The Truth About Viral Marketing

    “Our business runs on word of mouth.”
    — Hugh Hefner, publisher and real estate investor

Viral marketing is like sex — everyone talks about it, but most people aren’t as good at it as they think. What’s more, it’s an act that’s filled with emotional landmines that we marketers must dance around to avoid an ugly breakup with our customers.

To shed some light on the mysterious techniques of viral marketing, I conducted original research on this topic at Harvard Business School. You may find the results surprising.

In the Internet age, word of mouth (now renamed “viral marketing” — you can thank Steve Jurvetson for that felicitous metaphor) has become an ever-more important means of diffusing innovation. New products such as MP3 rise overnight without traditional print or broadcast marketing. In the case of MP3, adoption rates among college students shot from zero to over 50 percent in less than six months.

Despite its importance, however, many aspects of word of mouth remain a mystery to academics. While Thomas Valente and Rebecca Davis analyze the quantitative and procedural side of word of mouth in their article, “Accelerating the Diffusion of Innovations Using Opinion Leaders,” their analysis stays at a high level. They offer a process for setting up a receptive environment for word of mouth: Identify opinion leaders, use sociogram analysis to match them with the right mix of followers, and let the leaders work their magic. The process of influence itself remains a black box. Valente and Davis themselves admit that their study fails to explore the feelings and emotions of influence: “How much opinion leaders enjoy being opinion leaders remains to be seen.”

My research attempted to shed light on the thoughts, feelings, and emotions experienced by the participants in word-of-mouth environments. I analyzed the complex and emotional interaction between evangelist and evangelized to figure out how viral marketing works. My findings could be summarized with three simple principles:

  1. Was it good for you?

  2. You can’t fake it.
  3. Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.

Was It Good for You?

A evangelist feels a strong sense of responsibility to guide potential converts to the right choice. If he convinces a friend to try a new product, he’ll feel guilty if that friend doesn’t have a good experience.

As a marketer, this means that you have to emphasize the unique and different qualities of your product or service to your evangelists. Differentiation is an important part of traditional marketing, but it is even more important for word of mouth.

You Can’t Fake It

Word-of-mouth marketing has to be based on sincerity. The reason word-of-mouth campaigns such as the Blair Witch Project are successful is that the evangelists involved have the trust of the evangelized. You might ignore a million banners advertising a product when you surf the Web, but you’d try the product in an instant if your best friend gave it a rave review. Why do you think Amway concentrates on sales to friends and family?

When you design a marketing campaign, you must place a strong emphasis on sincerity when designing your referral program. The efficacy of offering financial rewards cannot be disputed; programs such as AllAdvantage have signed up millions of members by offering those rewards. But remember what happened to AllAdvantage — without sincerity, there is no lasting success.

Show Me Yours, and I’ll Show You Mine

The evangelist has to eat the dog food herself. To quote the Hair Club for Men, “I’m not just the president, I’m also a client!” This is what made Hotmail so phenomenally successful. By definition, every evangelist was also an enthusiastic user of the product.

One company I worked with on a project had a product that everybody and his kid brother wanted to sell, but it wasn’t clear whether people wanted to buy. I told them to make sure their distributors adopted the product themselves. If the distributors wouldn’t use the product, it wouldn’t have any chance on the open market. The story turned out to have a happy ending, but it illustrates the importance of this principle.

So there you have it — three simple principles for successful viral marketing. As for sex, you’re on your own!

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