Viral Marketing. Not As Contagious As You Might Think

Viral marketing is surely the ultimate form of marketing: you create something once, and then, with no effort on your part, word about your article, game, movie, product or website (or whatever it is) gets spread to others, who spread it to others, who in turn spread it to more people, and the result is non-stop, ever-growing traffic and sales.

Sounds like a dream… and, unfortunately, for most Internet marketers who create viral campaigns, such results are only the stuff of dreams. The reality is that (a) Internet marketers engaged in viral marketing have to put a considerable amount of work – and sometimes lots of money – into developing such campaigns and (b) most of them don’t become viral at all.

In fact, calling something a viral marketing campaign is a bit of a misnomer since it’s only viral if it has, indeed, exhibited viral characteristics i.e. growth in the pass-along consumption of the content has been exponentially self-perpetuating. So you can’t really ‘develop’ a viral campaign; you can really only hope that a particular marketing campaign will become viral. Still, we’ll describe such campaigns as ‘viral’ for the sake of convenience.

So what’s the reality concerning viral marketing? Well, recent research shows that while 24 percent of Internet marketers attempt viral initiatives, only 15 percent of such campaigns actually induce the spread of the relevant marketing message. Meanwhile, far from being a cheap form of marketing, many attempted viral or word of mouth marketing campaigns involve expensive development e.g. the development of ingenious or cool games and costly seeding i.e. planting news of the campaign on social media sites and elsewhere.

The hit and miss nature of viral marketing means that no-one can really ensure a successful campaign. Still we can look at the campaigns that have been successful and identify some common factors that may be indicative of why they were so successful.

Some of these common factors are: offering free content of high perceived value, utilizing a fairly effortless way for people to pass along the content, and, in terms of seeding the campaign, making it highly rewarding for people to promote the content in the first place.

These are fairly generic factors but, in the absence of a sure-fire recipe for viral success, we can’t really go beyond describing the fairly general factors for success. While the pay-off from a viral marketing campaign can be enormous, it is far from certain.

For that reason, while I would definitely encourage Internet marketers to try viral marketing and to implement viral elements in your marketing – e.g. buttons at the bottom of blog articles to allow people to bookmark or ‘retweet’ your articles – I would never advise you to rest your entire business on viral initiatives. Base your online marketing, instead, on tried and true approaches; use viral campaigns to supplement or complement but never to replace such approaches.


Anna Johnson publishes Internet marketing newsletter, Kikabink News. Get a FREE subscription to Kikabink News as well as a FREE copy of Anna’s ebook, Killer Internet Marketing Tips, plus four FREE killer 60+ minute audio interviews with top Internet marketers: http://www.kikabink.com/kt/tips.htm