What Is Viral Marketing?

What Is Viral Marketing?


Viral Marketing

When you hear about viral marketing and viral advertising for the first time, you can be forgiven if you think that it revolves around selling medicinal products. In reality, it refers to using the power of Web 2.0. to get the word out about a particular brand or product.  Tools such as social networking sites, eg. Facebook, Twitter or social sharing sites, eg. Digg, YouTube.
Done correctly, the topic will “go viral”, meaning that it spreads at an incredibly fast rate on its own, not unlike a computer virus. Viral promotions have been successful in the forms of games, videos and E-books, amongst many other methods.

Any marketer with the intention of adding a viral component to their campaigns will usually try to hone in on individuals or groups with high Social Networking Potential (SNP).  The goal is to try to appeal to whatever would encourage them to spread around the marketer’s viral message of their own free will.

Amongst consumers, viral marketing sometimes carries a negative connotation, since it usually implies methods that are premeditated. To them, it is seen as trying to turn something that is meant to happen naturally into something forced, just for the sake of making money. On the other hand, many see it simply as a way to give an  initial “nudge” or “priming of the pump” of something that has enough of its own merit to spread virally.


The roots of the term “viral marketing” and its popularization have been debated, but it is believed to have been coined by Harvard Business School faculty member Jeffrey Rayport and Harvard Business School graduate Tim Draper.

Media critic Douglas Rushkoff was one of the first to write about online viral marketing in his in his 1994 book Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. In it, there was an analogy to better understand how viral marketing worked: it was suggested that if a “susceptible” user comes into contact with a viral advertisement, the user will become “infected” with the idea and will go on to “infect” other “susceptible” users.

Assuming that each “infected” user manages to “infect” more than one other “susceptible” user, the number of users who are “infected” should, in the long run, model the behaviour of an exponential curve.

Naturally, not every viral marketing campaign is going to become an “epidemic”; occasionally, the “viruses” themselves will need to be sustained by different, ongoing forms of communication with the market, usually advertising. 
The term was used by Jeffrey Rayport when he wrote his December 1996 Fast Company article ‘The Virus of Marketing’.

In an effort to quantify the SNP in an individual or a group, Bob Gerstley wrote about algorithms (in Advertising Research is Changing) designed to identify this. He was one of the first men to do this. 

Clients of Gerstley used these SNP algorithms in their quantitative marketing research to maximize the effectiveness of their viral marketing campaigns.

In 2004, the concept of the “Alpha User” was introduced to specify that it was now possible to isolate the specific members of any viral campaign. These influential people or groups of people were given the term, “hubs”. These “Alpha Users” can be individually contacted  via mobile phones, since they are so personal, if any marketer so wishes to contact him/her for viral marketing purposes.

Viral Expansion Loop

A viral expansion loop can be thought of as viral positive feedback cycle. Although viral marketing can be autonomous, a viral expansion loop relies on the ability to self-perpetuate itself to maintain existence. There are companies that have successfully used viral loops to develop themselves, namely, YouTube, Facebook, Digg, Twitter and even PayPal.

Other Examples Of Viral Marketing

In 2007, Cadbury came out with a fun and quirky viral campaign; a gorilla that could play drums.

Multi-level marketing (MLM), also known as network marketing was popularized in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Through what is essentially a “tell a friend” business structure, MLMers promote their products through their immediate circle of influence.  Given that each person tells someone else about it and gets them to join up, this strategy can be exponentially self-replicating. Examples are Amway, Mary Kay, Avon and Tupperware.

A great example of Viral Marketing combined with a Viral Expansion Loop, and how the contributors create epidemics is Youtube. There is a channel on Youtube called, “Will it blend.” The founder of the channel, Tom Dickson, blends a range of items together (even electric items, like iPhones). Through word of-mouth, he now has an incredibly large following.  

Many sites can now be found online that attempt to explain what viral marketing is.  The best resources are usually the viral advertising agencies themselves as they are forced to live to concept, rather than simply theorize it.

5 Comments to What Is Viral Marketing?

  1. leo's Gravatar leo
    May 5, 2010 at 1:24 am

    What a nice article! I like it..

  2. Bee's Gravatar Bee
    September 1, 2010 at 9:17 am

    Great article; also liked your “SEO is dead” article. Please note “it’s” is the contraction for “it is,” not the singular possessive pronoun (graph 1, Line 1 graph under History subhead).

  3. October 28, 2010 at 2:03 am

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  4. billige autoversicherung's Gravatar billige autoversicherung
    October 29, 2010 at 4:00 am

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  1. By on May 11, 2010 at 7:39 pm

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