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Viral Marketing; Do We Really Understand What The Buzz Is About?

“Viral marketing? Don’t understand it. It’s not for me. I’m going to ignore it.”

One of my most often repeated errors is to ignore things I don’t understand. When I first watched a DVD recording of a World Internet Summit, people were talking about things I didn’t understand at all.

Someone was talking about how they got their articles written on Elance, but I didn’t understand it. What on earth were they talking about? I ignored it.

Another person was talking about opt-in boxes, but I used direct marketing, classified ads, and free PR. So I ignored it, for a while.

Then there was a captivating speaker who talked about Viral Marketing. I thought his story was brilliant, but I couldn’t relate it to my business, so I ignored it.

More recently I have realised that all aspects of marketing need to be considered when building a robust online business, and I have started to think much more about all the options I have available to me. I just think I might be catching the ‘viral marketing’ bug.

Most people’s definition of Viral Marketing discusses a subject which is so compelling or creates such curiosity or desire, that people feel compelled to tell others about it. The information spreads through ‘word of mouth’ but is commonly using email as its medium.

The most common example is that people send jokes around the world via email. If someone finds something funny they will often forward it to all the contacts in their address book. The ‘proof’ that this is viral, is that you will often receive the same jokes from different unrelated sources, and when you mention the joke at a dinner party everyone has already had it via their email. In fact people don’t tell the joke any more. They just ask whether you’ve received the email with the joke about the …

Whenever viral marketing is mentioned in internet marketing circles, people nod sagely and refer to the hotmail example. When hotmail was first launched, it was the first time that people could register for a free web based email account. They could log on from anywhere in the world and send emails from an internet cafe. It was groundbreaking, and everyone was attracted to it.

At the bottom of every email was a link which said something like ‘want a free hotmail account? Click here’ and hotmail grew so quickly as a result of this, that it was sold to Microsoft for millions of dollars, despite having a ‘free’ product. This was considered ‘viral marketing’ because it mimicked ‘word of mouth’ and spread like a virus.

Consider the growth of a ‘viral’ piece of information. If one person tells two others, and those tell two others each, it will take less than 20 steps to reach a million people. That could happen in days! What if they all tell five people each? You do the math.

A well known online example is TheInterviewWithGod which was started by Morgan Westerman (the ‘captivating speaker’ I referred to earlier). The website features a short presentation which consists of beautiful and dramatic views of nature, set to haunting music, with some text over the images. The text is a poem told line by line, and it’s based on an original poem about an interview with God.

When the website was first launched it did not offer anything for sale. It was just the presentation, available for people to watch. It grew ‘virally’ by word of mouth. It soon had millions of people accessing the site every month. It had truly ‘gone viral’.

People then started to contact Morgan asking for products. Can we have the video as a downloadable file? a screen saver? a calendar? He surveyed his customers to ask them what he should charge (crazy, but it works) and then launched the products they’d asked for. He made millions. He understood viral marketing.

So I’m wondering about the profile of the growth in viral situations. I can’t find anything online that would explain how it happens.

I noticed that lots of people were talking about the ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ last year, and it seems to have gone viral. There are facebook groups devoted to it, and everyone’s fascinated by it.

The interesting thing is that the theory was first proposed in 1929, and people have been conducting studies to try and prove it over the years. And yet, just a couple of years ago most people would have given you a blank stare if you’d mentioned it. What suddenly caused it to go viral?

I’ve been thinking about the generic viral profile recently, and I think it would look something like this:

Early stage: Gestation period. Not yet viral. Profile grows steadily and requires stimulation from usual marketing methods. Rate of growth is dependent on exposure.

Critical mass: Sufficient people involved in the process. Sudden increase in growth. It’s ‘gone viral’

Rapid increase: Gathers momentum. People start to hear the information from multiple sources. Discussions in bars. Subject gains credibility.

Peak/Plateau: Growth peaks. The subject matter is at the height of its popularity

Decline: It’s yesterday’s news. Lots of people are now aware of this information, and have their opinions on it.

Does this profile sound right to you? Come on, I’ve just made it up! But my point here is that no-one seems to know. The information certainly isn’t readily available and I’ve looked.

What’s the relative length of time that each stage lasts for?

How long does it take to go viral?

What determines this?

How many people would be interested to know this information?

Do you know, I’ve got an idea developing:

What if there was an online experiment to study the growth of a viral campaign? It would need to be compelling and satisfy curiosity and desire.

What if people were encouraged to pass on the information about the campaign, because they were going to be party to the results?

How do the ‘six degrees of separation’ relate to email distribution lists? How many times would an email need to be forwarded before people in the loop, have it returned to them by people that they know?

Am I mad? Am I deluded? Am I a frustrated scientist? Have people already done this? I can’t find anything on it!

One thing’s for sure. I’m fascinated, and I’ll continue to think about how viral marketing can be used in my business. One day I’ll have it cracked. Then I’ll be the person stood on the stage at the World Internet Summit!

Brian Harvey is an online marketer who provides both physical and information products to niche markets.
http://www.worldfamousviralexperiment.com

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