A marketing tactic that involves preying on the naive masses. Typical examples of viral marketing include:

Almost all viral marketing is outsourced to specialist companies. Let's imagine our product is Aloe, some random new piece of hardware created by Vera Inc.

Newsgroup posting
Accounts are created expressly for the purpose of posting pro-Aloe messages. This isn't like traditional spam, as it's not repetitive or obvious. Some attempts are made to make the posts appear 'genuine'. The level to which this is taken can vary. Some services keep long standing genuine accounts which are used by real people most of the time, and only occassionally used for pro-Aloe messages. Thus making the recommendations appear much more genuine.

Similar to the newsgroups, IRC identities are created specifically to generate conversation about Aloe. This can be very effective in kick-starting word of mouth promotion. Again, like the newsgroups, identities vary in the strength of their cover.

Gimmick Promotions These centre around some kind of novelty, such as an email attachment game, interactive section to the website, 'special offer' requiring you to 'recommend' the email addresses of friends in order to get a discount. In terms of generating traffic these can be the most productive tactics. Many variations on this exist, and chances are you've received or seen some form of it at some time, athough you may not be aware of it.

Search Engines
There are a number of services available that can boost Aloe and Vera Inc's ranking in search engine results. Many tips to achieve this are available on the web. But Vera Inc is more likely to outsource this to a company that has a proven technique or product for manipulating search algorithms. This is less of a viral tactic than the others.

Viral marketing is just another marketing tactic, in my opinion a cheap and annoying one, but you can't deny it's effectiveness. Conspiracy theorists can get carried away with the witchhunt - "Am I the only real person on USENET? What if everyone else is just a viral marketer?" etc. It has been known to seriously backfire, causing the parent company much aggravation as they are powerless to stop the flood of abusive USENET postings.

And then of course there's the stigma of being laughed off IRC ..
Interruption marketing is the traditional approach to getting consumer attention. By interrupting what the consumer is doing with a marketing message in the form of an advert, we try to engage the customer.

This worked well when there were a small number of TV channels and we watched the adverts as keenly as the programmes. But in today’s de-regulated, multi-channel world, broadcasting is cheap. It seems that anyone can be a broadcaster because the barriers to entry have lowered dramatically. Even the humblest PC on the Internet can be turned into a radio station. As more media opportunities have emerged, the audience has fragmented, and accordingly so have our media budgets. These days we have to buy even more interruption media just to tread water.

Additionally, there are now more and more products, and more and more marketing messages screaming for attention. Attention is what is getting harder and harder to achieve. The average consumer sees over a million marketing messages a year. That is a lot of clutter for our minds - quite simply too many interruptions.

This is a gorgeous Catch 22: the more that we spend on interruption marketing, the less it works, and the less it works, the more we have to spend, and the louder we shout. But is anyone listening?

This is like trying to bash round pegs into square holes. When this doesn’t work too well, cleverness tries to devise even craftier ways to make the pegs fit where they don’t necessarily belong. e.g. interrupt on different occasions or even more loudly. This is often called ‘cut-through’ (I personally enjoy being interrupted the most whilst relieving myself in pub toilets). This of course, has lead to an arms race because everyone is trying to ‘cut through’!

The Internet has brought its own version of interruption marketing with banner adverts and pop-ups (the most annoying of which you can’t close, a new form of fundamentally annoying marketing). The banner industry has developed into yet another marketing arms race. It promised us more efficient use of media and more powerful ways to ‘cut-through’ but has always managed to deliver worse results. People tire very quickly of these new forms of interruption. The very first banner got more than an 80% click-through rate. Today we consider ourselves lucky if a banner campaign scrapes the 0.5% threshold. Absolutely not Wu wei.

Marketers try to build personalities that become an intrinsic part of the product offering – building brands. If we are constantly doing this through interruption, the public will obviously become (already are) ‘message fatigued’. These days you have to be an extraordinarily good communicator to get them to listen to your message and like your personality. A more effective way, a Wu wei, would be to have a dialogue with the customer when they are looking for some light relief. Then they will be much more likely to buy into the message and personality you are presenting to them.

Interruption marketing is trying too hard, and often because of this it doesn’t work. It has been working so badly that for the first time economic forces are making it necessary for marketers to consider ‘crazier’(sane) alternatives.

Wu wei is a way that doesn’t try. It doesn’t follow interruption marketing’s practice of trying to bash messages into minds that really don’t want to listen. Instead of fighting fire with fire. we should be looking to fight fire with the Taoist’s water. Viral Marketing offers a great example of Wu wei - it achieves this by taking advantage of the new environment (Internet and e-mail), not in a combative way, like banner ads, but in a Wu wei.

Take a typical Viral Marketing strategy of delivering a marketing message using humour via an e-mail communication. Here we are trying to create a communication, which contains the marketing message that is so intrinsically fun or useful that people will want to pass it on and will be pleased when they receive it.

This means that there are NO annoying interruptions for the consumer. They are making the choice to receive the message when they click on the e-mail. They can consume the message when they want to, which means that when they do open the e-mail they are likely to be in the right frame of mind to really enjoy it.

You receive the communication - it is because a friend has made the decision to pass it on to you, a high-tech version of word of mouth. In a world where products are screaming for attention, personal recommendation is by far the best way for a message to get attention. The receiver is therefore more likely to engage with and trust the message. As the all time great of marketing said:

"You cannot sell to a man who isn’t listening: word of mouth is the best medium of all." (Bill Bernbach)

What has changed since Bill’s day is that the infrastructure that can amplify consumers’ (and marketers’) ability to spread word of mouth has fallen right into our laptops: the Internet. This infrastructure allows the market to tell itself about your products and services. Viral Marketing takes advantage of the millions of communities that all of us built up naturally, that’s Wu wei!

"The most successful ideas are those that spread and grow because of the customers’ relationship to other customers -not the marketers’ to the customer". (Malcolm Gladwell)

The net was designed to be a communications tool for researchers. The original goal was a system that would allow somebody researching an obscure subject in one country to discover a fellow researcher half way round the world. It’s a many to many system. It’s hardly surprising that the most popular application on the net is still many to many (e-mail). We spend most of our lives talking to each other – not to corporations. The Internet connects us all to each other. This connection makes ideas travel fast. This means that if your Viral Marketing is good enough, it will flow as quickly as the proverbial stream down the mountain.

All of this makes Viral Marketing incredibly low cost. So low cost it can be shocking. There are no ever-increasing media fees because, if your message is good enough, potential customers will inform each other. This illustrates another Taoist principle, inaction: Achieving your goal through the minimum of effort. Why row when you can sail?

Finally, a warning from history for all you marketers out there who are addicted to the thrill of combat. Let’s look at what happens when you fight against the natural environment. This has happened when marketers have tried to turn the web into a broadcast medium (like TV and radio). The most infamous example of this was the Victoria’s Secrets launch, when an underwear modelling show on the net was advertised during the 1999 American Football Superbowl. The servers quickly became overloaded and eventually crashed. Nobody got to see the show! The lesson being don’t try to turn the environment into something that it is not - flow with it.

Viral Marketing is going to be with us now in different forms for as long as word of mouth exists (until the sun stops shining) so let’s embrace it. Perhaps it is time to consider adopting a Viral Marketing approach that can work alongside your traditional marketing. The Taoists would tell us that it is worth a go. Most importantly, for us as well as the customer, it’s a lot of fun.

Dubious marketing term which has catalysed reams of high-minded rhetoric, such as the lengthy post from Salimfadhley above, with its evangelical tone, specious oriental term, and meaningless 'example'. In theory, viral marketing is any form of marketing which spreads itself - forced word-of-mouth, in other words.

In practice, it's the art of filling usenet, Amazon.com's user reviews, online forums and - yes - Everything2 with short adverts for things that 99 per cent of the audience, no matter how well targetted, neither want nor need. Viral marketers argue that the remaining 1 per cent will fall for it; but who wants to appeal to just 1 per cent?

In the short-term it is appealing to the in-house publicity departments of companies because it is cheap; in the long-term it will have the effect of making people distrust and abandon these channels because, when it comes down to it, people don't want advertising, they want independent opinion.

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