How to Launch a Viral Marketing Campaign

This is a guest post by Greg Howlett. He is a Christian concert pianist, educator, and recording artist. He is also a blogger and Twitterer. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

If you are a writer, musician or artist, you are facing huge challenges in today’s marketing environment. Even if you are signed by a marketing partner such as a publisher or recording label, this is no time to rest on your laurels. But the good news is that social media is increasingly becoming an effective marketing tool that is accessible to everyone.

Photo courtesy of ©, Image #9613716

Photo courtesy of ©

This article will give you a social media plan to help you build your brand and your fan base. As an independent Christian pianist, I have used this strategy to sell tens of thousands of CDs and related products over the past few years.

Before I get started, let’s quickly take a look at state of marketing in 2010.

Never before has it been easier to reach potential customers. Using digital technology, you can reach your audience for pennies. But as it turns out, inexpensive marketing is a double-edged sword because it attracts more competition. This is because the technology that makes production of media inexpensive, also creates a low barrier of entry.

As a result, the market is flooded with products, and the consumer is overwhelmed. Because of the glut of choices, it is difficult to create a product that attracts attention and is even more difficult to convince your audience to buy. Proven strategies of the past are being abandoned, because they clearly no longer work.

That being said, brand-building is one strategy that will never go out of date regardless of technological advances. And the good news is that building a brand has never been more feasible than it is now—if you are willing to use social media and use it well.

I am not going to focus on the typical strategies such as Facebook, blogging, and Twitter. Those are all things that you need to do, and they all can work. But simply blogging or having a presence on Facebook is not enough.

The power of social marketing comes when you find a way to get consumers to do your marketing for you, spreading your message across the world like magic. If you can make this happen, you will be successfully running something that is really coveted in the marketing world—a viral marketing campaign. For the rest of this article, I want to discuss ways to create a viral marketing campaign using social media.

Viral marketing needs four things to work properly:

  1. An offer (preferably free) that has value
  2. An easy way to distribute the offer
  3. An incentive to get consumers to pass the offer along to their friends
  4. A way to make the campaign profitable

I want to elaborate on each of these.

  1. An offer (preferably free) that has value. When thinking about viral campaigns, many people think of funny videos. Funny videos do have value, but I would encourage you to consider something different. There are just too many companies trying to do funny videos and it is hard to stand out. Rather, come up with an offer that has more legitimate value. For example, I offer free online piano lessons for church pianists. I have also offered free downloads of CDs and printed piano arrangements.

    The key is that whatever you offer has to have real value, and it probably needs to be free. People will not jeopardize their relationships by promoting an offer that has no value, and they will usually not promote offers that are not free (unless the brand is already very strong). Think hard about an offer you can make available that is inexpensive but has great perceived value to others. Be creative; there are numerous possibilities, particularly if you create digital media.

  2. An easy way to distribute the offer. You must provide an easy way for people to get your offer, and ideally, it should be delivered automatically without requiring your involvement. For many of us, our offers can be distributed digitally on our websites. If you can host your offer on your own website, that is the best scenario. If you cannot, there are other websites that allow you to do these kinds of campaigns. For example, musicians can use BandCamp to deliver their music offers to consumers.
  3. An incentive to get consumers to pass the offer along to their friends. It is critical that your consumers are “paid” to pass along your offer. Sometimes, their payment can be as simple as the thanks they get from their friends when they pass along funny videos. But, I would not count on that being enough. Try to find a way to offer something extra to people who will post your offer in places like their Facebook status or on their blogs. These are the people who are critical to your viral marketing success.
  4. A way to make the campaign profitable. Viral marketing is primarily about brand-building. But it is also a great way to sell other products, build a fan base, obtain concerts and speaking engagements, and much more. Don’t make your offer something that you can’t afford to give away. Also, set goals for what you hope to obtain from your campaign.

Execution is key to this type of marketing. Plan and test carefully before you launch. When you start something virally, there is no way to stop it and no way to fix mistakes. When you are ready to launch a campaign, you simply have to send out a short email to your fan email list. After that, if it is going to work, you don’t have to lift a finger.

When a viral campaign works correctly, it is a beautiful thing to watch. Consumers are relying on their friends’ opinions more and more for purchasing decisions. So putting your fans to work promoting you is also a great way to grow your brand, grow your fan base and even generate revenue. Consider revamping your social media marketing efforts to include this supercharged strategy.

Question: What ways have you found to be effective in creating viral campaigns?
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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Women Living Well

    Wow! This is an amazing concept! And it's true because I believe I have been used by others for their viral campaigning – yet I didn't even realize it haha!

    I had not thought about how I personally could do this…I've been working on doing the basics and setting a strong foundation by doing a daily blog post, facebook, twitter, and starting a message board on my website. The tribe is growing but I've been thinking – now what? This seems to be the next rung in the ladder and something for me to strive for here in the new year! Thank you for answering my question – "now what?"


    My recent post Raising Your Children to Change the World

  • John Richardson

    Great article, Greg. It reminds me of the concept espoused by Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell of creating Customer Evangelists. Create a product that is so good or irresistible that people tell their friends about it. Think about Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. They did little or no advertising, yet someone told you about how great they are. That person evangelized the brand.

    The hard part of this strategy seems to be number four… making money. Going from free to fee is a tricky proposition. On my blog, I offer free downloads of productivity items. I have had a few that have been picked up by large blogs like Lifehacker and brought great traffic. My monitization strategy has been to use Google ads. They provide an income, but not enough to make them a reliable income source. I need a different model going forward.

    I have a good friend that is an ambient musician. His genre has a limited but vibrant following. He has created numerous albums and had his music on the radio, yet the new competitive marketplace has reduced the perceived value of product. He too has made a small income, but not enough to quit the day job. From my viewpoint, I think he would need to widen his niche a little bit.

    Clearly there are great success stories like yours, which keep us going. I would love to hear more about becoming profitable and how you made it work for your brand.

    My recent post I Clicked The Button And Suddenly Twitter Made Sense

  • Dan Rockwell


    Thanks for going beyone the big three of twitter, facebook, and blogging. I'm connecting with college students who desire to make a differnence in the world. I teach them what I'm learning about expending your influence and extending your reach through technology.

    They help me expand the reach of Leadership Freak and Grace Freak. Right now its only on wordpress. When they lauch their own brand, we all point to each other. Students with drive see the potential and get jazzed.

    I'm working to inspire an army of Freaks who want to make a difference in this world.

    Thanks again,

    Dan Rockwell
    My recent post Bullying

  • Martin

    Would like more help with #3. How do you "pay" these people to pass on something when you are giving it away? Understandably you are really looking for the "sneezers" (Godin) who, believe in the idea or you, will enthusiastically spread the idea. But what incentive can you give to the average person?
    My recent post testing

  • Bill Wolfe

    Great article! Thanks for sharing Greg. Many nuggets here to process on.

    Like @Martin, I was pondering #3. I get the other points, but I'd love to hear from others how you're compensating the average person spreading your ideas.

    I think one simple way to start is if you find a person writing a blog post about your idea, you could start commenting on that person's other blog posts. Most bloggers enjoy getting comments and that would be one way to "compensate" them. What are other tangible ways?
    My recent post I Don't Want To Go To Kevin – Conversations With A 3 Year Old

    • Greg Howlett

      There are two ways I know to compensate people for passing along your free offer:

      1) Make the free offer sweeter to those who pass it along. For example, on my recent campaign, I gave away 5 songs with no strings attached OR the full CD to those who would fill out a short form that gave them an easy way to send the offer on to 3-5 friends. (We mentioned that we would not collect the email addresses they put in the form or send their friends any additional correspondence.)

      2) Provide an additional free offer for those that pass it along. For example, I sent a thank you email to those who filled out the form and mentioned if they would post the offer on their blog, FB or twitter, I would send them an additional gift (more music downloads).

      There are probably other ways too.

  • Mary DeMuth

    Very interesting post. On Sunday one of my novels, Daisy Chain, will be free on the Kindle for a short period of time. Although I'm not sure how to "thank" those who pass on the news, I do understand the power of free. This was counterintuitive when I first learned it, particularly as an artist who is trying to make a living (ha!).

    In this case, the win for me is exposure, and the win for the consumer is a free book.

    But besides giving away a free book, what other things can authors do to bless their audience? I do have free things on my website, but I don't often actively promote them. What gets complicated for me is balancing the entire creative life with producing good books and articles with the marketing machine. I'm curious how you divide your time. How much creating? How much marketing?

    Sorry for so many questions, but a good post will do that to me.

  • leilani haywood

    I launched a viralI launched a viral marketing campaign for a friend of mine who's a seasonal Santa. I combined traditional public relations with social media marketing. First, I set up a fan page on Facebook and we invited everyone we knew to become a fan. Then we did a guerilla marketing blitz and visited marketing directors in person to give them a gift. We also launched a fundraiser with a local mission called Operation Santa. Within 6 weeks he had almost 10,000 fans from all over the world and was featured in several front page stories as well as on a local TV news program. It was very successful.

  • Rick Yuzzi

    Great ideas. I would add that your campaign should be above board. I've seen viral campaigns, for example, that start out as if they are user-generated content, and it turns out there is a marketing machine behind it. It may create a lot of buzz, but I think it also creates a bad taste in the mouth for the brand when the true source of the content is revealed.
    My recent post Let’s not add to the offense of the Gospel

  • MikeHolmes

    This a really great post!

    I with you…especially on the value aspect. I think that all great marketing campaigns begins with great products or service.

    Thanks for sharing Greg!
    My recent post Free copy of I Shall Raise Thee Up…if you’re willing to talk about it

  • lauradroege

    Thank you for your advice. I've been busy with Facebook and regular blogging, but I still don't see my "fanbase" growing. These tips have sparked ideas in my head! I took notes on your 4 principles and will start to think of how to market myself. So if our marketing campaigns are viral, what does that make us, the marketers?!

  • Eva Ulian

    I found these suggestion extremely useful, thanks Greg. The product I wanted to give away free is a course of English which I have created and used myself over again to Teach English as a Second Language. I was going to post it in installment on the various communities I belong to based in India and two of which were generated specially for this idea. However, you mention that it is better to do this on one’s website… Humm, I need to think on this one.

  • @jkoerts

    Great article, Greg! Thanks for sharing this insight.

    I'm a young artist with only one CD. If it doesn't become profitable, it's not likely that I'll do another. (It's in very much of a niche—Christian instrumental.) Here's my question: If I offer a few songs for free (step 1), make it easy to pass along (step 2), and give the rest of the songs to them for doing so (step 3), how will I be able to make this financially profitable? Ideas? Suggestions?
    My recent post Come Thou Fount

    • bondChristian

      Here's what I would say from a consumer perspective. Those first few songs better rock my socks off. So much is free now, and most people (myself included) aren't going to go the extra effort to get more of the same if the same is lame.

      If I enjoy those three songs enough to want the rest, it might work. But an awful lot hinges on those first few songs. Still, I like the idea. It's turning the music itself into an advertisement… and leaving the actual (tangible) CD and performances for souvenirs.

      -Marshall Jones Jr.
      My recent post How to expose someone’s goodness

      • Greg Howlett

        Yes, I couldn't agree more. If the quality is not there, this is not going to fly. Good marketing will not overcome quality problems. Of course good quality does not usually overcome marketing problems either.

  • Greg Howlett

    If your business stops at one CD, this is not for you. You have to have other products ready to sell or some other way to capitalize such as concerts, speaking engagements, consulting, teaching, etc.

    For a published artist such as you, this kind of campaign should drive sales to your published music both in the stores and on your own website. I would definitely have all of your published work available for sale on your website before you start a viral campaign. I would also talk to your publishers about ways you can both benefit from a campaign. Perhaps they will want to feature you on the front of the website or something while your campaign is running.

    If you have a product that is free to distribute (you don't owe royalties on the music and can distribute it digitally), you are more free to run a campaign for branding purposes only. Branding may not translate into revenue today but will pay off in the long run.

  • bondChristian

    i think the strategy outlined here is excellent. Still, I was hoping for more practical suggestions ways to convince an audience to spread the word. I guess that's the whole trick, isn't it?

    Thank you for guest posting.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  • MikeHolmes

    This a really great post!

    I with you…especially on the value aspect. I think that all great marketing campaigns begins with great products or service.

    Thanks for sharing Greg!

  • @ChrisJGrant

    Glad this is working for Greg. Really.

    But this isn't how we'd recommend going about viral marketing. Here's a respectful, but different opinion:

    1. Don't ask people to promote. People call, email, post etc; they don't promote. Don't expect them to and don't ask them to. They work for them, not you. Link what you have with the right group that values it–consumer-generated "promotion" is for people who don't believe.
    2. People will spread the word on your product if it's important to them. Don't pay them to do it. Repeat: don't pay them–they don't want compensation for sharing something they like and think the world wants or needs. Money makes them feel used. Thank you's are great.
    3. You can always fix mistakes in online marketing. In fact, you should change and adapt your program over time. If you blow it, be honest and correct it. People are fine with that. (But you won't blow it.)
    4. Point 2 is great. So there.
    5. We focus on "sharable" tools, not "viral" campaigns. We don't even use the word "viral" a lot; we're not looking for a zillion people snickering; we want a few thousand who are passionate and want to use the materials we create. The trick is resourcing evangelists, not getting a spike in YouTube hits.
    6. Viral marketing is less about long-term brand-building than it is about moving a particular product. People's attention spans are short and they specialize in programs that last a few weeks tops. Use it for product launches. Are you still watching the Evian babies video? The brand-building elements are hidden in these programs too (developing lists, etc) but brands take more time than viral campaigns have.

    Here's a project that's going on right now that took off because we matched the community with the product, in this case, a Nelson book. We developed the page, invited the fans, and in two weeks have 3,000 or so people spreading the word. The contest is a good hook but you can see the community spreading the word on the book on Lost websites, forums, their FB pages, etc. We didn't pay them to do this.

    My apologies for disagreeing so much, but this is important stuff. In any case, hope a different perspective is helpful, friends.

  • Jeff

    Great model. In my experience, viral campaigns are hard to predict, but if there were a way to plan for them, this would probably be it. Nonetheless, there seems to be an art to it, a certain element of unpredictability (e.g. Numa numa guy).
    My recent post The Kind of Person You Want to Be

  • Dana Bryant

    I love this blog. First I found my agent, Rachelle Gardner, through your list of Christian agents and NOW I am learning how to participate in my marketing campaign. I just put up a website in anticipation for my contract and have so much more to do. I am having a blast and going to tell all the Christian writers in my community about your blog. Thank you thank you thank you.

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  • @jakelarson

    Great post! Very clear and concise. I have really been trying to hone my skills in building viral marketing campaigns lately and it is extremely fun.

    I typically market music and help artists build a social media infrastructure.

    I have found it difficult to give something of value to a fan when the "value" of songs has dwindled in the last few years – for so many reasons, anyone can get it for free somewhere else usually. Do you have any advice for someone marketing music as they create a viral marketing campaign? There are a few artists who have really done it well, and it is fun to watch!

    Any advice?
    My recent post Social Marketing for Music: a note

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