Viral marketing is the technical term for what is commonly known as word-of-mouth advertising. Although viral marketing is as old as human civilization itself, the Internet has brought its efficacy and reach to a new level, and the technologies that provide the motive force behind this movement continue to evolve. The Internet has become the ultimate coffee shop, where users from around the globe coalesce and share their thoughts on everything, from the potency of their significant other to the quality of the bar of soap that they use every morning in the shower. In short, the Internet has created the first truly global neighborhood, with all of the trappings of a physical neighborhood – including incessant gossip.

Gossip is fundamental to being human, and it is what propels viral marketing. Stemming from the evolutionary need to share information in a sophisticated social species, it is an innate component of our psyches. Viral marketing spontaneously arises from gossip, and an astute marketer can capitalize on this element of human nature by providing the impetus to get the ball rolling.

One of the greatest things about the Internet is that it offers several avenues for viral dissemination. Despite the different pathways that may be taken, the primary vehicle that always carries the message is e-mail. E-mail is the ultimate tool for viral dissemination – it is quick, easy, and you can pass something along to all of your friends at the click of a button. Whether the object being passed along is a link to a cool site, an interesting article, a topical message board, or even another e-mail, it is e-mail that serves as the virtual mouth in the world of the Internet.

The problem with developing a viral campaign is that no matter how much research and planning goes into it, there is never a guarantee that it will work. Gossip by its very nature cannot be controlled. Sure, you can get people to talk about you website, your company, your product, your issue, etc., but there is absolutely no way to regulate what is being said. Sometimes the best laid plans can lead to just the opposite – negative buzz.

So the question arises, how do you create a viral campaign on the Internet that has a reasonable chance for success? The answer varies, depending upon what you are promoting and who your audience is. You should be as transparent in your efforts as possible – even innocuous promotions can anger people if they somehow feel that they are being misled. Just because they know that it is a marketing ploy does not mean that the audience will not pass it along. If you have something good to offer, like a cool branded video game, a relevant topical website, or a coupon for a useful product or service, make sure that it is perfectly obvious that the original messaging is from your marketing machine. People are not stupid, and they will figure it out on their own, so tell them from the very beginning – it will gain their respect, and maybe even their trust.

Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make relevant postings to these outlets that openly present your identity and position. If carried out successfully, others involved in the conversation will begin to forward your ideas to others. Your message is out there, moving along under its own momentum with no further expenditure of time or money.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously. If a friend forwards you a link to site and tells you that it is “really cool and you need to check it out,” aren’t you more likely to take it seriously than some advertisement directly from an amorphous company or organization? The bottom line is that viral marketing is a very low-cost option that has the potential to really touch your audience. Any organization can put together a viral program – it just takes careful planning and an assiduous attention to detail.

*Recently edited for clarification