What is Viral Marketing?

April 11, 2008

This may not be the type of question that actually plagues the mind of many — or anyone loses sleep over — yet to those who care about Web 2.0, social media, blogging, etctera, it may mean more. It has been confused with grassroots marketing — marketing at the foot of the ladder, word-of-mouth marketing — self-explanatory, and blog marketing — which ineffectively narrows it to only one form of social media.

I was in my extreme marketing class in UCLA extension and our professor asked what viral marketing was. I thought for half a second, realizing that I knew how to do it better than I knew how to define it. The answer I formulated was:

The dictionary definition of a virus is a condition that spreads from one person to another. Viral marketing is when the marketing message is spread from one person to another. Pretty simple.

In Wikipedia, Viral Marketing is described as —

“Creating entertaining or informative messages that are designed to be passed along in an exponential fashion, often electronically or by email.”

Can’t argue with wikipedia. But wait, apparently you can only be entertaining or informative. They’re mutually exclusive terms. So Wikipedia is not entertaining? Gotcha! 🙂

It’s like spreading a cold. If you’ve infected a bunch of people then you sneeze pretty well. The difference is that in viral marketing, you must know the first people to sneeze into — the influencers, and when you’ve got the big men – (read: in viral video you hit youtube, in viral music you hit, ilike, and in social media…I’ve got to stop, i’m indecisive between myspace and facebook.) and when you’ve hit it big time with the big men, theoretically it’s supposed to spread like wildfire. There are a few examples that actually did — so fast it should be called epidemic marketing like some cases I will study later on the next post. For other less fortunate viral candidates, usually when the product is not really entertaining nor informative — like flower vases for example — viral marketing has to be done one by one, going from blog to blog, forum to forum, sneezing on each influencer and hoping to get as much mucus out of them. Yet I firmly believe that there’s a shock factor in any product. Anything can be sexy or funny (the top two valued characteristics in marketing) with a little creativity.

My own 2 cents about viral marketing:

It is neither hard sell or soft sell – the two traditional categories of advertising. It is subtle, sometimes sly, sometime even deliberately deceiving. Examples: Subtle — leaving a blog comment on a related blog, reacting intelligently to the post, and skillfully linking it to the website, person, product or service. Sly — pretending to be a buyer reviewing a product when you’re actually a seller endorsing a product. Think amazon reviews. Deliberately deceiving – extreme examples where marketers came up with a total hoax to get traffic. One unique example is a virgin’s plea.(2006)

This guy actually pretended to be a virgin trying to get laid. The girl he desired would only agree to sex if he had 5 million visitors to his site. Many fell for it, gave him sympathy and help, and later when he revealed that it was a marketing ploy, the disgust of many.

The question is, is this still viral marketing? Or is it a genius, albeit twisted, stunt that happened to click and generate massive traffic and publicity? I believe that viral marketing should deal with “clean viruses” because stunts will come and bite you in the behind later, and you will be left lonely, with no credibility, like the boy who cried wolf. If you don’t want your product to be a one-hit-wonder, you must stick to the truth.

Be funny, relevant and sexy. In that order. Funny flies better than relevant. If you can’t be funny, be relevant. Like the rubix cube video in youtube. If you can’t be relevant then take the easy way out, be sexy. Disclaimer: I am in no way endorsing porn.

Here are some unexpectedly famous viral videos. They are not funny, nor sexy, only relevant.

Free Hug

Rubix Cube Video

And the meta-viral video — the viral video on viral videos. This one is funny, relevant, and hey, that voice is kind of sexy. I gotta post this one. I could learn a thing or two from this.

If people you infect don’t infect others, then your virus is dormant. You gotta change the marketing message, or do something drastic like send a fake letter saying that you have 5,000,000,000 USD just waiting to be wired to your marketing victim, if only he gives his bank information to you, a total stranger. Nah, just edit your message. Much easier.

Lastly, Viagra is the scum of the viral marketing universe.

There you go. Now I gotta sleep. See you tomorrow. 🙂 No pictures today.


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