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Viral email campaigns in the social media era

To stay competitive with social media platforms, businesses leveraging email marketing use various email types, each with a different purpose. These include newsletter emails, lead nurturing emails, promotional emails, milestone emails, survey emails and viral emails.

In fact, 64% of businesses worldwide interact with their audience through email campaigns, a marketing strategy offering a return on investment (ROI) of $36.

In this article, we discuss viral email marketing and examine how viral emails effectively grow a businesses’ network in the social media era.


Table of contents


What is viral email marketing?

Viral email marketing is a strategic decision to create emails that readers share immediately with many people. The approach emulates word-of-mouth gossip, where a message is forwarded from one person to many people in a short amount of time. It depends on people forwarding, posting and referring the email to exponentially reach as large an audience as possible.

Viral email marketing campaigns help boost a business’s reach beyond its email list by getting subscribers to share emails beyond the usual list of subscribers. This strategy in email marketing brings numerous benefits.

Increased open rate

45% of people using free email services such as Gmail, Microsoft Outlook and Hotmail have email security concerns and are reluctant to open emails from addresses they don’t recognize.

Reasons cited include the fear that it might be a malicious email containing email viruses, such as a phishing email infected with malware, ransomware or a trojan virus. This means a viral email sent from a known email address is at least twice as likely to be opened and not thought to be spam or a scam.

Greater brand awareness

When done well, a viral email campaign can put a brand in front of a new audience. By leveraging a company’s already existing email lists, consumers who wouldn’t necessarily look for the brand online but might be interested in what they offer learn about them in a referral-style manner.

Multi-channel content

The best viral emails are those that can be shared in all forms (e.g. forwarded as an email, copied and pasted into a text message, published as a social media post). The advantages of this include growing several marketing channels at once, as well-composed viral emails should include links to the brand’s website, email, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and perhaps even Pinterest, Discord and Telegram.


What makes an email go viral?

Viral email campaigns have the same fundamental objectives as traditional email marketing:

  • Creating brand awareness

  • Sharing relevant news

  • Building an informed relationship with your audience

  • Presenting an offer with a call-to-action (CTA)

So what makes people share stories online, making something go viral?

Research by Berger and Milkman demonstrates that people share content online that is psychologically arousing, doing so because they want to…

  • Improve the lives of others

  • Look well-informed

  • Grow their social networks

  • Experience the sensation of others engaging with their stories

  • Spread awareness about issues important to them


7 Tips to make your email go viral

To help you compose your own viral email marketing campaign, we’ve put together seven tips for you to follow.

1. Send to your subscription list and give instructions

Sending to your subscription list helps keep your email out of the spam folder. Notably, a viral email should include an explicit request for the receiver to forward the email to people in their address book they think will appreciate it using the “share with a friend” button included in the body text. Doing so enables marketers to track the email, which wouldn’t be possible if forwarded as usual.

2. Optimize your subject line

After your name, the subject line is the first impression an email has on a potential viewer. It should evoke enough intrigue about the email message within to get a click from the viewer. Playing with emojis, CAPS, length and verbiage with A/B testing will help you select the best-performing subject lines for your campaign.

3. Include an image, screenshot, or video

The majority of email subscribers prefer emails that are primarily images. Moreover, research suggests images invoke stronger emotions faster than words. Using an infographic, a GIF, a screenshot or an image as the centerpiece of your viral email can help invoke a stronger emotional reaction, making it more likely people will share that content.

4. DON’T add email attachments

74% of internet users in the US are concerned about online security and privacy. This prevents people from opening emails containing attachments, often perceived as infected emails with executable files that might include a computer virus.

5. Offer a worthwhile reward

Incentivizing your audience to share your email, perhaps with a month’s free subscription or early access to an upcoming release, gives them one extra reason to move your email along. Email marketers must ensure they have the proper email infrastructure in place to track which addresses passed the email forward so they can deliver on their promise.

6. Include a CTA

A call-to-action is essential for a viral email marketing campaign. Explicitly ask the individual engaging with your email to perform the action you want them to (e.g. share, post, tweet, comment or tag).

7. Follow-up

Having sent out your viral email, the next email in your sequence should be a follow-up that addresses the viral element of your campaign. It might be a thank you to those who forwarded the email, news on the viral campaign’s impact, or statistics on the campaign’s reach.

Following up like this builds a relevant conversation with your audience and keeps them actively involved with your brand. This helps you establish an emotional and meaningful connection with readers.


Final thoughts

Email marketing is positioned as a marketing channel with one of the highest ROIs because of its capacity to personalize and resonate with users’ desires, problems and needs. By adding elements of viral email campaigning into an overall strategy, email marketers can rapidly boost brand awareness and target audience.

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