What is Viral Marketing?

What-is-Viral-MarketingViral marketing is a term which is being used with increasing frequency in the field of online marketing. It is a technique which is well suited to use on the Internet, and yet viral marketing is a concept which is often poorly understood despite the fact that it can be one of the most powerful weapons in the online marketer’s armoury.
So what exactly is viral marketing, and what does it have in common with a rather nasty microscopic disease organism? Briefly, we can say that the term viral marketing encompasses any strategy that is used to encourage people to voluntarily pass on a marketing message to others. If each recipient of a marketing message passes it on to two or three other people, and each of them passes it on to two or three more we have created an exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence.

This exponential growth in the number of individuals exposed to a marketing message has been likened to the way that viruses rapidly spread from one person to another and cause an epidemic. Hence the term viral marketing, a technique which can cause a message multiply very rapidly so that it is delivered to thousands, or perhaps even to millions of individuals. In conventional non-Internet marketing this technique is often referred to as network marketing, or simply word of mouth. However, on the Internet it is called viral marketing, and is a lot more powerful than its conventional predecessors.

If we look around the Internet we can see dozens of examples of viral marketing being used to convey sales messages, or build up brands, indeed you will find several of them being used on this site.

The following are just a few of the more common viral marketing techniques:

  • Free web space
  • Free newsletter
  • Free e-mail courses or workshops
  • Free autoresponder service
  • Free screensavers
  • Free software
  • Free eBook
  • Free email accounts
  • Free page redirect service
  • Free graphics, banners or web page templates
  • Free consulting services
  • Free domain name estimating
  • Free web site reviews
  • Free e-cards
  • Free articles for reprint in newsletters and on web sites
  • Creating up an award site.
  • Creating a Top 100 site
  • Creating a Recommend-It site
  • Provision of a discussion board for use on other web sites
  • Providing a site search engine capability
  • Specialised databases or directories

This is by no means an exhaustive list, there are hundreds of other ways in which viral marketing concepts can be employed and more are outlined in Ralph Wilson’s e-book “Demystifying Viral Marketing”. However, the one thing to note about all these techniques is that they all utilise a small number of basic marketing principles to achieve their goal.

There are probably four basic elements which are employed in various combinations to create a viable viral marketing strategy, not all the elements need to be used in a particular strategy, but the more the better. We can summarise these elements as follows:

1 – Make use of existing communication networks

The practitioners of network marketing have long understood that the average person is a highly social being, we all have a close network of maybe a dozen people, family and friends, the people who we are really close to, whose company we enjoy, and whose opinions we trust. On top of that there are dozens, even hundreds of people who we would describe as acquaintances, work colleagues, and business associates, people we know, and pass the time of day with but would not necessarily invite to our next dinner party.

These networks of relationships are what the network marketer seeks to tap into, he seeks to use them to convey his marketing message to a wider audience, by getting an individual to relay the message to as many of his/her friends and acquaintances as possible. The marketer then hopes that each of these people will then pass the message on to their circle of friends and acquaintances, and that in so doing the message will spread like wildfire.

We build the same type of relationship networks in the Internet, part of this network will be identical to our everyday networks, but some will be exclusive to the Internet. Thus we all collect favourite web site URLs, and e-mail addresses of web contacts, these are new exclusively web based networks. Internet based viral strategies seek to exploit all these networks, both everyday and web based, as well as help construct new networks such as affiliate programs, and opt-in e-mail newsletters.

The viral marketer thus seeks to place his marketing message into the Internet based communications between people and thus take advantage of these natural networks to rapidly spread his message. The more effectively he uses these existing networks the more successful will be his viral marketing efforts.

2- Ensure that message transfer to others is as easy as possible

If a viral strategy is to spread a marketing message easily and quickly across the vast web of personal networks then the medium that carries your marketing message must be both easy to transfer and to replicate. This is why viral strategies are proving to be so successful on the Internet because it offers to possibility of instant communications that are virtually effortless and costless.

Using any one of the various Internet communications techniques, e-mail, web site, FTP download, mobile phone messaging, etc. a marketing message can be transmitted easily and because of the digital format copying the message is simple and does not suffer from any degradation. But above all it is easy for the individual to pass on the message, he simply clicks on a link and enters the e-mail address of the person he is sending it to.

By making it easy to use, a viral strategy can ensure that a marketing message can be hitting a large audience within hours, in general the easier it is to transfer, and the shorter and more succinct the message, the more successful the marketing campaign.

3 – Give away products or services

If you look at the list of viral strategies which were included earlier on in this article you will note that the concept of giving something away figures prominently in the majority of them. Free web space, free e-mail accounts, free software, free information. Of course the concept of giving something away in order to entice a customer to come and buy something later on is one of the oldest marketing ploys, we see it in use everywhere, from the market stall to the supermarket. Not surprisingly most viral strategies also use the technique of giving away valuable products or services in order to attract the attention of potential customers.

Indeed the word FREE is the most powerful word in the viral marketer’s armoury, and as a means of attracting attention far more effective that words such as CHEAP, or BARGAIN BUY. It is basic human psychology, we will take something if it is free, so long as doing so requires the expenditure of minimal effort and in doing so we will feel well disposed towards the person who is giving the product or service away. However, what the marketer hopes is that in taking the free offer the potential customer will be exposed to messages concerning other desirable items which he is selling.

In other words what viral marketing is doing by giving something away is delaying the actual selling of goods and concentrating on the acquisition of “eyeballs”, in other words people who are willing to look at your marketing message. The acquisition of eyeballs is the first step in a marketing campaign, this is because their acquisition brings with them valuable e-mail addresses and personal details. Details which the marketer can then use in a personalised marketing campaign to the individual who already feels pleased with getting something for nothing, and has given you permission to try and sell him or her a related product or service. So by giving something away today the viral marketer is hoping to sell something else tomorrow.

4 – Use common human motivations and behaviours

We have already seen that basic human psychology motivates people to take something which is labelled as FREE and that in so doing they will willingly part with an e-mail address. However, there are other human motivations and behaviour that the can be used in successful viral strategies. Motivations such as fear, the motivation that sells insurance and pension funds. Greed, the motivation so loved by con men and fraudsters, or the need to be loved, the motivation which sell everything from fast cars, and perfume, to romantic fiction, and then of course there is pure and simple sex. In fact there are dozens of motivations and behaviours that can be successfully called upon by viral strategies to ensure the successful transmission of a marketing message.

If the viral techniques you are using in your marketing campaign involve giving something away for free is successful then you will very quickly go from having to supply a few items to having to supply millions. This can cause a problem if you are not careful, since people can get very angry if you promise to give them something for free and then fail to deliver. This means that whatever viral techniques we use we must ensure at the very beginning that both the supply and transmission method are easily scalable, in other words they can be expanded from handling a few tens of enquiries to handling millions without significant increases in cost and complexity.

Thus if your viral marketing campaign involves giving away free mail-servers, or web space you must ensure that they can be supplied, and as the demand grows you have the capability to quickly plug in extra resources to meet that demand. The same goes for someone offering FTP downloads of software or information, the servers must be able to cope with the download demand, and if necessary you must be able to plug in extra server bandwidth.

The problems associated with scalability must be carefully planned for before embarking on any marketing campaign based upon viral techniques. You need to build the concept of scalability into your viral marketing model, look at the worst case scenarios and plan for them, always remembering that the publicity risks from failing to deliver can well outweigh any benefits you may already have gained. Indeed the history of marketing is littered with examples of marketing campaigns that failed to look at scalability.

When planning a marketing campaign using viral techniques plan for scalability, do not try and do everything yourself, plan to use outsourced resources, and discuss your potential needs with the outsource company. Remember too that there are plenty of companies offering viral marketing campaigns which you can easily plug into your site, an ideal solution for the small site.


Viral marketing can be a very powerful web tool, but one that needs to be used carefully and with considerable thought. If you are giving something away then it has to be something of value, quality, information, quality software, quality service. If you do not provide quality then the potential customer will not forgive you and will go elsewhere. Similarly if you fail to deliver he or she will go elsewhere.

The marketing message relayed by any one of the different viral techniques must be short and to the point, it must be easy for the individual to get the free offer, do not expect him to fill in a lengthy form, just get his name and e-mail address. Similarly every item must carry a simple means whereby the recipient can tell his network about it, so that they too can get their free offer and at the same time see your message and give you their name and e-mail address.

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