An Unfortunate Name

The term “viral marketing” has been unfairly vilified in a variety of media outlets over recent months, mostly by people who have only a vague idea what the term means. Perhaps the criticism is based on the negative connotations that the word “viral” conjures up. But in reality, viral marketing is simply marketing industry jargon for “word-of-mouth” advertising via the Internet.

For years small businesses have relied on word of mouth advertising as a key part of their promotions. The media would never chastise a barber for giving half-off of a haircut to someone who refers three friends, because such dealings are an everyday part of life and are completely un-newsworthy. However, Internet marketers who do essentially the same thing have received a barrage of criticism.

On some level “viral” is an apt comparison. In a viral campaign, one person “infects” several people with an offer, who then spread it to several of their friends, until the entire virtual neighborhood has been exposed. Like viruses, viral campaigns also depend on the resources of their hosts – the message is passed through their e-mail accounts, across their bandwidth, and to their friends. Looking at it this way, “viral” certainly fits.

Fortunately, the virus analogy ends there. Viral campaigns are generally benevolent rather than malign. A successful viral campaign requires the various hosts to obtain some form of benefit from the program in order for them to want to participate. If not, the campaign fizzles and the “virus” dies out.

What Makes a Campaign “Viral”?

The bottom line is that viral marketing is not fundamentally a revolutionary development. It is merely a twist on humanity’s oldest form of marketing communication. This twist comes in two basic varieties – spontaneous and planned.

Spontaneous viral campaigns are built upon a quality of the product, service, or the idea itself. Something about it resonates with trendsetters who latch on to it and begin promoting it within their own spheres of influence. Over a short period of time, vast interconnected social networks are buzzing with news about the product or idea.

A planned campaign simply involves the careful orchestration of this same process. Dr. Ralph Wilson, a well-known and respected e-commerce consultant, has identified six major elements to most successful viral marketing campaigns. Most programs:

  • Provide an incentive to the customer to pass the message along. If there is a defined reward for sending the message to a certain number of other people, be it a coupon, a free software tool, or what have you, users will pass it along to everyone in their e-mail address book.
  • Facilitate the communications process between the customer and their personal human networks. The easier it is to send the message to others, the more likely the consumer will be to take some of their valuable time to spread your offer. Commonly, this is accomplished through “refer-a-friend” and “pass along” functions that encourage and centralize the process.
  • Can be scaled to fit any volume of response. The program must be prepared to face whatever the response may be, whether three or three million people participate. Due to the very nature of a viral program it is impossible to predict how many will respond and what the rate of response will be.
  • Play upon common human motivations. People are predictable. There are certain things that elicit action from nearly everyone. Things such as avarice, social acceptance, and humor can provide the general impetus to get the ball rolling in a viral campaign.
  • Spread via existing communications networks not affiliated with the program. The strength of viral marketing is that it utilizes other people’s communications pathways to carry your message. By using personal human networks as a marketing vehicle, the potential reach of a viral campaign is almost limitless.
  • Capitalizes on the resources of other entities. A side benefit of a viral initiative is that it uses other people’s tangible and intangible resources, including their contacts, e-mail accounts, and bandwidth.

No matter how much research and planning goes into developing a viral campaign, there is never a guarantee that the campaign will work. As viral marketing is simply a high-tech version of word-of-mouth advertising, by its very nature it cannot be controlled. Sure, you can get people to talk, but there is absolutely no way to regulate what is being said. If the product is bad or the marketers go too far, a negative buzz can be generated.

An Outbreak Begins

Although the concept dates back to the beginnings of human communications, viral marketing has become a significant part of many major online marketing campaigns over the past three years, due in part to the power inherent in such a social phenomenon. Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most widely cited, example of successful viral marketing is that of Hotmail. Today, Hotmail is a well-established brand and a household name for today’s wired families. But back in 1996, Hotmail was a small venture just starting out with a limited marketing budget.

In an effort to maximize each and every marketing dollar, Hotmail added a small bit of text at the end of every e-mail that was sent through their free service: “Get your private, free e-mail at” Through this succinct message, each customer became a representative for Hotmail and subscriptions skyrocketed. In just a year-and-a-half, Hotmail was able to sign up 12 million members. Even more impressive: the cost per subscriber was just over 4 cents. Hotmail’s results provided the catalyst for the eventual explosion of viral marketing, and other successes soon followed.

The Movies: Moving Beyond Reviews

Movies have always relied on referrals and reviews to generate interest, and Hollywood was quick to latch onto the Internet as the next logical step. One of the first movies to use viral marketing was The Blair Witch Project, a low-budget independent film, which made it to the big time mainly through referrals to friends over the Internet.

Two summers ago, Steven Spielberg’s movie, Artificial Intelligence, was produce in utmost secrecy so that the Internet could be used to generate conjecture and hype about its mysterious plot. While the movie itself received poor reviews, the online buzz leading up to the release was tremendous, fed by the strategic piece-by-piece release of information such as the trailer.

This past winter, New Line Cinema chose to work with pre-existing online Tolkien fan clubs to build support for the their release of the first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Rather than struggling against the current of these long established fan bases, New Line fanned the flames and even attached the official movie website to an existing Web ring. Through this relationship, New Line Cinema has successfully positioned themselves to prime the release of the other two parts of the trilogy with little or no effort simply by sharing their information with their Web ring, where the entire hardcore fan base can be instantly mobilized.

The Music Industry: Listening to the Buzz

Like the film industry, the music industry has always relied on word of mouth and therefore has begun widely utilizing viral marketing techniques. Many of today’s most popular bands were discovered because of grassroots online support from their local fans. Through websites and MP3 music file sharing, these bands obtained a nationwide following before they ever signed with a label or went on tour. Now, nearly all bands utilize the Internet to promote their album releases, tours, and other events.

Perhaps the best illustration of the music industry’s success in this area is the migration of the traditional street team to the Internet. Music promoters have become masters of planned viral marketing campaigns. Simply by offering die-hard fans, usually eager teenagers, incentives such as free CDs, concert tickets, and T-shirts, they are able to mobilize myriad online street teams that then carry their message across the virtual world to every recess, reaching current fans and recruiting new enthusiasts.

By simply activating their hardcore audience, these promoters can infect untold hoards of those who would otherwise ignore them. As with all of the best viral marketing programs, these street teams are incredibly cost efficient, and more importantly, they place the message in the right context at the right time, breaking down the barriers that we construct to protect ourselves from today’s incessant barrage of marketing communications. Think of any pop artist today, from the unheard of groups struggling to break into the scene to the most popular boy bands and teenage divas, and it is safe to say that they are using these online street teams.

The Intrinsic Virus

In addition to these planned viral programs, myriad Internet companies have achieved profound success simply due to the viral nature of their product or service. For example,, which allows users to e-mail invitations to events and parties through a centralized system that organizes and manages the entire affair, is intrinsically viral. The brand is spread every time someone uses the service and more importantly, the message appears in a welcome context – a friend is inviting you to join in an important event or joyous celebration. Other Internet companies with similar products, such as, a virtual greeting cards provider, also share this intrinsic viral quality.

Taking this a step further, some companies are entirely dependent upon the central concept of viral marketing – the mobilization of personal social networks. ICQ, once the most popular instant messaging service, would have been completely useless if users had not pushed it to all of their friends and family. As a two-way communications device, it was absolutely necessary to have someone else on the other end to make the tool work. If you wanted to keep in touch affordably though instant messaging with your friend in another state or your uncle overseas, you had to spread the program. In a short period of time, ICQ became wildly successful with most Internet users participating at some point. Had Netscape (now part of AOL Time Warner) not purchased it to contain competition, ICQ may have remained the most popular instant messaging service to this day.


The ultimate key to any viral program is the same as in any traditional word of mouth campaign: honesty and integrity. Consumers are not naïve, and they will see what is going on and recognize that they are playing a role in your program. It is therefore vitally important that they believe in your veracity and utility. You should not be trying to sell them boats in the middle of the desert. Make them an offer that improves their life in some minor way and show that you are sensitive to their needs. If your business is relevant to their lives, and you offer them something of value in return for sharing their experience with their friends, family, and colleagues, they will gladly serve as your local ambassadors.