online viral word of mouth marketing

The vast majority of viral marketing techniques involve viral structure and viral value. We’ve seen this over and over as we make our way through the 12 different types of viral marketing.

The funny thing is, when most people think of the word “viral marketing,” these are not the types of techniques that come to mind. Instead most think of one thing in particular – online viral word of mouth.

Online Viral Word of Mouth: The Most Common of Confusions


The best viral marketing shouldn’t seem like viral marketing at all. That’s how you know it works. It should seem like a core value-add of the product. Otherwise, we’d see it as an ad, which many of us resent.

(We saw a good example of this in our last chapter on viral credibility marketing.)

The confusion typically comes from the fact most people associate a social media share with “going viral.” In other words, something like clicking “share on Facebook” is perceived as being all it takes. They then associate a site like BuzzFeed as the vessel through which virality occurs.

Viral Success Story: BuzzFeed


Unlike sites like Dropbox and Skype that rely mostly on user interaction inside their product to drive virality, BuzzFeed relies HEAVILY on viral media to drive online viral word of mouth marketing.

Buzzed Click Bait Headline - Online Word of Mouth Marketing

In a nutshell, this is the “do something really cool, funny, terrifying, awe-inspiring, infuriating or controversial so people tell their friends about it” approach. It’s what BuzzFeed and sites like them rely on to grow. Especially when combined with a strategically-designed interface to leverage sharing via social media.

How well this type of viral marketing works depends on the quality, controversy, or value of your online content. If it evokes a high-arousal emotion in the user (e.g. nostalgia or laughing so hard milk shoots out their nose) – enough so that it practically REQUIRES them to talk about it with somebody – then your content has succeeded. The million-dollar task then becomes finding core interests and testing content until you find which are positioned to spread the fastest.

The Science of Hijacking Users


Many well-marketed blogs or websites leveraging online viral word of mouth marketing will carve a deep niche. Making it easy for them to successfully optimize their entire experience for one specific subset of users who, by and large, respond to similar things.

However, BuzzFeed is a more general online publication. Their core focus is gaining readers and delighting them to the point of sharing content. So they’ve instead chosen to throw a wider topical net. That said, most of these topics are strategically crafted to elicit one of the following responses:

  1. Anger
  2. Humor
  3. Fear
  4. Controversy
  5. Fascination

This may sound easy, but it’s not. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and often requires far more research and resources than most bloggers have access to.

BuzzFeed Content Viral Dashboard - Viral Word of Mouth Marketing

In addition to a top-tier writing staff schooled in strategically-crafting content with the goal of spreading it virally, BuzzFeed invests heavily in behavioral user data. They endlessly tinker with content, page elements, headlines, and recommended content (among others) to maximize four key things:

  2. Number of articles read
  3. Time on the site
  4. Repeat visits

The goal of online viral word of mouth marketing is to hijack the user’s attention span and implant a certain topic, idea or product in place of what was there before it. 

This hijacking is typically temporary, but the goal of a site like BuzzFeed is to prolong the length of this hijacking as long as possible. The more engaging their content, the more they have control, and the more likely you are to take actions like sharing, viewing another article, sharing that article, and so on. All of which makes them more ad revenue.

Your Source for All Things Funny and Interesting


So what provides a site like BuzzFeed with the most control over your mind? As I mentioned above, this stems from their ability to strategically create high-arousal emotions. From there, they simply need to relay a message you believe is “remarkable” (i.e. worthy of remark). Especially one that your network might find interesting.

For example:

  • BuzzFeed creates an article with hilarious headlines that instantly reminds you of your friend’s cat. Obviously, they need to know about it.
  • BuzzFeed compiles the latest memes about Game of Thrones and adds some great descriptive text. You can’t help but chuckle reading them, especially that one about your favorite character’s head getting chopped off. Think you’ll share that with people you talk about the show with? Highly likely.

BuzzFeed Game of Thrones Article Headline - Viral Word of Mouth Marketing

BuzzFeed rounds out their viral one-two punch by perfectly blending their viral loop with user retention.

  1. Users visit BuzzFeed because they want to see funny, fascinating, and/or timely content.
  2. Users want to share that content with friends to amaze and entertain them, which in the users’ minds, ups their social status.

Most of us have an unconscious desire to be the friend that’s “in-the-know.” We want to make our friends laugh. Or break the news about an important topic. We want to be known as the first person to know things because it gives us a feeling of importance. This is the core value of passing things on through word of mouth.

In this way, BuzzFeed is simply the vessel. It puts us in the driver’s seat to start conversations within our networks, and they do their best to motivate this action through design and content testing.

However, at the end of the day, it all comes down to our own emotional reactions to what we see.

What’s Next?


Online viral word of mouth marketing has one key (and obvious) requirement – that the conversation happens online. Obviously, word of mouth doesn’t always occur online. In fact, it takes place offline over 90% of the time.

So it would be unwise for us not to examine the offline portion of viral word of mouth marketing in our next chapter.


What Do Apple and Cards Against Humanity Have in Common?

Our next chapter dives into the most common form of viral marketing by far. Without even realizing it, nearly every product uses it. But those who use it purposefully and strategically are the ones who end up household names.


Travis Steffen
Viral Buttons by UP