Get the Bug: Viral Marketing Unmasked

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Originally referenced in Greek Athenian histories, and finally coined in the late 1990s by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, the term “viral marketing” is commonly defined as network-enhanced word-of-mouth. During the dot-com boom, many flush startups swore by the technique, and a vast majority of those organizations are no longer in business. So why are marketers still making such a big fuss about a technique that dates back to the days of Homer and failed as recently as 199X?

According to, viral marketing is “any marketing technique that induces Web sites or users to pass on a marketing message to other sites or users, creating a potentially exponential growth in the message’s visibility and effect.” In other words, it’s a “virus” that is carried over the Internet to various Web “hosts” or people. Much like a virus in the real world, viral marketing is stealthy, patient and cunning. It can also be a very cost-effective way to generate awareness.

Studying The Virus

As outlined by this Web Marketing Today article, a viral campaign does six things:

  1. Gives away seemingly valuable products, services or content
  2. Provides for effortless transfer to others
  3. Scales easily from small to very large
  4. Exploits common motivations and behaviors
  5. Utilizes existing communication networks
  6. Takes advantage of others’ resources

In the world of viral marketing, the Internet plays a crucial role, offering an easy, affordable, rapidly measurable, and hitherto unavailable distribution channel. The Internet offers additional benefits in the form of increased interactivity (audio, video and Flash) and instant gratification (the world is a mere click away).

Spreading The Virus

While the Internet is an ideal carrier for viral marketing, the hosts (or personal computer users) are the ones that actually do the hard work for the virus creators, spreading a virus via email at the click of a button. A recipient (new host) may effectively spread a virus if that virus is deemed worthy in their eyes, exponentially increasing the distribution and overall effectiveness of the campaign.

The other key component in successful viral marketing is inherent third-party validation (similar to receiving an industry award or recognition in the press), which can be just one of the rewards for known, credible virus senders.

The process of spreading the virus comes down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging and feed their esteem needs. One way to enhance one’s personal image is to be the first to pass along a particularly funny, interesting or unique virus.

Creating Your Own Virus

Before you can create your own virus, you must understand what constitutes a successful virus. A handful of core components are present in every successful viral campaign. These include:

  • Creativity and originality
  • Authenticity
  • Resonance
  • Measurable call to action

It’s also important to know how viruses are spread. If the email, Website, application, or video being shared is not unique, informative and/or entertaining, or doesn’t create a definite value by solving a problem, it will never become viral. If it doesn’t appear to originate from a credible entity (i.e., a relevant corporation or individual), it can be mistaken as blatant advertising and immediately discredited. Finally, if the leave-behind message doesn’t resonate with the target/intended audience, or provide a meaningful call to action, it’s a waste of time and money.

We know from experience that most entertainment-oriented viral campaigns fit nicely into one of a handful of themed categories: sex (Paris Hilton tape), animals (chimp smelling finger), violence (horrific crashes), cartoons or parodies (Subservient President), and stupid people doing stupid things (Jackass and related copycats). While generally not intentionally created by corporations for marketing purposes, many of these videos have been leveraged in some way for monetary benefit — usually not by their creator.

The Greenhouse Approach

Now that you’ve digested the hows and whys of viral marketing, it’s time to get scientific, or more specifically, horticultural. Every viral campaign has three stages: seed, germination, and growth. For a plant to thrive, the seed has to be made of quality genetic material, it must successfully germinate, and it must receive proper nutrients to grow. The same is true of online viruses.

Excellent examples of quality seeds that germinated include the innovative campaign behind the hit movie “Blair Witch Project” and Burger King’s Subservient Chicken campaign. “Blair Witch” was successful at the box office in large part because the Website convinced viewers that the movie was a real documentary, effectively creating a word-of-mouth buzz that was further supported by the film’s grainy, shaky format. While not as authentic, and conceived and delivered by a corporate entity, Subservient Chicken succeeded because it was creative and resonated with its younger target audience.

Many viral campaigns are unintentional, perhaps akin to “volunteers” in the plant world. They germinate and grow not by design, but because of enthusiastic third parties. For example, Budweiser arguably didn’t create its Wassup? TV spots to be viral, but in a matter of weeks after their initial airing, many Web-savvy fans of the ads created parodies by dubbing the audio over old footage from “Superfriends” and the “The Simpsons” cartoons. These new and interesting takes on the ads rapidly spread across the Internet. Budweiser took the hint and quickly created additional spots to leverage the buzz.

An even better example of a growth-stage viral TV spot is Suburban Autogroup’s Trunk Monkey ad. Originally created by agency R-West, the spot was Tivoed by a fan and posted on the Web. Demand to see it led to hundreds of postings and thousands of hits daily. Once the agency and dealer saw the potential, they acted quickly to create additional TV spots and posted them on their own sites. They also went a step further, creating clothing and bumper stickers that spotlighted the Trunk Monkey character and campaign. The agency has even syndicated the spot to over 30 dealers worldwide.

Building Business

Most people associate TV ads and goofy Websites with viral marketing, but it has much greater potential than to simply build awareness or sales. A handful of companies have effectively built a viral component into their business model; examples include: eCrush (online dating with a twist), Evite (free party invitations and reminders), Kodak Gallery (free online photo albums), and
Hotmail (the original free email). Many of these companies require free registration to utilize their product, and generate revenue from advertising and premium services.

Getting Sick

With increasing pressure to jump on the viral marketing bandwagon, many marketers throw together campaigns. Most fail for one simple reason: lameness. Potential pitfalls when creating a viral campaign include:

  • Incompatibility with the brand
  • Doesn’t map to a marketing objective
  • Irrelevance to target audience
  • Lack of sustainability or measurability
  • Unrealistic expectations

If your viral goal is to generate awareness, affinity, and/or sales, remember the following: if a campaign is inconsistent with core brand attributes, or doesn’t map to existing marketing objectives, it will fail. If the key messages or implementation don’t resonate with the target audience, it will fail. If senior management is not properly educated on success factors and pitfalls, it will fail.

A few examples of failed viral campaigns include: Dancing Baby, The Star Wars Kid, and the SmartBeep Wireless Blind Date ad. The Dancing Baby is perhaps the best-known 3-D animation ever; in fact, it was so popular that it even appeared regularly on Fox TV’s hit show Ally McBeal. Unfortunately, the animation’s creators were unknown to the public and never claimed their work, so it became public domain. The Star Wars Kid video is an example of a private citizen’s footage getting passed around due to its unusually funny content. The failure in this case is that the poor kid didn’t know it was happening, and didn’t want it to be public. Lastly, SmartBeep’s Blind Date ad is indeed funny, but it was produced in such a way that an edited bootleg version was created without any branding, thus negating any beneficial association.

Earning a Green Thumb

Even after reading this article and judiciously studying viral campaigns that have worked in the past, you have no guarantee that yours will succeed. Don’t forget: the seed must be a strong concept in order to germinate, and once it does, it must be fed in order to grow to its full potential. Otherwise, forget about virus: you’re left with a common cold.

Kent LewisKent Lewis
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Kent Lewis is President of Anvil Media, Inc., a search engine marketing firm. Lewis is an adjunct professor at Portland State University and received Portland Business Journal's Top 40 Under 40 Award in 2004.

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