The Profits and Perils of Viral Marketing

By Steve McKee President, McKee Wallwork Cleveland | May 06, 2010

Viral marketing. It's all the rage today, and sometimes it seems like everybody's going viral. But what exactly is viral marketing? How does it work? And when should you try to employ it?

Contrary to popular belief, viral marketing has been around forever. It's basically word-of-mouth, only instead of the "virus" spreading through conversation it's spread through user groups, websites, email, instant messaging and a host of other technologies.

There are two main differences between today's viral efforts and yesterday's word-of-mouth marketing: intent and intensity:

  • First, intent. Word of mouth has always been the most valuable form of marketing, for the simple reason that when a trusted friend or colleague recommends a product or service, a) they have a level of one-on-one intimacy with the "target audience" (typically a friend or family member) that no marketer could replicate, and b) they have no ulterior motives. That makes their recommendations personal and trustworthy.

    But while companies have always respected and valued word of mouth marketing, for most of recorded history they had no way of generating it beyond providing quality customer experiences. If they did a good job people would spread the word, and if they let customers down the same would happen. While the people on the operations side of the company made it their goal to please customers so that positive word of mouth would be generated, it was rarely a task the marketing department tried to take on.

  • Second, intensity. Word of mouth, by definition, has always been spread person-to-person. In the past that transmission took place one conversation at a time, at whatever pace life allowed. If you had dinner with a friend you might tell her about a wonderful hotel or vacation experience you had, but there was no reason (or ability) to email her the news. Except for the occasional consumer boycott or letter-writing campaign, the virus spread slowly.

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