Are Viral Communities Back?

  |  August 21, 2003   |  Comments

The next generation tries to better capitalize on exponential growth.

"Viral marketing" was the "it" term back in 1999 and 2000, and viral communities were the "it" application. Then, one by one, these communities died off. These days, however, viral communities seem to be reviving. What's different this time around? Will they fare better than before?

Though it certainly didn't invent viral marketing, Mirabilis' ICQ, later purchased by AOL, was one of the Internet's first viral marketing success stories. As one of the first instant messaging (IM) technologies, ICQ very quickly experienced exponential growth in its user base. Why? Because you can't use just one walkie-talkie.

Shortly after ICQ's success, community-oriented Web sites came online and used the viral marketing concept as their sole means of propagation. They included several college reunion sites, ex-coworker sites, and demographic-based communities. There were even IM spin-offs that allowed you to chat with other people who were looking at the same Web page you were. The most intriguing site was It played off the notion everyone in a large social network is connected to one other through short chains of intermediate acquaintances. (The term was popularized by John Guare in his play "Six Degrees of Separation.")

SixDegrees was cool because it let you communicate not only with your friends but also with their friends. You were allowed to talk to people within a certain number of "degrees" of you in your social network. SixDegrees didn't seem to know how to make money, however, and was eventually bought by YouthStream Media (now owned by Alloy Inc.). SixDegrees eventually closed its doors, and apparently its owners let the domain name registration lapse.

For a while, it looked like viral communities were either dead or dying.

Enter Friendster. Friendster is a relatively new site (still in beta) that has been experiencing the same kind of exponential growth companies such as ICQ saw in the late '90s. Other companies throwing their hats into the virtual community ring include Ryze and, but Friendster has gotten the most buzz.

The concept is very similar to the SixDegrees idea, but the marketing spin is much more fun and easier to understand. Everyone has a profile and a list of friends. Users are allowed to browse the user base and see the profiles of all their friends and their friends' friends. A testimonials function lets people "recommend" their friends to others. That's it. Not too complicated, but couched in the idea of friends. All of a sudden, it becomes a way not only to see how many friends you actually have but also to meet new people who have been prequalified, because a friend of a friend must be a good person, right?

And that's the trick. Viral communities are all slowly becoming dating services, because those seem to be the only communities online that are thriving and making money. Friendster does away with most of the community-oriented tools SixDegrees had. It focuses instead on profiles. It's like browsing AOL profiles of a qualified subset of people.

In researching this column, I went back to SixDegrees (a site I haven't visited in at least three years). It, too, is apparently going to be reborn as a dating/travel service. Interestingly, the domain name registration holder seems to be none other than an interactive marketing company.

At the moment, Friendster seems to be supported by ad revenue, although it's still in beta. I don't know what the company's business plan looks like, but I surely hope it has additional revenue streams. The ad-revenue-based community site sang its last song years ago.

One thing is for sure, however: Community sites are making a comeback, and the timing is right. Younger people (18 to 21 year olds) are getting online in record numbers, and they were too young to have participated in the viral communities of yesteryear. With the advent of DSL and cable modems, this demographic is spending more time online than the previous generation.

Will Friendster be successful? If it diversifies its revenue stream, it will have a good chance of making it. It needs to learn lessons from its viral community ancestors, however. Clearly, viral communities are back and will probably have a longer shelf life this time around.

What other ideas from the dot-com boom will come back and be successful? Will they learn from their trailblazing ancestors? Only time will tell.

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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