the product per se but because women were fed up with how they were being portrayed in advertising.  


Authenticity tends to gain more traction than fictional stories for some reason. You only need to see Susan Boyle’s exponential rise to fame to see evidence of this.

The VW ‘The Force’ commercial is also a great example of how the child’s innocent behaviour provides the authentic charm which underpins the whole communication.  


Not all viral campaigns need to be participatory but there are examples when a less passive approach can help to fuel propagation.

Take ‘The Bear’ campaign by Tippex where online user participation delivers a deeper level of engagement and in turn increases its sharing potential.


Likewise, the use of tools like Facebook Connect can help to give a more personalised dimension to consumer interaction and participation.  


You can come up with an award-winning creative idea but without the right promotion it’s unlikely to see the light of day, so buy some airtime on TV, seed the asset in the blogosphere or post in influential communities to kick start proceedings.

You should also use owned media channels as much as possible such as your brand’s own website, social platforms and CRM programmes to ensure your existing customers and prospects are privy to it first.

After all, there’s nothing quite like being the first to share something your whole network of friends will enjoy.