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July, 2005

What is Viral Marketing?

A while back I mentioned that I was beginning work on an article about viral marketing. Well, as that article moves closer and closer to being finished I find myself faced with the need to add a concluding paragraph. Of course, this is problematic because one of my conclusions is that it is impossible to know if you've created something viral. In fact, much of the article focuses on understanding the real goal of this kind of marketing, which is contagiousness. When you create a "viral" element, the goal is to create something that people will be impelled to pass around.

In response to this Mobile Technology Weblog post about viral marketing, I commented:

I think the issue here may be a semantic one. The more I think about the term "viral" marketing, the more it bothers. After all, a virus is "an infective agent that typically consists of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat, is too small to be seen by light microscopy, and is able to multiply only within the living cells of a host." Now, isn't that the ultimate goal of all marketing? Isn't the goal of any advertisement to infect a person and multiply inside them, thus connecting the individual and the brand? It seems to me that contagious marketing is a much better term for what this is. The goal of this kind of marketing is to create something that impels a person to spread it through online channels.
While I understand that when spread, this type of marketing follows a similar path to that of a virus, however, if you haven't made some contagious, it can never hope to "go viral" (if that makes sense).

Anyway, after reading this very interesting 1997 article about how Hotmail used viral tactics to grow it's user base (found via The Mobile Technology Weblog) I thought I might explore some of the ideas out loud here, in hope of getting to a conclusion for myself. What's interesting about Hotmail's growth is that rather than spending money on advertising to add users, they simply added a little message at the bottom of each email that made the recipient realize that the sender was using a new, free web-based email. Hotmail used it's users' email messages as an advertising platform, just as another company might use billboards or television commercials in the non-digital world. While it's certainly a fairly intrusive way to get the word out, it's undeniably contagious because everyone who sends an email has no choice but to extol the value of Hotmail. They have become carriers of Hotmail's message.

What's so interesting about this is that people might not necessarily think of it as "viral," especially people in marketing. I expect that's because we've slowly backed ourselves into a corner of just what a "viral" element is, which is why it seems so important to me to back up and concentrate on the contagiousness of the message. Essentially this kind of marketing looks to use ordinary people's online connections as its advertising platform. Hotmail found a way to tap into that network without the express consent of the users, most advertisers, however, don't have that option.

With that said, though, there's no reason we should limit "viral" to videos or interactive games. As shown by Hotmail, something can go "viral" by utilizing the medium in new and exciting ways. In the case of Hotmail, there is little doubt that the medium is the message, with each email contained a snippet that introduced the reader to this new service that obviously works well enough that their friend has chosen to use it. Marketers need to expand their zone of comfort. Marketers need to forget what they've learned and open their minds to new things. To quote from Weiden + Kennedy's five rules of creativity, "come in ignorant every day. The idea of retaining ignorance is sort of counterintuitive, but it subverts a lot of [problems] that come from absolute mastery. If you think you know the answer better than somebody else does, you become closed to being fresh."

It's for this reason we need to remember the purpose (contagiousness), the audience (most often those people who are bored at work) and the medium (the internet and, increasingly, mobile devices). If marketers insist on trying to create "viral" elements than it's important to remember one simple thing: Start with what you know and work your way to an idea, not vice-versa.

July 21, 2005
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.