Viral marketing may be one of the most misunderstood forms of marketing. This gets proven to me over and over when some company calls (or emails) and tells me "we've just created X and we need you to make it go viral." While it's flattering to have people think I'm THAT good at what I do, each and every one of these companies tends to get the same response. "Thanks, but next time you need to call me before you create X." Not long after, I find myself thinking about what makes up a good viral campaign and just how much of that is misunderstood by companies.

You see, viral isn't as simple as "making it happen."

In fact, when it comes to viral marketing, your chances of failure far outweigh your chances of success. That's why it's so important for small businesses to have a realistic understanding of what viral marketing entails and what their chances of success actually are.

We Can't All Be the Popular One

There will be times in your life as a business owner or marketer where you can't help but feel like Jan Brady. Why? Because no matter how hard we try, we can't all be "the popular one." It's a simple fact of life that more of us will be average or below average than above average. (Otherwise, it wouldn't be called "above average," now would it?)

janmarsha.jpgChances are you or your business have had a few Jan Brady moments where you wondered why everyone likes (or simply appears to like) a competitor better. You hear the buzz around someone else's product or you see links flowing into a competitor and you want to stomp your foot and shout "why not me?"

The answer is simple, but it's not one most people want to hear.

You aren't popular.

Ultimately, that's ok. Kids that aren't the most popular still generally have lots of friends.

Jan made up a boyfriend, crashed her bike because she refused to wear her glasses and uttered the infamous line "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!" but that doesn't mean she wasn't succesful in her own right. In fact, she was voted "Most Popular Girl" at Filmmore Jr. High. Like Jan, many companies will simply never hit it big to the point where their name is on everyone's lips or their product is in everyone's house.

That's ok. Popular is a subset of success, not the definer of success. Likewise, viral is a subset of good marketing. It is not the definer of good marketing.

Sometimes it's Natural, Sometimes We Have to Work Our Butts Off

Every now and then a company comes along that seems to simply ooze viral potential. Someone comes up with a really unique idea (Twitter) or a new way of doing something (Google) or a better version of something we already know and love (iPods) and word of mouth takes off without much nudging. In the only world of access to everything, it's easy to look around and see companies falling into viral success all over the place.

It happens. It can happen to you. But it's unlikely.

rudy.jpgIt's far more likely you'll end up like Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger. The third of fourteen children, Ruettiger was a 5'6" football player who dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. After two years at a neighboring school and three rejection letters, Ruettiger was accepted to Notre Dame and managed to earn a walk-on position with Notre Dame's scout team. He works his tail off for years getting beat down by the varsity players and eventually earns the right to dress for the final game of his senior year.

On the second of the two plays he makes on the field for his entire Notre Dame career, he sacks the opposing quarterback.

Sometimes viral campaigns fall into our laps. Most of the time, viral campaigns are the results of years of hard work. While many see a company like Zappos and think "overnight success" the truth is the team at Zappos has worked extraordinarily hard from the start to build the type of company people want to talk about.

Chances are high you'll need to launch multiple viral campaigns before any one will take off. Yes, you might be one of those companies that falls into viral success "accidentally," but the chances are much higher you'll have to work your butt off to get there.

You Can Do Everything Right and Still Fail

The thing about viral marketing is you can only increase your chance of success. You can't create the success. Viral marketing relies on other people to get involved. You can learn the ways to help motivate them and can feed them the information and campaigns that are mostly likely to spark their interest, but ultimately you have no control over what they do with it.

thomas.jpgThat's a tough pill for many people to swallow.

Thomas Edison tried more than 9,000 experiments before he created the first light bulb. Abraham Lincoln lost twelve elections before becoming President. Beethoven's music teacher called him "hopeless." John Grisham was rejected by twelve publishing houses. Marilyn Monroe lost her contract with 20th Century-Fox because she wasn't attractive. Michael Jordan was cut from his varsity basketball team. The list could go on forever.

Failure once (or even a thousand times) is not indicative of failure forever.

Your viral campaign may be perfectly orchestrated. Everything might fit together exactly right and might be absolutely destined for success and still manage to fail.

That's ok. It means you'll need to try again with a new idea.

Understand That Simply by Trying, You Improve Your Business

By now you might be feeling a bit depressed. After all, I've spent most of this article telling you how unlikely it is you'll succeed with a great viral marketing campaign.

But that's ok.

See, here's the thing.

success.jpgIf you work your way through the basics of creating a great viral campaign, you're going to accomplish something few companies ever do. You'll learn who your customers are. You'll learn what motivates them. You'll understand how to make your ideas spreadable. You'll know where your customers are interacting with each other online. You'll understand how to build relationships with your customers and influencers. You'll have a better grasp on the importance of metrics and scalability. You'll learn how to help your business become more flexible. You'll learn how to conduct better competitive intelligence to see what other companies in your niche are doing.

Now stop and think about that for a moment.

One of the biggest reasons companies should learn more about viral marketing isn't necessarily so they can be the next Zappos or Apple or Mentos or Dove. It's because the things you need to learn and explore to launch or capitalize on a viral campaign are the things that make your business better than it was before.

Internalize these lessons and it may not matter if your viral campaign ever takes off. You might find you've learned so much about improving your business and your overall marketing that you are "suddenly" successful anyway.

July 15, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Wonderfull article, i love it and i am gonna share your article into my blog adress.

You are very right, if we haven t got a well structured campaign we can t see any advantages of viral campaign


That was a good piece on how companies can’t all be the popular one…but as a Marketing professional of 17 years, I have seen what works and what doesn’t work. You want to get your client’s name out and sometimes it can happen without much effort.

Ronn Torossian of 5WPR said it best in his blog, that there’s no doubt the communication landscape has forever changed. A unique tool like twitter or facebook can begin mentioning a product or service that eventually catches the attention and influences others.

I particularly like the section on failing and not giving up. It reminds me of a Japanese proverb I used to tell my Japanese classes when they would complain about the difficulty of learning Japanese: Fall down seven times, stand up eight. (Actually, this doesn't make sense, because in order to stand up eight times, you'd have to fall down eight times, but it still gets the idea across.)

Thanks for all the great articles.

I love this statement, "You Can Do Everything Right and Still Fail". I love it because we always tend to think that when something does not work out, we messed up somewhere--that we goofed. Sometimes it's true, but sometimes, it's not. Sometimes it's simply the luck of the draw. We can do all the right things and still not reach the level of success we've dreamed of and sometimes we can do all the right things and the idea simply flops--it doesn't take off for whatever reason. And sometimes, we can get it all right, make what we set out to make, and then realize we don't like doing what we're doing and quit--therefore, telling ourselves that we've failed.

The part about not giving up, that's great, too! It's especially helpful when you've been doing great and then the market hits a slump and you have to do a little struggling to stay at a certain level or as a colleague had to deal with a few years ago, start over.

A lesson indeed. The best way to learn anything and never forget it is to learn it the hard way. But it always comes back to your outlook on what happened or what you did.

It may have taken Thomas Edison 9000 attempts to invent the light bulb, but he also learned 8999 ways to NOT make a light bulb. Sometimes learning what doesn't work is as important (sometimes even more) than what does. After all if you know what doesn't work, and more importantly why, it is easier to create something that does.

@ Alyice: agreed, sometimes it's just the luck of the draw.

@ Brian: But if you started from a sitting position you only fall down 7 times ;)

@ Robert: Surely if you're discounting the fall from the sitting position then you have to discount the act of getting onto the seat as standing up and therefore you preserve the equation (number of times stood up = 7; number of times fell down = 7). Ewan Kennedy (:-)

Viral marketing is actually a great resource to boost sales of a product,a good plan can take you to some highest levels

Great Article, I admit I clicked on your article to find out how to go viral, but found something even more inspiring.... the truth.

Good post, but wouldn't you agree that there are some marketers out there who can create a viral campaign like 50% of the time?

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Hard (but Important) Lessons About Viral Marketing