Viral marketing outcomes are difficult to predict: one small decision can mean the difference between your YouTube video going viral and going nowhere. But such efforts also have potentially enormous upsides, with the ability to score impressions far beyond the number many small businesses can afford with more traditional methods.

To help you mitigate the risk and increase the chances of your guerrilla campaign blowing up, check out these 9 viral marketing tactics you should try, covering the online, the offline and everything in between.

Best Practices

1. Leave Your Signature

Make sure that any outgoing online communication has your mark embedded in it. This can mean an auto-generated link back to your site when people cut and paste a passage of your text or something as simple as a "powered by X" email signature. Hotmail, for example, acquired nearly a million users in a year in the early days of the internet simply by making sure that every Hotmail email contained the signature "Want a free email account? Sign up for Hotmail today!"

2. Enable Frictionless Sharing

Make sure your product, site or viral content can be shared by users and admirers as effortlessly as possible. This means having large, conspicuous share buttons or creating share widgets ( is a great place to find these).

Viral Approaches

3. Get Visual With Photo-Worthy, Conspicuous Props

Every year, the Maryland headquarters of Discovery Channel outfits itself with a giant inflatable great white shark to create buzz for Shark Week. While this prop is confined to a single street corner, the internet magnifies its reach many-fold as the photo is shared online. So while only a tiny fraction of Discovery's viewers actually drive by their building, millions across the country are exposed to the campaign because it creates a fun and sharable photo online.

4. Organize a Referral Contest

This old-school marketing technique has been given new power on the web. Creating a contest fosters a sense of fun and competition, and the cash/prizes you give away may be well-worth the attention you get. Make sure that your contest rewards more shares or “likes” with higher chances to win, like a traditional raffle.

5. Turn Your Packaging Into Ads5. Turn Your Packaging Into Ads

If you own a retail space or sell physical goods, why not turn every customer who carries your product into a moving advertisement? If you sell a product, think about packages or wrapping that will catch people’s eyes (see these clever packages as examples) or highlight the product in a clever way. If you own a retail space, consider playing with the form of your carryout bags, perhaps adorning them with images that look realistic or shocking—check out these further examples of creative "bag-vertising" for more inspiration.

6. Target-Based Referral Program

While it may not produce the immediate traffic spike of a contest, offering a target-based referral program should lead to a steady trickle of new eyeballs on your product. Try setting monthly referral minimums, with those hitting their quota receiving a monthly reward (advertising credit, cash, etc.). By extension, any long-term incentivization for sharing your content can be beneficial: Dropbox famously offered free data storage to those referring a friend and managed to increase signups by 60 percent.

7. Juice the Views

This probably isn't one you'll want to brag about, but it can be effective and necessary. Sometimes, even quality online content with huge potential virality needs a bit of early momentum to start snow-balling. If you've got the cash, try using Outbrain, Taboola or StumbleUpon's paid discovery to push your content out early with the power of the purse, then hope that its growth begins to become organic.

8. Target Long Lines

Is there anything more boring or frustrating than being stuck in a long line? While they may be a drag for the customer, lines are the perfect settings for viral marketing: people stuck in a single place are grateful for any distraction. Opening night for eagerly anticipated or niche movies are a great place to start, but the real idea here is to attack lines filled with potential customers for your product. Testflight, for example, famously and ingeniously targeted massive lines at Apple's 2011 Worldwide Developers Conference to market their free testing service for mobile developers. The day before the conference, they gave away branded tee shirts and promised free breakfast to anyone wearing them; then they found them in line the next day and delivered.

9. Create a Viral Video

While there's no way to ensure virality, there are some things to keep in mind when executing your video that can give it a better chance of spreading.

During creation:

  • Remember to keep things short -- no longer than 90 seconds.
  • No advertising in the video itself.
  • Aim to arouse any of the following emotions: excitement, amusement, anger, anxiety.
  • Don't attempt to arouse contentment or sadness. Both have been linked to low inducement to share.
  • Make your title viral. Imagine a friend asking "hey, have you seen the video of _____?" A good title should clearly and concisely fill in that blank.

Spreading your video:

  • Release on a Monday or Tuesday. Most online content spreads while people are at work, and shares fall off on the weekend. So post early in the week and give your content as much time as possible to spread before Friday night rolls around.
  • Seed early views by posting your video to as many message boards and blogs as are relevant to the material.
  • Find videos relevant to yours on YouTube, and submit your video as an answer to theirs.

10. Be Nice

Surely, generosity is its own reward, but if it gets some great exposure for your business, that doesn't hurt either. Random acts of kindness, like dropping off lunch every week at your local fire department, are great fodder for local news (online and otherwise), meaning your altruism could lead to serious impressions for very little money. DC-based restaurant chain Sweetgreen alerts Twitter and Facebook followers that they'll be giving out free salads in specific locations 15 minutes beforehand, and they even leave gift cards with people who have been given parking tickets. The result? Some cheered-up parkers and, more importantly, a story in the Washington Post.