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I Think I Caught Something: Viral Marketing

  |  January 30, 2001   |  Comments

It isn't easy to create viral marketing promotions. Sometimes, they just happen. Here's what it takes for an effective viral campaign today.

"The award for Internet marketing buzzword of the year goes to 'viral marketing.'"
-- ICONOCAST, December 16, 1998

It seemed that for the longest time you couldn't go anywhere in online-media circles without someone bringing up viral marketing. Since 1999, everyone in the marketing departments of every dot-com has been looking for a silver-bullet viral marketing solution, with thinking along these lines:

  • "Viral marketing is the wave of the online advertising future."

  • "Viral marketing is what will get me all the customers I need to survive as a business, and it won't cost me anything!"

  • "Viral marketing is what will build a customer base with little or no capital outlay from the advertiser."

A Phenomenal Solution

Every dot-com with dreams of avarice looked to viral marketing as its calorie-free, no-pain/all-gain path to customer acquisition.

Held up as poster children for the viral marketing cause are efforts that include eTour and the Mahir phenomenon; the Budweiser "Whassup?!" emailed executable; "The Blair Witch Project" word-of-mouth explosion; and, of course -- the granddaddy of them all -- Hotmail.

Now that the landscape has been strafed by dot-bombs, viral marketing -- instead of being shouted about on high -- is spoken of in the same hushed tones as the phrase "I work in the Internet business."

What Appeals Today

That said, there is still a role for this unique means of spreading an advertiser's value proposition and "infecting" the desired audience.

But before you think that tacking on a cool ".exe" to an email and spamming everyone in your contact database is a viable viral marketing tactic, think again.

It isn't easy creating something that is going to "take" with a given audience. One of the appeals of that which gets termed "viral marketing" is the authenticity of the expression. Most of us are all pretty media savvy these days, but those of us on the Web, and particularly younger people on the Web, are savvier than could have been imagined just five years ago.

What appeals now is perceived honesty, warts and all, in the message being offered. That's why humor is so pervasive in most of the advertising we see. Humor is just the truth in a palatable presentation. "Humor distorts nothing, and only false gods are laughed off their earthly pedestals," as Agnes Repplier once wrote. Authenticity is what people will accept. Viral marketing needs to rely heavily on that.

Effective Themes

Usually, for a viral marketing campaign to be strategically effective, it needs to demonstrate intrinsic value to the target audience. It needs to be consistent with self-expression. Campaign themes can include:

  • Entertainment -- the unit has entertainment value.

  • Utility -- the unit offers something the reader can use.

  • Palpable reward -- the unit offers instant gratification.

  • Uniqueness -- the unit is like nothing the reader has ever seen.

Viral marketing may be further classified as either "frictionless" or "active." Frictionless viral marketing is when the audience spreads the word of a product or service merely by using the product or service. Examples include Hotmail and electronic greeting cards, where a link to the site accompanies every message sent.

Active viral marketing requires customers' participation in recruiting new customers, as with AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, and affiliate programs, for instance.

When you get right down to it, though, successful viral marketing efforts are what I call "happy accidents." They are kind of like real viruses -- no one really means to give them, and no one really means to get them; they kind of just happen.

Certainly the "frictionless" forms of viral marketing have a certain deliberate intention behind their design. But eTour's success with the Mahir Cagri craze could not have been planned. It was about being at the right place at the right time. Sure, Jim Lanzone and his team at eTour had to do a lot of work to put a program together and get Mahir to the States, but no marketing department could have planned this phenomenon.

For most viral marketing, you need to spot a trend or fad early and be a part of it. The rest is just having what folks want and making it easy for them to share it with others.


Jim Meskauskas Jim Meskauskas has had a long career in both traditional and interactive media. He was most recently the Chief Internet Strategist at Mediasmith Inc., where he worked with a range of clients -- from BabyCenter and CBS MarketWatch to Eidos Interactive, Roxio, and LuckySurf. He has also been in media at Hawk Media, Left Field, and USWeb/CKS. He is a founding board member of the Society for Internet Advancement San Francisco, where he oversaw communications. Jim is now developing an independent media consultancy called Media Darwin.

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