Why I’m a Bit Sick of Viral Marketing

31 03 2009


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.



5 responses

31 03 2009
Steve Downes

Rob, I’m not sure if marketeers, in any discipline, ‘guarantee’ effectiveness (except fot search scammers). Target it, measure it – yes, but not guarantee it. That’s why few agencies are prepared to work on results-based remuneration.
A TV media campaign, for example, can guarantee reach, OTS, etc – but not sales or brand awareness. Is that any different to viral campaigns?

Steve Downes

31 03 2009

Agreed. I’m either asked to “make it go viral” or asked why I need a communication budget when “it will go viral”. Sure, there are things you can do to encourage something to go viral – make “it” good in the first place, and facilitate sharing by using open licenses, social bookmarking tools etc. I recently blogged on how one of our Open University videos on YouTube went viral. But much more interesting is tapping into a meme or setting a trend.

31 03 2009
Rob Brown

Steve – I think there is a difference. Agencies can guarantee to make a TV ad, media buyers can guarantee when it goes out and they can guarantee ratings for a campaign. You just can’t guarantee that something will ‘go viral’. You can guarantee to make a piece of film that is funny or insightful (characteristics of most virals) but you can’t guarantee that it will be shared or viewed. If it isn’t then it’s not ‘viral’.

When agencies promise a viral campaign it is at best hopeful and at worst a con.

31 03 2009
robert lönn

I agree that it is bold by a customer to say that a campaigns key feature should be viral.

It sounds like a communication and education problem to me. Off course you need a budget, a plan AND the skills to increase the chances of a campaign going viral. The same applies as far as I see it for any kind of marketing.

1 04 2009
Cool Blogger

I don’t know. When they are talking about “VIRAL Marketing”, isn’t it like your contents are really good, I mean really good and helpful, many visitors are directed to your blog without marketing? Great point, though.

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