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Why Viral Marketing is Nothing New

We think of viral marketing as something which only began to materialize after the birth of the web. However, the fundamentals of piggybacking on social media to spread brand awareness have their roots in traditional marketing strategies going back decades, even centuries.

Companies today, many of whom are being built and steered by men and women who never knew a day without the internet, could benefit from taking a step back and seeing how the viral marketing strategies they’ve come to know and love can be pulled off in the real world. Here are some examples of how viral marketing techniques transfer into traditional means of reaching out to consumers:

Shared Images, Videos, Sayings, Etc. (Memes)

The definition of an internet meme is basically anything which becomes popular and gets shared. They usually include brief messages conveying poignant, ironic, hilarious, and oftentimes brutally honest remarks. If effective, they’re seen by millions. It’s easy to see why meme marketing, otherwise known as memetic marketing, has become highly sought after by big and small brands alike as a subsection of viral marketing.

Marketing memes as we know them today have been around longer than most people realize. Before the internet, iconic brand images and slogans were more likely to spread via signage, stickers, and other printed materials. Folks old enough may remember the “Where’s the Beef?” commercials and how that saying made its way onto bumper stickers, t-shirts, and even into senior yearbook quotes. This was essentially meme marketing circa the 1980s. Modern day marketers armed with tools like a BREN Inc. stencil cutting machine can do the same. By designing and distributing original stickers, signage and other mass distributed printed material, companies able to design clever and amusing images and/or slogans can spread their brand in a viral marketing manner, but in the real world. For example, people today are likely to put stickers on their laptops and hang up funny signs in their home with pride. Companies can capitalize on this, without really learning anything new if they’re already trained in viral marketing techniques.


One of the more popular methods of achieving a viral marketing success has been the creation of the infographic. In short, an entity either commissions or creates a picture book sequence of information and graphics to make complicated concepts easier to understand. Genuinely provide useful advice, design the layout nicely, stamp your brand throughout, and voila: something which will be easily shared on social media for weeks, months, or even years.

Sound familiar? It should, because the idea of infographics is really nothing new, especially the part about how they get shared. Versions of infographics have appeared in newspapers and other periodicals going back as far as the mid-19th century. Companies today can seize on the ever-present human preference for tangible material and produce miniature booklets, posters, or manuals utilizing the principles of infographics. Ship them to first-time customers, offer them at trade shows, etc. If the information is genuinely useful, they will be kept around and referenced, all the while keeping brand awareness strong.


Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” He wasn’t wrong, people love a good mystery. However for most people, “most beautiful” gets replaced with “enthralling;” we can’t resist a good rumor, up-to-date gossip, or anything else which offers glimmers about something otherwise unknown, forbidden, or hidden. Internet marketers know this and utilize it for viral campaigns. This is achieved by strategically planting certain information about upcoming products, movies, etc. on sites like Reddit and letting the enticing albeit unfulfilling tidbits drive weeks of speculation among consumers.

It’s a marketing gimmick likely as old as time itself. One pre-internet example comes from the techniques utilized in the marketing for the 1939 motion picture Gone with the Wind. Producer David O. Selznick launched a global search for an actress to play the part of the film’s protagonist Scarlett O’Hara. For months the public followed every lead in the papers regarding who would land the role. As it turns out, Selznick had no plans on casting anyone but Vivien Leigh from day one; his “search” was little more than a ploy to get people constantly talking about the upcoming movie. It paid off: when adjusted for inflationGone with the Wind remains the runaway leader for highest grossing film of all time.

Further examples include the similarities between trolling and publicity stunts, as well as the unmistakable resemblance of link building to product placement. They all add up to one thing: viral marketing – the act of instigating an organic spread of brand awareness –  something which has been with humanity for a long time. Companies today can hopefully appreciate the similarities between digital and traditional marketing techniques, and use them to better their own brand building efforts going forward.

  • Mark Mayes

    The search for Scarlett was authentic. Selznick was a control freak and would never have cast the role without meeting Vivien Leigh first. The publicity was great–but Vivien Leigh was too unknown when that search began and Selznick too impatient to wait for an actress whom he had never seen for three years!

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