Best ways for business to harness the accelerated word-of-mouth momentum of viral marketing

We had many viral marketing type programs before the age of Internet, such as Tupperware or Amway, where customers created growth by selling products to ...

Q: There has been a lot of talk about viral marketing recently. What exactly is it?

A: The “viral marketing” term was coined by Steve Jurvetson and Tim Draper, the founding investors of Hotmail. Viral marketing is any marketing program designed to achieve exponential growth by spreading marketing effects from customer to customer. It is an exponential case of word of mouth. Thanks to today’s Internet technology and social media, word of mouth has become more powerful than ever. Viral marketing is “word of mouth on steroids”.

Q: Does viral marketing take place online or offline?

A: Both! Viral marketing is usually confused with viral YouTube videos. However, we had many viral marketing type programs before the age of Internet, such as Tupperware or Amway network marketing programs where customers created exponential growth by selling products to their friends. Viral marketing programs are sometimes based on a “refer a friend” scheme like MCI Network of friends. They can also be based on delightful products that everyone talks about, such as Apple’s iPhone, or Harley Davidson motorcycles. 

Q: What are the best examples?

A: Probably Hotmail, YouTube, Facebook and Skype. One of the most popular viral videos is the Old Spice Smell Like a Man campaign or Evian’s Roller Babies.

Q: How reliable is viral marketing?

A: Viral marketing is never completely predictable – in fact, it is sometimes referred to as catching lighting in a bottle. That does not mean that it should be disregarded as a valid component of an integrated marketing program. According to David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Viral Marketing, the best strategy is to emulate the way venture capitalists invest in startup companies: most ventures will fail, a few might do OK and hopefully one will take off and become a huge success. Viral marketing might not work every time, but when it does, it can more than make up for the times it doesn’t.

Q: What is the key to viral marketing success?

A: There are quite a number of principles, tactics and tools of viral marketing. Follow Ivan’s blog ( to get more information on viral marketing strategy. The absolute key to viral marketing is to create a “wow” factor. Give a reason for people to talk about your product or service; exceed expectations, surprise and delight customers.

Q: More tips for going viral?

A: According to author and marketing guru Seth Godin, the critical element of viral marketing is this: it’s built in (e.g., YouTube’s “embed this video” feature). “Seeding” is another key: you need to expose a critical number of people to your product before you can hope to go viral. Then make sure to create a special “viral hook” such as how Hotmail added the “open a free Hotmail account” signature at the bottom of each email. Offer something for free. Encourage people to share things with friends. Create an online video. Design a “refer a friend” program with real benefits for the person referring. Constantly innovate. Remove barriers for spreading the virus (e.g., no need to log in or sign up before you can share). And, finally, make sure you have created an offering that is unique and special, that people will want to share widely in a positive way. •


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