A viral marketing campaign is one of today’s best (and most cost-effective) ways to let people know about your business. It can take on many forms, like videos, pictures, interactive Flash games, e-books, and even text messages. If done properly and executed creatively, your viral marketing campaign can excite immediate word-of-mouth enthusiasm from people. It can be viewed, read, “liked”, and bookmarked countless times, spark memes, remixes, and spoofs, generate tons of links, and shared on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Digg, etc. With viral marketing, your campaigns will suddenly get a life of its own – and you won’t have to spend so much money for advertising placements.

But how do you do it properly? Is there a formula to achieving a million hits on YouTube? How do you make sure your viral content gets passed around by friends and strangers on Facebook?

Because of the wide variety of viral campaigns found on the Internet these days, it’s easy to think that it’s a hit-or-miss thing. There are, however, questions you can ask before you launch your own viral marketing campaign – and your answers to these questions may just determine how your viral content will be received by the rest of the World Wide Web.

Does it look like an advertisement?

There isn’t a single advertisement on the list of most viewed videos on YouTube. Well, at least there isn’t a video on that list that looks anything like a blatant advertisement. That’s because people are hard-pressed to share something that feels like an ad – unless, of course, it’s an ad that’s really amazing and doesn’t sell a product or service too aggressively. The Sony Bravia ad is a great example: no Sony television set was shown in the hugely successful video.

Are you doing something unexpected?

There’s no point in calling your campaign a “viral” one if it conforms to your market’s expectations from you. First, come up with a catchy title that audiences just won’t be able to resist clicking. Then shock people. Make them angry or make them cry. Make them laugh out loud. Make them say to their friends, “You won’t believe what I am about to send you.” It’s better to be polarizing and come up with something that audiences will either love or hate rather than be neutral and forgettable.

Is it short enough and quick to the point?

Viral campaigns usually tell a story, and if it’s engrossing and incredible enough, people will respond to it. You will have better chances at telling this story if you go for brevity. We’ve heard it so many times: people have a shorter attention span in the Internet age – and that’s why it’s important to break down long-winded content into something that’s bite-sized, easy to consume, and easy to share.

Are you ready to spread the word?

Your viral campaign won’t spread if you have no one to spread it to. So make sure you have the strategies in place to share your content to all social networks possible. Build an E-mail list of people with whom you can share your material. Build a sizeable presence on Facebook, both through your Friends list or through Facebook Fan Pages or Groups. Tweet the link to your campaign and ask your followers if they can do you the favor of re-tweeting. Embed your material on MySpace pages. You can generate even more buzz if you do all these simultaneously and create the impression that you have formally launched the campaign.

One more thing: if you have several materials in your viral campaign, you’ll do better by releasing them all simultaneously than by waiting for each released one to die down. If you’ve intrigued people well enough, why make them wait? Why ask them to revisit in two weeks’ time when you’ve already hooked them with your first blast? Releasing all your campaign materials simultaneously also gives you a better chance of people clicking and sharing within a shorter period of time.

Is your campaign optimized for search?

Optimizing your viral campaign materials can help sustain the buzz that you’re able to generate – even long after its launch. So maximize the options that allow you to add tags and keywords (words like “leaked”, “exclusive”, or “behind the scenes” are some of the useful adjectives you can add); create pictures and thumbnails that further stir the interest of people who haven’t seen or heard your campaign; take the time to write out descriptions, and never disable ratings, comments, and options for sharing and embedding.