How to Ask Questions, Revisited
How to Touch the Imagination

How Words Struggle to become Viral

071119t No marketing concept has become corrupted as quickly as "viral marketing." My introduction to the idea was through a Fast Company magazine article called Network Effects (August 1999). This marketing system was originally mentioned in an article by Steve Jurvetson and Tim Draper which was written in 1997 as a result of their experience with Hotmail and other internet startups. However, the person who really disentangled the "marketing" issues from the "internet startup" issues was Seth Godin, who clarified the concept in his book, Unleashing the Ideavirus.

Godin pointed out that the miracle of Hotmail was that the email message was its own advertisement, and the opportunities for the product or service to be its own advertisement are rare. He also pointed out that traditional word of mouth decays. For instance, I'm thrilled with my experience at a restaurant and I tell every friend I run into for a couple of days, but they are removed from the experience and are unlikely to tell anyone unless they actually go and buy a meal for themselves.

The secret to getting people to spread the word about your product (whether by mouth or by mouse) is to have a message that's enjoyable to share (an ideavirus, according to Godin). Sumit Roy wrote a terrific article for Inc. magazine in November 2000 about simple things you can do with your business to encourage people to talk about it.

  1. Don't expect people to repeat an advertising slogan, but do supply them with the everyday adjectives that correctly describe the experience you want your customers to have.
  2. Choose a brand name that's unique, memorable and easy-to-say, so that people can both remember and recognize it. (Oops, Amazon and eBay are taken.)
  3. Unique experiences are what people want to talk about. "I got a theater ticket from my dry cleaner on my one-year anniversary as a customer!" "The feed store had a little petting zoo for the kids in the parking lot."
  4. For this type of marketing system to actually bring you new customers, your business must also be accessible to the people who hear about it. This issue is why Godin says that truly viral marketing comes in the product or service itself--the advertising is an experience of the product. That's why a good "viral email" must get you to click back to the advertisers' web site. Retail operations can benefit from word-of-mouth coupons, and restaurants can generate buzz with off-menu items.

Viral marketing is actually the toughest way to market, with the investment of time, energy and commitment way overshadowing the advantage of not having to buy advertising.