Viral marketing, viral advertising, or marketing buzz are buzzwords referring to marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networking services and other technologies to try to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of viruses or computer viruses (cf. Internet memes and memetics). It can be delivered by word of mouth or enhanced by the network effects of the Internet and mobile networks. Viral advertising is personal and, while coming from an identified sponsor, it does not mean businesses pay for its distribution. Most of the well-known viral ads circulating online are ads paid by a sponsor company, launched either on their own platform (company webpage or social media profile) or on social media websites such as YouTube. Consumers receive the page link from a social media network or copy the entire ad from a website and pass it along through e-mail or posting it on a blog, webpage or social media profile. Viral marketing may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, ebooks, brandable software, images, text messages, email messages, or web pages. The most commonly utilized transmission vehicles for viral messages include: pass-along based, incentive based, trendy based, and undercover based. However, the creative nature of viral marketing enables an “endless amount of potential forms and vehicles the messages can utilize for transmission”, including mobile devices.
The ultimate goal of marketers interested in creating successful viral marketing programs is to create viral messages that appeal to individuals with high social networking potential (SNP) and that have a high probability of being presented and spread by these individuals and their competitors in their communications with others in a short period of time.
The term “VRL marketing” has also been used pejoratively to refer to stealth marketing campaigns—marketing strategies that advertise a product to people without them knowing they are being marketed to.
The emergence of “viral marketing,” as an approach to advertisement, has been tied to the popularization of the notion that ideas spread like viruses. The field that developed around this notion, memetics, peaked in popularity in the 1990s. As this then began to influence marketing gurus, it took on a life of its own in that new context.
There is debate on the origination and the popularization of the specific term viral marketing, though some of the earliest uses of the current term are attributed to the Harvard Business School graduate Tim Draper and faculty member Jeffrey Rayport. The term was later popularized by Rayport in the 1996 Fast Company article “The Virus of Marketing,” and Tim Draper and Steve Jurvetson of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson in 1997 to describe Hotmail’s practice of appending advertising to outgoing mail from their users. An earlier attestation of the term is found in PC User magazine in 1989, but with a somewhat differing meaning.
Among the first to write about viral marketing on the Internet was the media critic Doug Rushkoff. The assumption is that if such an advertisement reaches a “susceptible” user, that user becomes “infected” (i.e., accepts the idea) and shares the idea with others “infecting them,” in the viral analogy’s terms. As long as each infected user shares the idea with more than one susceptible user on average (i.e., the basic reproductive rate is greater than one—the standard in epidemiology for qualifying something as an epidemic), the number of infected users grows according to an exponential curve. Of course, the marketing campaign may be successful even if the message spreads more slowly, if this user-to-user sharing is sustained by other forms of marketing communications, such as public relations or advertising.
Bob Gerstley was among the first to write about algorithms designed to identify people with high “social networking potential.” Gerstley employed SNP algorithms in quantitative marketing research. In 2004, the concept of the alpha user was coined to indicate that it had now become possible to identify the focal members of any viral campaign, the “hubs” who were most influential. Alpha users could be targeted for advertising purposes most accurately in mobile phone networks, due to their personal nature.
In early 2013 the first ever Viral Summit was held in Las Vegas. It attempted to identify similar trends in viral marketing methods for various media.
Methods and metrics
According to marketing professors Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein, to make viral marketing work, three basic criteria must be met, i.e., giving the right message to the right messengers in the right environment:
- Messenger: Three specific types of messengers are required to ensure the transformation of an ordinary message into a viral one: market mavens, social hubs, and salespeople. Market mavens are individuals who are continuously ‘on the pulse’ of things (information specialists); they are usually among the first to get exposed to the message and who transmit it to their immediate social network. Social hubs are people with an exceptionally large number of social connections; they often know hundreds of different people and have the ability to serve as connectors or bridges between different subcultures. Salespeople might be needed who receive the message from the market maven, amplify it by making it more relevant and persuasive, and then transmit it to the social hub for further distribution. Market mavens may not be particularly convincing in transmitting the information.
- Message: Only messages that are both memorable and sufficiently interesting to be passed on to others have the potential to spur a viral marketing phenomenon. Making a message more memorable and interesting or simply more infectious, is often not a matter of major changes but minor adjustments. It should be unique and engaging with a main idea that motivates the recipient to share it widely with friends – a “must-see” element.
- Environment: The environment is crucial in the rise of successful viral marketing – small changes in the environment lead to huge results, and people are much more sensitive to environment. The timing and context of the campaign launch must be right.
Whereas Kaplan, Haenlein and others reduce the role of marketers to crafting the initial viral message and seeding it, futurist and sales and marketing analyst Marc Feldman, who conducted IMT Strategies’ viral marketing study in 2001, carves a different role for marketers which pushes the ‘art’ of viral marketing much closer to ‘science.’
To clarify and organize the information related to potential measures of viral campaigns, the key measurement possibilities should be considered in relation to the objectives formulated for the viral campaign. In this sense, some of the key cognitive outcomes of viral marketing activities can include measures such as the number of views, clicks, and hits for specific content, as well as the number of shares in social media, such as likes on Facebook or retweets on Twitter, which demonstrate that consumers processed the information received through the marketing message. Measures such as the number of reviews for a product or the number of members for a campaign webpage quantify the number of individuals who have acknowledged the information provided by marketers. Besides statistics that are related to online traffic, surveys can assess the degree of product or brand knowledge, though this type of measurement is more complicated and requires more resources.
Related to consumers’ attitudes toward a brand or even toward the marketing communication, different online and social media statistics, including the number of likes and shares within a social network, can be used. The number of reviews for a certain brand or product and the quality assessed by users are indicators of attitudes. Classical measures of consumer attitude toward the brand can be gathered through surveys of consumers. Behavioral measures are very important because changes in consumers’ behavior and buying decisions are what marketers hope to see through viral campaigns. There are numerous indicators that can be used in this context as a function of marketers’ objectives. Some of them include the most known online and social media statistics such as number and quality of shares, views, product reviews, and comments. Consumers’ brand engagement can be measured through the K-factor, the number of followers, friends, registered users, and time spent on the website. Indicators that are more bottom-line oriented focus on consumers’ actions after acknowledging the marketing content, including the number of requests for information, samples, or test-drives. Nevertheless, responses to actual call-to-action messages are important, including the conversion rate. Consumers’ behavior is expected to lead to contributions to the bottom line of the company, meaning increase in sales, both in quantity and financial amount. However, when quantifying changes in sales, managers need to consider other factors that could potentially affect sales besides the viral marketing activities. Besides positive effects on sales, the use of viral marketing is expected to bring significant reductions in marketing costs and expenses.
Viral marketing often involves and utilizes:
- Customer participation and polling services
- Industry-specific organization contributions
- Internet search engines and blogs
- Mobile smartphone integration
- Multiple forms of print and direct marketing
- Target marketing web services
- Search engine optimization (SEO)
- Social media optimization (SMO)
- Television and radio
Viral target marketing is based on three important principles:
- Social profile gathering
- Proximity market analysis
- Real-time key word density analysis
By applying these three important disciplines to an advertising model, a VMS company is able to match a client with their targeted customers at a cost effective advantage.
The Internet makes it possible for a campaign to go viral very fast; it can, so to speak, make a brand famous overnight. However, the Internet and social media technologies themselves do not make a brand viral; they just enable people to share content to other people faster. Therefore, it is generally agreed that a campaign must typically follow a certain set of guidelines in order to potentially be successful:
- It must be appealing to most of the audience.
- It must be worth sharing with friends and family.
- A large platform, e.g. YouTube or Facebook must be used.
- An initial boost to gain attention is used, e.g. seeding, buying views, or sharing to Facebook fans.
- The content is of good quality.
The growth of social networks significantly contributed to the effectiveness of viral marketing. As of 2009, two thirds of the world’s Internet population visits a social networking service or blog site at least every week. Facebook alone has over 1 billion active users. In 2009, time spent visiting social media sites began to exceed time spent emailing. A 2010 study found that 52% of people who view news online forward it on through social networks, email, or posts.
The Ponzi scheme and related investment pyramid schemes are early examples of viral marketing. In each round, investors are paid interest from the principal deposits of later investors. Early investors enthusiastically recruit their friends, generating exponential growth until the pool of available investors is tapped out and the scheme collapses.
Early in its existence, the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 had limited distribution. The producers encouraged viewers to make copies of the show on video tapes and give them to friends in order to expand viewership and increase demand for the fledgling Comedy Channel network. During this period the closing credits included the words “Keep circulating the tapes!”
Between 1996/1997, Hotmail was one of the first internet businesses to become extremely successful utilizing viral marketing techniques by inserting the tagline “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail” at the bottom of every e-mail sent out by its users. Hotmail was able to sign up 12 million users in 18 months. At the time, this was historically the fastest growth of any user based media company. By the time Hotmail reached “66 million users”, the company was establishing “270,000 new accounts each day”.
In 2000, Slate.com described TiVo’s unpublicized gambit of giving free systems to web-savvy enthusiasts to create “viral” word of mouth, pointing out that a viral campaign differs from a publicity stunt.
Burger King has used several marketing campaigns. Its The Subservient Chicken campaign, running from 2004 until 2007, was an example of viral or word-of-mouth marketing.
The Blendtec viral video series Will It Blend? debuted in 2006. In the show, Tom Dickson, Blendtec founder and CEO, attempts to blend various unusual items in order to show off the power of his blender. Will it Blend? has been nominated for the 2007 YouTube award for Best Series, winner of .Net Magazine’s 2007 Viral Video campaign of the year and winner of the Bronze level Clio Award for Viral Video in 2008. In 2010, Blendtec claimed the top spot on the AdAge list of “Top 10 Viral Ads of All Time.” The Will It Blend page on YouTube currently shows over 200 million video views.
In 2007, World Wrestling Entertainment promoted the return of Chris Jericho with a viral marketing campaign using 15-second cryptic binary code videos. The videos contained hidden messages and biblical links related to Jericho, although speculation existed throughout WWE fans over whom the campaign targeted. The text “Save Us” and “2nd Coming” were most prominent in the videos. The campaign spread throughout the internet with numerous websites, though no longer operational, featuring hidden messages and biblical links to further hint at Jericho’s return.
In 2007, Portuguese football club Sporting Portugal integrated a viral feature in their campaign for season seats. In their website, a video required the user to input his name and phone number before playback started, which then featured the coach Paulo Bento and the players waiting at the locker room while he makes a phone call to the user telling him that they just can’t start the season until the user buys his season ticket.
The Big Word Project, launched in 2008, aimed to redefine the Oxford English Dictionary by allowing people to submit their website as the definition of their chosen word. The project, created to fund two Masters students’ educations, attracted the attention of bloggers worldwide, and was featured on Daring Fireball and Wired Magazine.
Between December 2009 and March 2010 a series of seven videos were posted to YouTube under the name “iamamiwhoami” leading to speculation that they were a marketing campaign for a musician. In March 2010, an anonymous package was sent to an MTV journalist claiming to contain a code which if cracked would give the identity of the artist. The seventh video, entitled ‘y’, appears to feature the Swedish singer Jonna Lee.
On July 14, 2010, Old Spice launched the fastest growing online viral video campaign ever, garnering 6.7 million views after 24 hours, ballooning over 23 million views after 36 hours. Old Spice’s agency created a bathroom set in Portland, OR and had their TV commercial star, Isaiah Mustafa, reply to 186 online comments and questions from websites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Digg, YouTube and others. The campaign ran for 3 days.
Companies may also be able to use a viral video that they did not create for marketing purposes. A notable example is the viral video “The Extreme Diet Coke & Mentos Experiments” created by Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz of EepyBird. After the initial success of the video, Mentos were quick to offer their support. They shipped EepyBird thousands of mints for their experiments. Coke were slower to get involved.
- Guerrilla marketing
- Internet marketing
- K-factor (marketing)
- Marketing buzz
- Seeding agency
- Viral (disambiguation)
- Viral video
- Visual marketing
- Growth hacking