What is Viral Marketing?

J. Dellaporta

Viral marketing or advertising is a marketing strategy that relies on individuals rather than traditional campaigns to pass along a message to others. It usually refers to marketing on the Internet. This style marketing has its name because of the tendency for messages to use "hosts" to spread themselves rapidly, like a biological virus.

Gossip or buzz marketing gets people talking.
Gossip or buzz marketing gets people talking.

The term "viral marketing" first became prominent when used to describe a marketing campaign for the e-mail service Hotmail.com. When the company launched, every outgoing message contained an advertisement for Hotmail and a link to its website at the bottom of the e-mail. As people e-mailed their friends and colleagues, they were also advertising the service. Recipients could simply click on the link and sign themselves up, and as they e-mailed friends from their new account, the message spread within existing social networks and was passed along with little effort from the company.

Snail mail advertisements might be intended to kickoff a viral marketing campaign.
Snail mail advertisements might be intended to kickoff a viral marketing campaign.

This example demonstrates all the key elements of viral marketing. Its cost to the advertiser is minimal. Instead, it takes advantage of existing resources by making everyone who uses the product an involuntary spokesperson. It exploits common behaviors, such as sending an e-mail.

Viral marketing may tie in to print advertisements placed in magazines.
Viral marketing may tie in to print advertisements placed in magazines.

Viral marketing uses communications networks that are already in place. In the case of Hotmail, it implies endorsement from a friend. People who received an e-mail from a friend using the service learned that the product works and that their friends use it. And most importantly, this styles of marketing offers the ability to spread a message exponentially faster and to more people than conventional third-party ad campaigns.

Some companies who focus on viral marketing tactics may reach out to registered customers through text messages.
Some companies who focus on viral marketing tactics may reach out to registered customers through text messages.

There are different types of viral marketing, all using the same fundamental principles. Pass-along messages encourage users to send them along to others, such as e-mails with instructions to forward at the bottom or humorous video clips. Incentive-driven messages offer rewards in exchange for providing e-mail addresses. Undercover viral advertising presents messages in an unusual page or false news item without any direct incitement to pass it along, in the hopes that word-of-mouth will spread the message. Gossip or buzz marketing seeks to get people talking about something by creating controversy.

Viral marketing has come under criticism from consumers, privacy advocates, and marketing pundits because of concern over unsolicited e-mails. The best campaigns, however, use the principles of viral marketing tactfully to avoid negative reactions and ensure a high pass-along rate - the number of recipients that will pass the message to others. Much like the common cold, effective viral advertising uses people to unwittingly transmit a message within their social network. It takes the concept of word-of-mouth and enhances it with the instant global communication afforded by the Internet.

The goal of viral marketing is to create a message people will want to share with their friends.
The goal of viral marketing is to create a message people will want to share with their friends.

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Discussion Comments

anon354788

What products have been launched through viral advertising?

anon254769

Viral marketing is certainly the way forward. I have found that mobile marketing, in particular, is extremely powerful, especially when you consider the particulars and demographics of your 'untethered' customer.

People who now use mobile devices become very attached and personal with those devices, therefore if you can market directly to their phone, tablet, iPod etc then you have a distinct advantage over your competitors. Would you agree?

We are now building mobile optimized websites and apps for our customers as we have found that their customers are more savvy and prefer these. I would love to hear your comments. --Phil C.

oasis11

@Icecream17 - I heard about that. I think that viral video marketing can really work this way too, especially if there is a video of a famous person eating the burger or wearing the clothing.

I read that a lot of companies will pay celebrities money to tweet about their products. For example, Kim Kardashian gets millions to tweet about the burgers of a fast food chain. They know that she is a celebrity with a lot of buzz and people will notice whatever she says.

I definitely think that if a viral marketing campaign does not involve a celebrity it has to have a unique gimmick that will make people want to talk about the product. I think you also have to be very familiar with social networking sites because this has the potential to bring in the most potential buzz.

icecream17

I really like the idea of viral marketing. I think that if a business is able to offer some type of free product for limited number of days this will set the ball rolling.

I can see a lot of these emails being passed around so that everyone could take advantage of the free offer. If the products are of excellent quality then this viral marketing campaign should really make a huge impact on the business because products that are of excellent quality are rare and people really value them.

For example, Obama recently stated that on an overseas trip he wanted to get a burger and fries from a casual dining restaurant that specializes in burgers and fries. This comment acted like a viral marketing tool and the business at this restaurant chain exploded.

There are usually lines when you go to this restaurant because the food is excellent but the accidental viral marketing did not hurt.

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