I've been tasked with designing a viral campaign with limited budget. I've not worked on such things before, so I don't really have any idea on how to handle this task.

What exactly makes a campaign go viral? Is it possible to make something cheap and be sure that it goes viral? How would a designer judge how "viral" their work is?

Here's the background to my specific case. I'm working in an internet agency. Actually as a webdesigner, but I bet most of you experience the same problems as I do: we frequently get "abused" to do things we're not really supposed to do. I don't have a huge problem with that, but I think I kind of like don't know how to handle this task I got one or two weeks ago:

We're desperately searching coders who're able to code PHP, MySQL and so on and it turns out to be quite difficult to find someone at the moment. We've already spent a lot of time and money on finding some new team members but it turns out, it ain't really easy to find people over platforms like monster.com.

To give you some more information: my company is based in Munich, Germany.

My task is it to create a campaign (no matter if online or offline) which should go viral within a short time. Still they don't want to spend a huge amount of money which makes it quite hard for me to find an idea that actually goes viral, is "cheap" and attracts the targeted group. I really want to help the company, so that we find some new coders, but I really don't have any idea on how to handle this task.

  • 1
    So you're looking for ideas for a viral ad campaign which will attract the attention of coders and will go viral in the PHP community? If that's right, we don't do project-specific brainstorming, it's too much like free work, but you could edit the question to be more about general info and knowledge e.g. what are the key ingredients to an ad campaign going viral in a particular demographic like coders. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 9:00
  • Thanks for the reply. Of course I don't want you to work for free for us/me. As someone who's not really versed in campaigns of this type it'd just be interesting to know how others go into a situation like this. What do you do besides finding out who the targeted group is and where you can find them? Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 9:13
  • No problem, I just wanted to make sure I'd understood the problem properly! I've edited the question slightly to make it clearer what sort of general info you're asking for Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 16:32
  • It's a very difficult question by the way so it might not get a good answer immediately. In the mean time design/business/tech mag Fast Co has written some decent articles on the topic, though more from a news/writing perspective. Here's one that links to many of the others. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 16:59
  • Things go viral when they have some social importance or are shocking in some way (usually funny). It is about entertainment value or something that triggers an emotional reaction. I don't think your goal should be to go viral, simply because it doesn't help your cause. It can still be viral-esque, funny etc. However, remember your goal is to attract talent, and to do that, you need a value proposition.
    – John
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 17:38

2 Answers 2


This is by no means objective research, and I haven't ever made a viral campaign. But I do follow the industry and I do participate on the Internet, so here are some elements of viral things to consider based on personal experience:


Things that are genuinely funny tend to spread. Of course humor is always debatable, but the original Old Spice viral stuff was downright hilarious if you're into smarmy and absurd humor. If it's fresh, different, and it makes people laugh, they'll tend to pass it along.

Humor's a tough gamble though. If people aren't distracted by laughter, they'll notice that you're trying to make the campaign "go viral". See the 2010 Census Payton Schlewitt campaign for the first example that comes to mind. It felt like it was trying to be funny and had a lot of components of things that go viral, so...it wasn't funny and I don't think it really achieved what it wanted to.


A dirty, dirty trick in my opinion, but undeniably effective. BuzzFeed built an empire on "listicles," because people seem willing to read and share things that are neatly segmented groups of ten or 20 or 40. Upworthy is building an empire on titles that make you curious enough to click (pro tip: follow @UpworthySpoilers and avoid this problem).

The broader point inside this one is that people are figuring out empirical ways to attract click and attention, and then using it over and over again. I personally believe that people will get tired of it, but in the meantime BuzzFeed and Upworthy are certainly doing well for themselves.


Millenials seem to love reminiscing on the 90s, for example. I see stuff like that spread all the time. Zimbio quizzes about which "Boy Meets World" character you are or "Which Disney Princess Are You", that sort of thing.


Plenty of stuff gets shared because it fits within a worldview of someone who feels passionately enough about it to share 20 times a day on Facebook. This is tough though, unless you touch a nerve that people really care about.


Ties in with Partisan a bit. I've been seeing this one more and more. Person A thinks Group B is stupid, and when A sees a link where Group C puts Group B in its place, A loves that and wants to share it.

So, let's say you found a source where someone says that coding PHP is stupid. You make a video that is a withering retort, putting that person in his place. PHP coders see it, like it, share it, and it has your company's name attached to it. Not saying that would work, but saying that's how it could work.

A recent example that partially fits in here is Taco Bell's recent decision to use people named "Ronald McDonald" to promote their new breakfast. It got attention because it was a shot across McDonald's bow.

There's a quote going around: "While you were arguing about Rails vs Django vs Flask vs Erlang, a bunch of people shipped with PHP." What if your company had made that quote and people were discovering you as a result?

External variables

This is a different angle to consider: Virality is hard to control. Kind of like how viruses are hard to control! The Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie incident is a textbook example. Whatever the intent of the campaign was, it became something entirely different based on circumstances outside of the advertisers' control. But while people were fined and jobs were probably lost, it got national press for very little money. So, was it successful?


If you follow sites like Hacker News, Daring Fireball, or Reddit, those can be launching pads for people. Very often I'll see sites that go down when they're linked there because they weren't used to the load. Some sites like Stratechery can probably credit a few well-placed links for their blogging success (or at least the speed of their success). Not sure if this fits your definition of viral, but an organic link on Daring Fireball can end up doing a lot more good for you than an AdSense buy.

But that sort of stuff is tough to force. You need to have great content and the right people have to pick it up.


And perhaps that's the point of virality - it has to spread on its own, there are ultimately going to be some variables outside of your control, and for it to spread it has to be worthy for people to share without making any money by doing so. If I'm not getting paid to share a video, I'm sharing it because I find some other kind of value in it. Give a person something valuable that they would want to share.

  • This is a GREAT answer but have to -1 for having the term 'listicles' in it. I JUST CAN'T STAND THAT WORD! :)
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 20:16
  • (just kidding about the -1, btw...)
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 20:16
  • 2
    @DA01 - That'd be fair. I feel the same way about words like "phablet" and "vlog".
    – Brendan
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 20:54

I've been tasked with designing a viral campaign

You don't design a viral campaign. You design a good campaign, and then you hope it becomes popular enough that it's shared virally.

So, the best you can do is design a good campaign that is tailored to the demographic you are after, make it easy for them to share, and then cross your fingers.

Now, if you want to 'fake' the viral aspects of it, then you need good PR. Someone that can get this out to all of the particular web sites and other media outlets that can help spread the word. One needs to be careful with this, however, as consumers aren't dumb, and are somewhat adept and spotting a 'natural' viral campaign vs. a contrived one.

  • Great points - a lot more succinct than mine! To me, there's nothing more annoying than a viral campaign that feels like it's supposed to be a viral campaign, or links that feel like I'm being manipulated into clicking them.
    – Brendan
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 20:56
  • Downvoter care to explain?
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 2:32

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