Viral marketing sensation. There are no other words for Ariana Grande's massive hit, "Thank U, Next."
An upbeat send-off to her various exes, the song is accompanied by a video clip that is a tour de force of classic early 2000s film references, internet, and pop-culture superstars, and general feel-good vibes.
The video reached 90 million views in three days. It’s now up to 153 million views and counting.
That’s a dream for any brand and marketer.
As a marketing enthusiast, I couldn’t help but drop everything I was doing to analyze and dissect this viral marketing campaign. (It’s not just an excuse to loop the video at work, I swear.)
In this post, we’ll look at how Ariana and her team achieved such mindblowing success and unpack five lessons this music video can tell us about viral marketing in 2018 and beyond.
Let’s hear it, from Ariana Grande:
Breaking the internet - for real
“Breaking the internet” is an overused term, but in this case, it’s justified: the amount of activity this clip generated knocked out YouTube’s comments feature for an unknown period of time.
At its peak, there were 829,000 simultaneous viewers watching the first release of the clip, and fans posted over 516,000 messages during the first viewing alone.
The clip took just under 34 minutes to reach one million views - a clear record on YouTube - and landed Ariana with her first ever Billboard #1 hit.
Whether or not you count yourself as an Arianator, it’s undeniable that the launch of this video was a massive success.
If you’re in marketing, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the release of this song to see how Ariana and her team achieved such huge viral exposure.
Let’s break down exactly how Ariana and her team managed to attract such a wide audience across a number of platforms.
How did she do it?
Given Ariana Grande is already the most-streamed artist around the world on Spotify, it’s unsurprising that ‘Thank U, Next’ would see such massive success.
However, the viral exposure of ‘Thank U, Next’ is no accident - Ariana’s huge numbers comes down to deliberate and carefully planned marketing.
Behind the fun, frivolity and great one-liners in the clip is a masterclass in online promotion, combining traditional marketing with sophisticated social media techniques.
Next, we’ll break these down one by one, and see what brands can learn from them.
5 lessons from Ariana Grande's viral marketing campaign
1. Tease the release
As with new films and television premieres, a new single needs a solid performance within the first 24 hour period to truly cement its popularity and success.
The key to securing a broad early audience is anticipation. Before the launch, pop culture and celebrity news sites have already been flooded with teasers and behind the scenes footage to get Ariana’s fans ready:
Ariana’s tweeted multiple sneakpeaks and making-of photos from the video:
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) November 24, 2018
And a countdown to the launch:
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) November 29, 2018
Teasing the launch on social media in the lead up to the release was a great way to establish a strong appetite for the song.
where is the video, we want the damn video. where is the video, we want the damn video.
— (@gryffindorboca) November 30, 2018
Ariana Grande was also able to play off a dramatic moment with her ex Pete Davidson, tweeting after his SNL performance making light of their breakup to hint at the forthcoming song.
Of course, a successful viral campaign isn’t limited to just one platform.
2. Savvy multi-channel social media marketing
More than just building anticipation, Ariana Grande and her production team carefully drove fan attention across a number of social media platforms.
In addition to the tweets hyping the release, ‘Thank U, Next’ was also heavily promoted on Instagram and Facebook.
View this post on Instagram
The smart use of social media channels don’t stop at promotion. The release of the video was done via YouTube’s new Premiere feature.
That means the video was not just uploaded as an on-demand video, but as a high-profile “event” with real-time reactions from her fan community - reminding us of premieres from the classic MTV days.
All of this cross-channel promotion contributed to a crazy amount of online discussions:
Source: Linkfluence search
As we can see from the above search, there were over 205,000 posts about “Thank U, Next” since the release of the video. This viral marketing campaign is also mostly by young women in the US.
This song’s eventual #1 spot on the Billboard Charts was due in large part to the amount of exposure driven through social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
More than just building up the hype for a viral marketing campaign, the music video shows that Ariana Grande also knows how to tell a good story in her music.
3. Tell a great story
No matter how great your marketing is, no campaign will go viral if the content is no good. You need a story that speaks to your audience.
Ariana’s song and the accompanying clip gracefully and respectfully address the stories around her exes, including actor Pete Davidson and the late musician Mac Miller.
This emotional core of the song makes the clip more than just a breezy ode full of celebrity cameos and gives Ariana’s fans an peak - albeit a carefully calculated one - into her personality and her personal journey.
The video mixes a number of subtle political messages too, with Ariana’s reincarnation of Legally Blonde character Elle Woods reading up on immigration and refugee law, a sly nod to current debates in the United States.
And her fans are loving it:
I’M SHAKINGGGG OMG THE BOOKS SHE CHOSE TO READ!!! My lawyer side is dying!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/kHI8Cd1rhW
— Blue Ivy's Au Pair (@MikeyTBH) November 29, 2018
These elements of the clip show that Ariana Grande isn’t afraid to tackle thorny or sensitive issues, but instead, give them a narrative through her music. And these issues of heartbreak and political concerns turn out to be universal and resonate really well with her audience.
One other way to drive viral popularity? Stand on the shoulders of already viral content.
4. Celebrate the classics
A lot of pop songs succeed by recognizing and paying homage to the cultural landscape they sit within. This is most definitely the case with ‘Thank U, Next’.
By recreating iconic scenes from films like Mean Girls:
Source: “Thank U, Next” (screenshot from clip)
Bring It On, with Ariana as a Missy Pantone-style cheerleader:
‘i transferred from los angeles, your school has no gymnastics team this issaalast resort ........ ok i’ve never cheered before so what?’ pic.twitter.com/hD3pDR3K1k
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) November 21, 2018
As well as scenes from Legally Blonde, 13 Going On 30, etc. In fact, the entire video is one long string of relevant and well-timed pop culture references.
Ariana Grande places herself within a web of other stories and female figures - particularly strong, independent women - in recreating iconic scenes from these well-loved classics for her fans.
More than just great storytelling, this technique means that the clip won’t just pick up views from Ariana Grande’s fans, but also from fans of these classic movies.
But nothing drives more attention than people with huge audiences. The next lesson from this viral marketing campaign: driving popularity with online influencers.
5. Drive exposure with online influencers
The video for ‘Thank U, Next’ reflects a deep understanding of influencer culture, drawing from the existing fanbase of online influencers by including them in the video.
For example, in the case of YouTube star Miranda Sings, pretty much every one of her nine million subscribers is guaranteed to watch the clip. This serves to broaden the exposure for both Ariana Grande and Miranda Sings.YouTube Star Miranda Sings, Source: Distractify
Enlisting the help of online influencers is something we’ve talked about before, so be sure to check out our previous posts.
5b. Incorporate celebrity cameos, thoughtfully
The response to the song and clip has focused a lot on the many celebrity cameos.
If we look at the topic distribution of “Thank U, Next”, we see that the majority of conversations around this viral clip is on the people:
Source: Linkfluence Search
Kris Jenner, Jonathan Bennett, Jennifer Coolidge: people seem to love combing through the string of big-name appearances to figure out who’s who, and where they’ve seen them before.
Such cameos can be a real gamble. Sometimes, including such big names can feel forced (Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones, anyone?), leaving fans wondering what the point was, exactly.
But Ariana and her team clearly nailed it. Fans are loving these celebrity cameos:
Kris Jenner in the role she was born to play pic.twitter.com/nnmzZLgePD
— Ria (@BarstoolRia) November 30, 2018
The smart “influencer strategy” paid off and contributed to a coherent and on-brand video that led to its huge success.
Thank U, Ariana Grande, for teaching us about viral marketing
For some, it’s easy to see a new release from Ariana Grande as just another sugary pop song in her list of hits.
However, the viral marketing success of the song builds from hundreds of carefully considered marketing and branding decisions.
For anyone in marketing, the production, promotion, and release of the clip is a masterclass in how to achieve wide exposure and give your audience what they want.
It’s worth looking at some of the specific techniques used in the release of the song, including building anticipation, paying homage to wider cultural cornerstones, and driving exposure with online influencers and celebrities.
You don’t have to be in the music business for these techniques to work for you.
Think about how you could use some of these techniques in your next viral marketing campaign ( - just don’t expect to reach the same numbers!)