Everywhere we look, we’re surrounded by advertisements. From the faded poster on the back of the bench at the bus station, to enormous billboards on the side of the highway, to television commercials playing at high volume every few minutes. It’s all produced to make consumers stop, acknowledge the brand, and invest in the product.

So what sets viral marketing apart from the rest? It’s simple: the power to reach millions with a single advertisement, sometimes in minutes. Viral marketing is the use of existing social networking sites and other technologies to spread content.

In many ways, viral marketing is just the acceleration of word-of-mouth advertising over the internet, in which a single person’s post on social media can reach hundreds of their connections online, sharing content through the existing social media networks with a single click. When the content is produced by a company or brand, this can quickly become an effective advertising campaign, in which potential customers who have never heard of a brand are exposed to the content, increasing brand recognition.

Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn can all be used effectively for viral marketing campaigns. After posting a video, sharing a post, sending a tweet, or connecting on LinkedIn and promoting content, viral marketing can take off, and this content can be shared by other users. Adding an incentive, such as a prize for sharing content, can help to increase the visibility of advertisements, and ensure that the brand reaches the largest audience possible.

The key to viral marketing is to spread a message through messengers in the appropriate environment. The message is the content that is spread, which must be memorable and interesting. The messengers must be a combination of marketing experts who have experience and understanding of viral marketing and can be the first to spread media, and those with an extensive social media presence. The environment is everything from the platform on which the content is launched to the time and context of the launch.

The content itself can be distributed in one of several ways, passed along, incentivized, based on trends, or undercover. Pass-along based viral marketing requires social media to organically spread content from social media mavens to their followers. Incentive based viral marketing creates a reward for sharing content, thus encouraging the spreading of the marketing materials, whether by encouraging followers to “Like” a Facebook page in exchange for a discount or added content, or by raffling a product. Trendy based marketing relies on current trends and fads to help profligate content, whether by tailoring products or marketing towards a current social obsession, or using websites such as Buzzfeed to promote a product. Undercover based marketing helps to popularize a brand without explicitly showing the company that is being promoted, and instead working to encourage people to support a brand without the company being named.

Viral marketing is an advertising strategy that can be employed to reach more consumers than ever before, and can be cost-effective if appropriately managed and monitored, requiring an intense understanding of social media and trends.