Marketing is an industry with an inexhaustible appetite for buzzwords, so a buzzword about marketing that involves another buzzword – social media – is bound to get a lot of attention. Viral marketing is undoubtedly powerful, but it poses problems for advertisers in that it's difficult to predict when efforts at going viral will be successful. Here, we take a look at viral marketing, how it works - and when it doesn't. (For background reading, see Understanding Social Media: What You Need To Know.)

The Dangers of Being First

Somewhere, maybe in New York, there is probably a chalk outline fading away but still marking the resting place of the first brave soul who tried to sell his boss on social media. The conversation may have gone like this:

Boss: “We want you to slap together a new campaign for the fall widget line.”

Brave Soul: “Can do, but I’m done with booking billboards, negotiating for TV spots and all that other noise.”

Boss: “You’re telling me you are going to run a campaign with no advertisements?”

Brave Soul: “No, no. I’ll make some advertisements. In fact they might cost more to make than the old ones, but then I’m only going to show them to my friends. I’ll let them do the rest.”

Boss: “You know we hired you to market our product, right?”

Brave Soul: “Of course. I’ll still market it, but I’m not going to advertise it. I don’t do advertising anymore.”

Boss: “Without advertising, how the hell are we going to spur sales?”

Brave Soul: “Pah. I’m not going to be selling anything. I don’t do sales. I build communities. Then they can sell each other on our products.”

Boss: “I see ... Come over to the window for a moment. I want to show you the beautiful view we have of the city from up here.”

[Glass breaking, screams]

Well, it probably wasn’t quite that bad – or at least not that fatal. However, thanks to those brave souls who laid the groundwork, viral marketing is one of the hottest buzzwords on the Web. The problem is, many people - senior executives included - still aren't sure what it means or how it works.

Viral Marketing in a Nutshell

Viral marketing is an evolutionary step up from word-of-mouth or grassroots marketing. These two traditional forms depended on a positive marketing message about a company or brand being passed around communities by influential people. To have a message go viral, however, you need more scale and speed than you can get from having people physically travel ling to different locations while carrying the message.

This is why traditional marketing tries to put messages in as many places as possible – on the sides of buildings, billboards, TV, radio and so on – because you can’t count on word-of-mouth advertising to cover the distance you need your message to go.

Enter the Internet, which has basically served to shrink the conceptual distance between places and people.Social media platforms have made that distance even less significant. All of these online personal networks provide an opportunity for the right content to spread rapidly across the people hooked into social media and the Web. In a nutshell, this is what viral marketing is all about – leveraging social media to spread a marketing message.

How Viral Marketing Works

Businesses want to know how viral marketing works. The truth is that it often doesn’t work. Worse yet, when one approach pays off, it often gets copied so many times that it never works as successfully again. Throwing questions of success aside, however, the actual mechanics are pretty consistent.

There are three main pieces to a viral marketing campaign:

  • The message: In order to be shared, a marketing message has to be wrapped up in interesting content. One of the more common approaches is to create a humorous video in which the brand or product makes an appearance, but entertainment dominates. An excellent example is the John West Salmon commercial, where a man fights a bear to get a salmon. This was a successful viral campaign that expanded brand awareness and reversed the company's declining market share. Other viral marketing content has taken the form of music, articles, flash games, and so on.

  • The messengers: Kicking off the sharing to get a marketing campaign off the ground is probably the trickiest part of the whole operation. Do you ask employees to spread a work message to their personal networks? Do you recruit hired guns, celebrities or A-list bloggers? Getting the right messengers and gaining exposure is where most viral marketing campaigns fizzle out. Getting 100 shares or views by leveraging personal networks is easy. Getting to 10,000 or 100,000 or 1 million is not. Like money, the first million is the hardest. At some point, the marketer has to hope that the message is good enough for the social media magic to do the job, which brings us to the final component of a successful viral marketing campaign.

  • The environment: Sometimes, there is just no explanation for why one piece of good content disappears and an inferior piece of content goes viral. In these cases, the scapegoat is always timing. You can have the right message and the right messengers and still lose if it’s not the right environment for you message to go viral. This is why viral marketing can be so frustrating – the upside potential is huge, but success can be random.

The Takeaway

Nike, Volkswagen, Old Spice, Reebok, Ray-Ban and Ikea have all had successful viral campaigns, but they’ve also had their share of not-so-successful ones. Viral marketing can be as powerful as the buzz suggests, but the relationship between effort and reward is not always proportional. With traditional advertising, putting your message more places will generally provide a predictable increase in conversions. With viral marketing, you put your message in a few key places and hope it takes off. For this reason, no advertising campaign is purely viral or traditional. Most modern marketing campaigns craft a message that works with both techniques rather than putting a big bet on one or the other. If nothing else, this focus on making viral ads that are compatible with online sharing has made traditional ads more edgy and interesting.