How Social Media is Changing Viral Marketing

A little while back I wrote about an Internet Marketing course that I last taught in 2007 and how I was wondering how the advent of social media in the years since would influence those teachings. i.e. how would the course need to change if it were being taught today?

I’ve chosen to have a look at the subject of Viral Marketing first – partly inspired by a debate I had recently over Twitter regarding whether there really was such a thing as Viral Marketing – should “Viral” be considered a discipline in it’s own right – or is “Viral” a distribution channel for other types of marketing.

Here’s some key points of my 2007 teachings on viral marketing:

The Viral Marketing Opportunity

The opportunity presented to marketers by viral marketing is to use your audience to spread your marketing message for you whilst simultaneously adding their endorsement to it.

A Definition of Viral Marketing

Viral Marketing can be defined as “the voluntary spread of an electronic message from one consumer to one or many others, creating exponential and self-perpetuating growth in its exposure.” (From “Viral Marketing in a Week“)

The Roots of Viral Marketing

Like most aspects of internet marketing there are pre-internet parallels. Instead of “viral” we just had “word of mouth”. Simple recommendations passed from person to person such as a must-see movie; a new store; a deal at a restaurant; a good holiday destination; a good professional adviser.

Marketers had some effect on this – sometimes directly by incentivising referrals, sometimes through PR – doing what they could to encourage those with wide influence to speak positively about the product or service they were marketing.

First use of the term “Viral Marketing”

The term “Viral Marketing” was first used in 1997 by Steve Jurveston, a co-founder of Hotmail in referrence to the tag on each mail sent from a hotmail account. The tag read simply “Get your own free, private email at

Natural Viral Marketing

Much “viral marketing just happens spontaneously. A message “goes viral”. For example, in 1998 authorities in a handful of cities became aware that Rohypnol was starting to be used as a date rape drug. Various non-profit organizations built websites with information on Rohypnol, GHB and other date-rape drugs. With practically no promotion, just a little attention from the media and millions of clicks of the FORWARD button in email clients, women around the world were educating each other about this threat. This is one of the earliest examples of a message simply “going viral”.

Planned Viral Marketing

Seeing the opportunity and benefit of a message “going viral” many companies invested marketing resource in to the planning and delivery of viral marketing programs.

In 2001 Dreamworks and Warner Brothers invested over $1m to create an elaborate viral marketing campaign for the movie A.I.

The campaign was initially seeded just to 10 prominent movie critics who each received a movie poster with some odd markings that highlighted particular letters on the poster. The letters spelled the sentence “Evan Chan was murdered – Jeanine was the key”. Some of these critics mentioned this on blogs.

The second stage of the seeding came later that day in the first trailer for the movie, where in the credits along with the writers, directors, producers etc a certain Jeanine Salla was credited as “Sentient Machine Therapist”. Searching this name on Google revealed a website from the future Bangalore World University (founded 2028). This site had a phone number on it. Calling this number revealed further “clues” and took the visitor in to an elaborate web based mystery for which over 100 websites had been created, numerous phone and fax lines set up. Some clues could only be read by applying certain Photoshop effects to images!

Persons taking part in the “game” started a user group called Cloudmakers. The game is now referred to as The Beast, and is one of the earliest examples of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG). It is recognized as one of the most costly, well planned viral marketing campaigns in history

Reliance on Human Nature

Referral and momentum are key to Viral Marketing. If this does not happen your “Viral Marketing Campaign” is just a mis-named piece of corporate communication.

So why do people refer? Simple – it is within human nature to pass on information of value i.e. information that is Educational, Entertaining or Rewarding. Why? Because it infers things about your character. Passing fresh information may make you appear to be Caring; Fashionable; Knowledgeable; Trustworthy; Professional; Educated; or just Fun! Of course passing on out-of-date information may have some of the opposite effects – and that is when a viral marketing campaign loses momentum and dies its natural death.

Email is Central to Viral Marketing (or at least it was in 2007!)

The vast majority of viral content is hosted in two places (i) Within the email that “carries the virus” (ii) On a website (separate to the email carrying the virus). The actual message that has been spread through viral marketing could be contained within any of the following vehicles: Stories;  Online Tests; Online Quizzes; Images; Sound files; Movie files; Competitions; Incentives; Games; Educational Documents.

SMS is playing a part in Viral Marketing in some countries – but compared to email, it has little traction.

[Please remember - this is from a 2007 teaching].

How is Viral Marketing Launched

Viral marketing campaigns are typically launched by seeding to any of the following groups: Friends, family, associates, colleagues; persons on a purchased database; opinion leaders – journalists etc; an existing customer database; user groups; chat room & message board users. Other options include promotion on your own or an affiliates website.

[Again, please remember - we're talking 2007 here - I'll talk about newer methods below]

How to Give Viral Momentum

To assess whether a message will get momentum you need to examine and predict behavior at 4 simple stages of a users interaction with a message (i) if, at a glance, the message APPEARS to be of interest the recipient is likely to OPEN it (ii) if upon scanning, the content APPEARS to be of value the user will engage with it (iii) if the content IS of value the recipient will CONSIDER passing it along (iv) if it is easy enough for the recipient to re-distribute the virus, they WILL DO SO.

So… to give a viral marketing campaign some initial momentum, and a chance of surviving in the big wide world it must both appear to be to be interesting and valuable, actually be interesting and valuable and be easy to redistribute.


So How is Social Media Affecting All This

The rise of Social Media is a Viral Marketer’s dream. Social Media is defined as “media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques”. More simply put it’s about sharing ideas and information using instant mass communication tools.

Seriously. It’s almost as if a bunch of marketers, who were massive fans of viral, sat down and said “OK… how are we going to re-invent the web to make viral marketing easier”. And they invented Web 2.0 and with it Facebook, Twitter etc etc.

There are now numerous new options for seeding a viral marketing campaign (e.g. to Facebook friends, a Facebook group, a Twitter following, a Twitter #hashtag stream, blog posts, blog comments etc etc). There are numerous new options for hosting a viral marketing campaign (e.g. creating content within Facebook or on You Tube)  and new methods for encouraging the virus to be re-distributed (the science of Social Media Optimization (SMO) – the most simple example being buttons that instantly allow a status update to any one of dozens of social networks).

That having been said, none of the principals of viral marketing have changed. You still need to obey the rules outlined above for giving viral marketing momentum – your message must both appear to be interesting and valuable and actually be interesting & valuable.

So – back to the question above – should “Viral” be considered a discipline in its own right – or is “Viral” a distribution channel for other types of marketing? I’d say both uses can be correct, dependent on context. It’s just not something worth getting bogged down in. The important point point for marketers; web designers and developers; online community managers et-all, is that encouraging viral spread should now be considered a best practice of pretty much any online marketing and web development.

Basic information architecture and usability principles are best practices and have been for a decade and a half.  Basic Search Engine Optimisation is a best practice and has been for a decade. I’d now suggest that basic SMO should be considered a best practice.

The conscious strategic decision to be taken by marketers and developers is not “shall we do something to help this go viral”, but is “what shall we do to make this go viral”.


Please feel free to contribute to this post – I’d especially like to read any comments you may have on the above article OR see any examples you may have of great viral marketing and social media optimization. Here’s a few to get started:


“Word of mouth and evangelism are gifts that customers give you, but you must first earn them, for money doesn’t buy goodwill.”
- Ben McConnell, Jackie Huba
authors of “Creating Customer Evangelists”

4 Responses to “How Social Media is Changing Viral Marketing”

  1. James K Jenkins February 26, 2010 at 6:03 am // Reply

    Mr. Taylor I wish I’d of been a student of yours in 2007. I am enjoying you frequently in 2010. I bet your classes are “interesting” If you ever do a live event in florida please let us know.
    I am currently a newbie in the world of viral communication. I caught a blog of yours a couple of weeks ago because someone retweeted the link. That’s viral. I also noticed that I took an extra 300 unique hits after commenting on that blog. That was in one afternoon on a site that I’d just created. I almost feel selfish by commenting on your blogs but I’m a little benevolent any way. I’ve got to reach restaurant managers and that is a hard nut to crack no matter how clever the viral communication.
    I just got invited to a new social media through facebook. It’s a jv forum. Again, it was interesting! So, I checked it out. Pretty awesome this internet. We are very lucky to be in a time where we can reach so many so quickly. Your takes on the recent price gougeing have been huge hits in my cafe. I have a lot of “snow birds” who dine with me and you gave me ice breaker conversation for a whole week. That’s a viral victory don’t you think?


    • Richard Taylor February 26, 2010 at 1:30 pm // Reply

      Thanks so much for the kind comments – very glad to be of help. I certainly appreciate you spreading some of this info to the restaurant industry – it’s certainly a sector where it is very relevant.


  2. James Shaw February 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm // Reply

    James Jenkins – yes, it was interesting to be a student of Mr. Taylor. He is a good teacher for the same reason hockey players sometimes make great coaches: they’ve lived (and been successful) in the game. Sadly, this isn’t true for all teachers.


    • Richard Taylor February 26, 2010 at 1:31 pm // Reply

      OK – who’s this Mr Taylor dude? I’m starting to feel old now. ;-)


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