Viral marketing is the idea that you can harness social networks or other communications channels to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve product sales using a ‘viral ‘ process that mimics the spread of infection. The origins of the idea are probably linked to the concept of computer viruses that spread from machine to machine seemingly unaided.
As digital PR specialists we will be asked by clients to assist them with on line viral marketing. It is a mistake to enter into a campaign with viral marketing as the central feature. That is not to say it is impossible to deliver, but it is exceptionally difficult. To imply that a piece of content such as an image or a video clip will achieve viral status at the outset of a campaign is a bit like guaranteeing that the campaign will be of national award winning quality before you have even come up with the ideas.
In any case I prefer the idea of internet memes to the ‘viral’ concept. It is a better description and it carries more explanation which gives as a better chance of providing clients with clear explanation and managing expectations.
Richard Dawkins, the author of the ‘God Delusion’ originally came up with the term ‘meme’ in a book published in the mid seventies called ‘The Selfish Gene’. It was coined to describe how Darwinian principles could explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena like fashion, music, catch-phrases, architectural styles and even beliefs. Dawkins argued that memes propagate themselves in societies in a way that is similar to the behaviour of a gene or virus. The meme is cultural unit or idea that spreads rapidly. The term has gained greater currency with the growth of the internet.
Although we can’t eliminate the human element in propogating the spread we can’t control or guarantee it. We therefore should not claim we can deliver it in any quantifiable sense.
This article is adapted from a more in depth piece in the book ‘Public Relations and the Social Web’ published this week and available from Amazon.