September 06, 2000
How To

Just What Exactly IS Viral Marketing?

SUMMARY: No summary available.
Viral Marketing. We’ve all heard about it, but there appears to be some confusion as to what it involves exactly. Can one be a ‘viral marketer’ per se, or does viral marketing just ‘happen’? We’ve done a bit of leg work for you – we asked our friends, checked out a few sites, and followed a lengthy thread (still in progress) on the UK-NetMarketing discussion group at in order to find a few answers to the questions which often get asked...

Suddenly everyone’s talking about viral marketing. When did it start?

According to Net mythology, the term ‘viral marketing’ was invented by Tim Draper and Steve Jurvetson of VC Draper Fisher Jurvetson, early investors in Hotmail. It was their idea to include the ‘Get your FREE Web-based email...’ message and URL the bottom of every Hotmail sent. Believe it or not, the founders were reluctant at first – they thought it was too much like spam. But, of course, they eventually agreed and the rest is history. For the record, Hotmail had one million registered users in less than six months from launch. Five years after launch they had 65 million. Draper and Jurvetson chose the term ‘viral’ because they felt it best described this infectious spread of the Hotmail word.

What IS ‘viral marketing’?

Seth Fineberg, journalist and e-marketing consultant, says, “The easiest way to explain it is this: any effective marketing has to begin with a positive experience. Now, if a consumer/viewer has a positive experience from an ad message or offer they are not going to want to just keep it to themselves - they will pass it on. Say someone receives a fun email game from Coke, or Gap, each with a chance to win something from those brands... well, the players of the game can easily pass it along to everyone on their email lists, and a few thousand emails originally sent turns into tens, or even hundreds of thousands... It’s quite the buzzword here in the States due to its low-cost/high-impact nature... something marketers desperately need.”

Isn’t that just a new way of saying ‘word-of-mouth’?

Steve Bowbrick,, says, “Word-of-mouth marketing = a product [or service] so cool that your users rush around telling their mates (no agency required). e.g. funky screensavers. Reference discipline: social anthropology.

“Viral marketing = a way of exploiting connectedness to get your cool product to market itself (no word of mouth required). e.g. email addresses. Reference discipline: epidemiology.”

Ben Hunt, Producer, Poulter Partners says, “To me, the term ‘viral’ suggests something similar to a computer or biological virus: you can release a marketing ‘organism’/message into a population, and then *it* makes its own way round using the nature of the host/environment to propagate itself. The key is that it finds its way into places you haven’t put it, unlike direct marketing, sales promotion, advertising, mailshots, etc. If you send out something creative via email (or stick it on the Web) that is so attractive that everyone in everyone’s contact list receives it, it comes from a friend, *gets people’s full attention* for a few moments or more, and entertains in some way = Holy Grail.”

Further reading: Seth Godin’s ‘Unleashing the IdeaVirus’ (downloadable version available at

Collectable cards in boxes of tea bags, stickers in cereal packets – are they forms of viral marketing?

John Sullivan, Aspect Internet says, “To my mind, this is not ‘viral’. This is (if you’ll excuse the pun) just sticky. You’ve delivered the consumer something so memorable that they’ve chosen to keep it around, which may – yes – influence their choice of purchase later. But you need to go on producing stickers...

“Viral, again to my mind, involves the reproduction of a *marketing message* such that a large amount of the marketing work is done by the consumers themselves. Thus, it’s very difficult to produce a traditional media viral campaign (though it can be done – generally with a strap-line that people remember and quote, a la ‘if you see Sid, tell him’), but it is easier to do with digital media – the copying and distribution of funny Flash files which contain branded information, etc., etc.”

[Ed. Note: It’s even easier if you give recipients a *reason* to forward your funny Flash files – an extra competition entry for every friend who signs up at the site, for example. Read some of our past Case Studies at]

Are there any ‘golden rules’ of viral marketing?

Tim Ireland, Director of Marketing says, “Rule No. 1 – It starts with the product. Rule No. 2 – see Rule No. 1.

“i.e. If the product isn't worth getting excited about, then the effort will be wasted - no matter how novel the referral mechanism is. (In fact, the more novel the mechanism, the more likely it is that web users will be annoyed by it, be so distracted by the novelty that your message will be lost, or be able to see right through the engineered aspect of the referral.

“Viral marketing at its best does grow wild, but the seeds have to be planted first. While Web users can be relied upon to do the majority of the legwork, a lot of thought and planning has to go into the seemingly simple action of creating a referral device or sending out a dozen emails.”

Anne Holland, Publisher MarketingSherpa, says, “Lots of my friends at agencies are telling me their clients all want a viral campaign now please. Usually it’s because they figure it will save them money. Thing is, viral campaigns are tough to pull off and let’s face it --results are completely unpredictable. It’s got to be the icing on your cake. You still have to bake the cake though. Which means you still have to invest in all the marketing fundamentals you would need for any other campaign. Things like thinking through your unique selling proposition and supporting the campaign with PR and other channel marketing.”

And finally – something that viral marketing DEFINITELY isn’t:

Aidan Cook, Sense Internet says, “When introduced to the concept at a meeting, I actually misheard the phrase as ‘virile marketing’, and interpreted this to be a strategy of going out and f*****g the opposition, seducing customers, and generally putting your brand about a bit...”

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