The secret to going viral online and in the real world

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Madhu Muthukumar and Sean Kimon stage at Collision 2022

We’ve all seen them. Those videos, tweets or articles about a product that seem to take the internet by storm, racking up millions of views and shares in a matter of days. But what is it that makes some products more likely to go viral than others?

Viral marketing, as a concept, has been around longer than the internet. Social media, however, is where it’s found its home.

But what is viral marketing?

“It’s content, an idea or a challenge that has gained so much popularity – and resonates with so many people – that it gets circulated from peer to peer, or is syndicated across many different social platforms very quickly.”

So explained Sean Kim, chief product officer at Kajabi – a platform helping creators to monetise their content – and former head of product at TikTok. Unsurprisingly, Sean knows a lot about virality.

“A good example of viral marketing is the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge,” Sean continued. Designed to raise awareness of ALS and encourage donations to the ALS Association, the campaign was eventually able to raise more than US$220 million, with many celebrities joining in to spread the word.

So, at its crux, does virality come down to what social media users are willing to share? According to Notion chief product officer Madhu Muthukumar, that certainly plays a big part:
“I could explain what it means to refer; what it means to invite; how to move your flows to make sure every customer brings another one in. But, fundamentally, virality is about instead of you telling the story and trying to reach everybody, having your customer do it.”

And that is exactly what the team behind Exploding Kittens did when launching their card game on Kickstarter. From the outset, they set challenges, encouraging fans to get involved by creating their own game-related content and posting it on social media. It paid off.

“On Kickstarter, we raised US$10,000 in just 10 minutes, US$1 million in the first seven hours and, by the next day, US$3 million,” said Exploding Kittens co-creator and CEO Elan Lee.

This notion of creating fun, wholesome, shareable content extended into real life too. When Elan brought the product to a games convention for the first time, the traditional marketing stand was ditched in favour of an eight-foot-high cardboard box that had been converted into a furry vending machine.

This caught the attention of convention attendees who were soon seen wandering around with armfuls of bedazzled watermelons, fairy wings, bunches of asparagus, and toilet paper. When others saw this, they too wanted to line up for a random item. It went viral.

How did it work? What was their secret to viral marketing? Elan thinks it’s all about sparking joy and curiosity: “This wonderful sense of expectation as people approached the booth… It was pure magic. It was pure joy. Who knows what’s going to come out of this thing?”

Elan intuited it was a success because of “the delight and the magic that happened when we decided to do it differently; to not blend in; to not look like every other booth there”.

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Main image of Madhu Muthukumar, chief product officer, Notion and Sean Kim, president and chief product officer, Kajabi, on Creatiff Stage at Collision 2022: Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

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