What Does Viral Marketing Really Mean?

What does viral marketing really mean?

Lately, the term “viral marketing” seems to have infected many conversations about Internet marketing. Most of us realize that it’s not about cooties. But what does the phrase really mean?

Let’s start with some microbiology. A virus is a protein shell that contains genetic material. An attacking virus uses its protein coating to attach to a healthy cell. Once it is securely attached, it injects its genetic material, permanently altering the DNA of the host cell. A particularly effective virus can transform the host cell into a factory that replicates the virus, spreading it to other cells.

Like the mythical Trojan Horse, a virus presents itself as an innocuous visitor, but contains a force that attacks and overcomes its host. It’s just that a virus is a Trojan Horse that goes on to create more Trojan Horses, conquering hosts exponentially as it spreads.

Of course, we don’t think of marketing in such bellicose terms. Simply put, viral marketing means creating messages that contain concepts within them that are absorbed by the people that come into contact with the messages. And making these messages compelling enough so that people pass them on.

Have you ever received a funny or obscene email that was forwarded to you through a friend? Chances are, a lot of people you know saw that same email. It’s because the Internet, with its email lists, web sites, chat rooms and bulletin boards, is an organism in which message viruses thrive.

Creating them can be tricky — a lot trickier than traditional advertising messages. Unlike biological viruses, the hosts on the Internet, consumers, have control. Marketing viruses can backfire.

But if you can create a message, be it an ad unit, a newsletter or a web site, that is both compelling enough to spread but that also firmly supports a brand’s values and objectives, you might have a winner on your hands.

Blue Marble’s marketing for Scope mouthwash, which won the CASIE award last year, was a prototypical marketing virus.

We created advertising units that allowed consumers to send a customized, animated, email “kiss” to their friends. The message reinforced the branding premise that Scope brought people “Kissably close.”

When people received a kiss, they had the option to send an email themselves. Our tracking technology confirmed that a good percentage did. Soon people were sending Scope kisses all over the world, and we observed a measurable increase in brand awareness and purchase intent among our target market.

Traditional advertising fit the mold of one-to-many model of broadcast technology. But the Internet is different. It is a chaotic network. Marketers not only need to understand that, they need to develop strategies that thrive in the new communication environment.

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