Blog Post

The Marketing Behind Viral Marketing


I was listening to the news about the Marlboro Man, sorry, Old Spice Man and how an intense viral marketing campaign has revived his usefulness as a marketing image last night and it got me thinking. If you take a peak, you will see the words viral marketing painted all over this approach. And if you look at what they did, it was quite creative. The Q&A format. The quick-turn videos. It was great marketing. But why exactly is it viral?

After a glass of wine, I was deep into thinking about term viral marketing. The Old Spice Man had really started some thoughts for me. The strongest of them was:

"Hasn't marketing always been viral?"

If I understand correctly, the application of the term viral means that it spreads like a unstoppable disease. Like a virus, it jumps from person to person. Similar to computer viruses spread amazingly fast, the marketing people have seized the opportunity for a nifty analogy. But isn't it just an analogy? As you really think about the term, doesn't viral marketing really just mean "really really effective marketing?"

If we dial back a few decades, when nobody had ever heard of the term viral marketing, didn't they have simply awesome marketing campaigns that spread like wildfire? I did a little digging. Here is an interesting list. Ironically, my Marlboro Man is right up there. Along with Nike, McDonalds, and Coca-Cola. Was "The Pepsi-Challenge" of the 1980's viral? It got everyone talking. Kids would all race to the challenge stand at each event for the free soda and to see if they could tell the difference between the leading colas... Yes. Viral.

So once again, the marketing geniuses have us caught in some sort of Escher painting. You know, the one where the hand is painting itself or the water is flowing up-hill. Here, the marketing of the Viral Marketing idea is what is so brilliant. In the end, it really means to do an awesome job at marketing utilizing all of the communication, brand and influence tools you have at your disposal. Yes, social bookmarking, social sites and mobile are all new media opportunities. But as all good marketers know, you need a nifty new brand when you want to really pack a punch.

Is this rebranding a bad thing? If you accept my premise that the term Viral Marketing is mostly a branding / marketing shift (as opposed to substance), then the natural question is: Is this a bad thing? I am not entirely sure. I know that sometimes when I hear Viral Marketing used a verb I get a little confused. Where exactly is it that I can obtain the bacteria to start such a virus ;-) And when I see people marketing products to "enhance a viral marketing program for you", again, I scratch my head. Isn't the point of something being viral that you just catch it without any effort on anyone's part? Yes it is. But marketing doesn't really work that way. Especially on the Internet. So in some regard, I think the new term creates confusion for buyers who don't really understand it. While it is a convenient way to sum up a bunch of activities we would all know well, for those who are fooled into thinking it is some secret method that only a select few understand, I say to watch out for the snake oil.