Viral Marketing 101

There is a great interest in viral marketing these days. In many ways it is a marketer’s dream — for little or no money you could get the word out about your product or brand. How? Let your customers do your marketing for you!

Wikipedia defines viral marketing thus:

“Viral marketing and viral advertising refer to marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness, through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of pathological and computer viruses. It can be word-of-mouth delivered or enhanced by the network effects of the Internet. [1] Viral marketing is a marketing phenomenon that facilitates and encourages people to pass along a marketing message voluntarily.[2] Viral promotions may take the form of funny video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, images, or even text messages.

It is claimed that a satisfied customer tells an average of three people about a product or service he/she likes, and eleven people about a product or service which he/she did not like.[3] Viral marketing is based on this natural human behavior.

The goal of marketers interested in creating successful viral marketing programs is to identify individuals with high Social Networking Potential (SNP) and create Viral Messages that appeal to this segment of the population and have a high probability of being passed along.

The term “viral marketing” is also sometimes used pejoratively to refer to stealth marketing campaigns[4]–the use of varied kinds of astroturfing both online and offline [5] to create the impression of spontaneous word of mouth enthusiasm.”

Convoluted marketing ploys aside, if you look at it from a cultural standpoint, viral marketing has been around a long time. People always talk about what things work for them, what got the stain out, what cable company they use, why they love it or hate the service. Companies can get people to not only wear their t-shirts, but also even pay for the shirt so that the brand is advertised. Why do they pay to advertise a product or brand?

It’s the coolness factor. It is the elite of the small user group, the SIG (special interest group) that likes to proclaim that they are “different”, but cooler than you. Brands have used this for years to convince customers to pay premium prices for a product that could be the same in quality and usefulness as any other. It is an odd behavior that may be most obvious among the young but affects us all: peer pressure. If everyone else thinks it’s cool it must be.

There is as much a dress code among rebellious teenaged dropouts as ever was in any religious school. The difference may only be in the price tag for the apparel (and the price for differing in any way from the status quo). Cult marketing takes this trend to heart, by identifying how cults work.

What is a cult but a small group that exists within or outside a larger established group? During ancient roman times, Christianity was considered a “religious cult” by the established religion of the day. Nowadays, Christians consider Pagans a “religious cult”. Any group of others outside a larger group may most easily call a cult because they don’t belong to the larger group.

Beyond the negative connotations of the term, there are lessons to be learned about social behavior, particularly in regards to how people communicate with each other, and the basic human need to find a community of like-minded people. This information has far-reaching implications for anyone interested in cultural phenomena, social networking, and viral marketing.

People naturally gather with others of like-mind. When they do, they talk — this is viral marketing behavior. The “virus” travels through the network of the group that the initial person is in contact with. To find out what makes viral marketing work, one must first understand what makes a group.

What makes someone feel part of a group? A set of values, a code of behavior, personal preferences are some of the most basic building blocks of any group. This gets back to the idea of community: what makes a group a community, how to build a community, which I will cover in a subsequent article.

– Copyright 2007 Aliyah Marr


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