Viral marketing is more than a buzzword – it’s a way of thinking, premised on the concept that pre-existing social networks have enormous potential for promoting products and services, if members of a community are motivated to adopt or identify with an idea and promote it on their own.
In practice, organizations engaging in viral marketing conceive or structure an idea in such a way that it has sharp appeal to a specific group of people (target audience), and then package it such that individuals can pass the message along through their social networks. Common vehicles include viral videos (usually distributed on channels like YouTube), interactive games (often hosted by third party sites), widgets (functional “bugs” or microsites that can be embedded in individual web pages or promoted through links), and humorous emails (which can be forwarded almost effortlessly to the recipient’s contact lists).
Spreading the Virus
As the term suggests, viral marketing begins when a message source “infects” socially connected individuals by exposing them to a “socially contagious” message. The premise of the message is often humorous, but may be informational or even hard-hitting. Some of the infected individuals choose to pass the message along to friends in their social networks, by exploiting tools that are readily accessible to them. Such tools include word-of-mouth, email, videos, ebooks, social sites like LinkedIn or Facebook, and other media. (Seth Godin refers to people who are likely to pass along a viral idea as “sneezers.”)
Viral marketing is not new. In fact, examples existed before any of today’s Internet-based distribution channels were even invented. Among the most successful early pioneers was a company called GoCard, who used kiosks to distribute free (and often controversial) postcards to bar patrons, who would write a brief message on the back of the postcard and then pay (postage) to mail the message to friends.
The Appeal of Low Cost
The beauty of viral marketing (aka “network marketing”) is that the cost and effort of redistributing the message is bourn by the sneezer – not by the advertiser. In other words, an effective social marketing campaign costs little more than the amount spent to create the message and make it available to “sneezers” in the network. However, while the potential ROI value of social media marketing is enormous, effective exploitation of social media assumes that the advertiser is willing to let go of the reins.
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