Viral Marketing

Viral marketing involves choosing a small group of well-connected individuals to launch a product or service via the internet or their mobile phones. The idea is that their approval will spread rapidly via their online network of connections, create a buzz around the product being marketed and result in millions of sales.

The most desirable individuals for viral marketing are those with what is known as high social networking potential (SNP). People’s SNP is a combination of the size of their online social network and their power to influence that network.

Viral marketing is meant to work like the spread of an epidemic. If every infected person infects, in turn, more than one other, the epidemic spreads rapidly. If every prospect reaches more than one other, sales rise rapidly. At the height of the dotcom boom there were few business plans that did not include viral marketing as a central part of their strategy.

Viral marketing moved into a new phase with the growth of online social networks such as YouTube and Facebook. On such networks information gets sucked out by the participants instead of being pushed out via e-mail. It gives the virus greater potential to multiply. But as the internet grows more diffuse and more commonplace, most people’s SNP seems bound to decline.

Few marketing viruses are known to have succeeded on anything like the scale of Hotmail, commonly considered to be the father of viral marketing. Hotmail’s success was based partly on the fact that it was free—viral marketing seems to work well when there is a free element to what is being marketed (as there often is with online services). Whenever someone sent a Hotmail e-mail message, for example, there was a note at the bottom saying, “Get your private, free e-mail at”.

Viral marketing also works well with products and services that peer groups want to be associated with. That was the case, for example, with “The Blair Witch Project”, a film that became a box-office success in America largely through viral marketing among university students. And it worked well for the launch of a British pop group called the Arctic Monkeys, whose first record went to the top of the British charts in 2005 largely thanks to being marketed by fans on the internet.

The term viral marketing is said to have been first coined by Jeffrey Rayport, a Harvard Business School academic, in a 1996 article for the magazine Fast Company. The idea really took off with the growth of the internet and e-commerce. Word-of-mouth has long been recognised as a powerful marketing tool; e-word of mouth seemed to have the potential to be so much more so.

But word-of-mouth marketing works a lot better among young chatterboxes than it does among middle-aged recluses. Likewise, if web surfers don’t pass on information, weary perhaps from too many messages that threaten all sorts of awfulness if they are not passed to at least ten people in less than ten minutes, or just web-weary in general, then the effect of viral marketing soon fizzles out. The virus can quickly lose its power to infect.