I can't tell you how many times I've heard an old school marketer say viral marketing is just the fancy new name for word of mouth marketing. In their mind, the two work exactly the same way. The only difference is that word of mouth marketing takes place offline and viral marketing takes place online. They're wrong. I think they're wrong and Seth Godin thinks they're wrong.

When I teach viral marketing courses, I try to explain that viral marketing is similar to word of mouth marketing, but not the same. The phrase I often use is "Viral marketing is like word of mouth marketing on crack." What I mean by that is word of mouth has a limited scope based on how it's spread. Anyone who has ever played a game of telephone knows a message can change dramatically by the third of fourth time it's passed along verbally. This causes word of mouth to fizzle out fairly quickly.

There are exceptions of course...pop culture generally spreads via word of mouth. People convincing office mates to watch a great new TV show or to buy a new CD from a popular musical group is a great example of word of mouth. The reason this type of word of mouth can spread so far is because there are so many starting points. If 9 million people tune into a TV premier and just half of them convince three friends to tune in, more than 20 million people will end up watching the show.

Take word of mouth down to it's most basic levels and things simply don't spread as far.

Seth explains:

Word of mouth is a decaying function. A marketer does something and a consumer tells five or ten friends. And that's it. It amplifies the marketing action and then fades, usually quickly. A lousy flight on United Airlines is word of mouth. A great meal at Momofuku is word of mouth.

His use of the phrase "decaying function" is a good one. If you think about it, a word of mouth campaign tends to get smaller with each iteration. One friend might tell five friends. Three of those friends might tell a friend. One of those might pass the word even further. Eventually (and quickly), the message dies out.

Viral is setup to work in a different way. Because viral is designed to spread through passion rather than simple conversation, it usually grows with each iteration.

Seth explains:

Viral marketing is a compounding function. A marketer does something and then a consumer tells five or ten people. Then they tell five or ten people. And it repeats. And grows and grows. Like a virus spreading through a population.

Why am I telling you this?

Because small businesses often tend to mix these two ideas up. They're used to word of mouth marketing, because it's a key component in the growth of most small businesses. Referrals and networking are often the catalyst that keeps small businesses running in the early days of operations when marketing budgets are next to non-existent.

When these businesses start investing in marketing, they often fail to understand the key difference between word of mouth and viral. They build a Flash video, send it to a few friends and colleagues and then ask themselves why it hasn't "gone viral." They film a video of their son or daughter telling folks to buy from the company, upload it to YouTube and watch as the view counter goes...no where.

Seth's explanation of viral verses word of mouth is essential because it underscores the most important requirements of a viral campaign.

1.) The viral idea is designed for your customers, not for your marketing department

This is probably the biggest mistake I see companies of all sizes making when it comes to viral marketing. Companies put together a standard advertising or marketing campaign and then call up a viral consultant with the request to "make" the campaign go viral.

What these companies fail to understand is the nature of the viral message. While it's possible to orchestrate a viral campaign, there's never a guarantee of success. (As opposed to something like email marketing where marketers can generally say "we generally have an x% response rate to this offer.") Viral marketing campaign development is more about taking the time to understand and research the passion points of a target audience than it is about crafting a careful message designed to get point x, y and z across.

2.) Your customers are willing to stake their own reputation on the message

When it comes to word of mouth marketing, consumers are generally just sharing their experience or opinion with some friends and family. A man tells his work buddies about the great florist who delivered a last minute bouquet to his wife on her birthday. A college student tells their classmates about the bar with the best kegs and eggs after the game. Word of mouth tends to happen through casual conversation and the message is often quickly forgotten.

With viral the goal is to make things a little more personal. There's a big difference between that man telling a few office mates about a florist and him making a dedicated blog post about a new web site. Since viral often happens on a larger scale through more varied levels of relationships, there's a stronger need for the spreader to feel confident in the message. A blogger who points their readers toward bad content or services won't retain a strong readership for long and the woman who forwards every email she's ever received quickly gets placed on "ignore" by friends and family.

The best viral campaigns tap into the passions and interests of consumers so that when they spread the message, they are viewed as trustworthy. Help consumers build up their reputation with friends, family and online acquaintances and they will reward you by spreading your message far and wide.

3.) The viral idea is easy to spread via email, blogs and discussion forums

Word of mouth fizzles quickly because it takes effort to spread the messages verbally. You have to have an actual conversation with someone for word of mouth to work. This is why the life span of a word of mouth campaign is short.

When it comes to viral ideas, there are tons of ways for the message to spread. Messages can spread by email, blog, discussion forum, social news service, podcast (the list goes on and on). Since each of these forms of communication is virtually unlimited in terms of reach, a viral campaign can easily expand with each iteration rather than shrinking.

4.) Your customers stand to benefit from passing the message along

Perhaps the easiest way to ensure the success of your viral campaign is to give people a stake in it's success. When people feel invested in things, they put far more time and energy into promoting them. Whether you appeal to people's ego by allowing them a "sneak peek" of a new service or you find a way to let them add their voice to the viral message, making sure people feel good about spreading your message is key.

Keep those four tips in mind as you contemplate your viral campaign and you'll be far more likely to create a solid idea. Viral marketing may have it's roots in word of mouth marketing, but the Internet has allowed it to grow into a powerful tool that can bring out the best in customer conversation. Take advantage of it by putting your focus on the customer.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

October 19, 2007

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.


Now, that was a well crafted, thought out and structured article.

It was also heavily biased and used discriminating examples, with the sole purpose of supporting the view of the article rather than examining anything in fairness.

With that in mind.... a single example with two potential outcomes.
(I deem more fair as it coversto opposing out comes, both probable.)

Someone goes abroad, and whislt on their travels, contracts an illness from badly treated water.
This illness can be transfered by bodily fluids, spittle, mucus etc.

Outcome One:
The person with the illness feels a little worse for wear upon return from their little journey, yet decides to go to work.
Whislt there, they answer the numerous telephones. They have a minor sneezing fit in the canteen. They have a quick snogg with their current "favourite"in the stairwell. They miss the urinal.
Not suprisingly... within 48 Hours... numerous other people from the work place have contracted the illness.

Outcome Two:
The person with the illness feels a little worse for wear upon return from their little journey, and decides to stay at hoe and call in sick.
They spend over 24 Hours alone at home, with no contact.
No one else picks up the illness.

Now - that person had a Virus.
It can be contracted by various means, and mutates after gestation to enable it to be more transferable (many illnesses, diseases, bacteria etc. follow that exact pattern).

In Outcome One, we see the full extent of the Virus potential - it's clearly Viral.
In Outcome Two, we do not see the extent... yet it's still Viral.

Possibly a poor choice of phrase?

In addition, I cannot help but feel that the HalfLife given to word of mouth is also unfair.

If I talk to a group of colleagues about something... it's becasue we have common interests. I know for a fact that over 50% will then discuss it with others... literally a half life for each group.... it's dependant on the size of the group to the extent of the "infection". If each group gets bigger, then it will spreader further/faster.

People still talk about Princess Diane.
People still discuss Jack the Ripper & Spring Heeled Jack.
These topics have been around for what msut be viewed as forever by Viral marketers!

All of that aside... I enjoyed the article.
I found it interesting, enlightening and very well written.
Further, your points were very thoughtfully approached and conveyed.
(I'm just a stickler for fair assessments).

I'll be coming back looking for more fine articles in future.

Thank you.

I disagree with Autocrat on his/her comment. What was that all about real viruses? My! You just haven't understood what a viral is all about and you've gone about equating it with a flue virus for all we know.

You talk about collegues spreading your word? Ever heard of Chinese whispers? That's what really happens to a lot of word-of-mouth marketing. It's just do-you-know-so-and-so-said-so? The one spreading invests nothing in spreading the word. At best I'd equate it to gossipping or a light debate.

If people still discuss Jack the Ripper and Diana, it's because there's a documented reference point. I'm sorry dear "stickler for fair assessments", your whole comment was just an argument and not a fair assessment of the article itself.

...Rajesh Rajoo...
I can understand you response... but do you not find the usage of the term "viral" to be imprecise and incorrect?

You state that "word of mouth" may sufer from "chinese whispers"... how would that be different than a Virus undergoing mutation (which the majority do)???

That is my first issue, the term used.

Also, if you read the actual response with neutrality, you will see that I make reference to it being a poor choice of words,
"... Possibly a poor choice of phrase? ...")

As to my view being an arguement - well spotted, indeed it was. The main aim of which was to highlight the unfair examples provided.
Would it have been better if I had provided an example of "viral marketing" attempts that had yielded nothing, as is the case for some campaigns, or that a few are very short lived indeed due to the placement of such media?

The main point, which I obviously failed to express clearly, was that it was a heavily one sided view - using examples that would reinforce the chosen point, ignoring those that wouldn't support such claims.

Technically, there is little noticable difference between the goals of a normal campaign, and those of a "viral" one - the main difference is the result obtained - which is as much luck of getting viewers that will make reference to it as it is to it being found.
You cannot gaurentee visitors finding it, paying attention to it or refering to it - you can only try. It is the level of success that will result in a label being applied. If it got results, it was a good campaign, if it got spread throughout the known net, with links and references all over the place, it would become "viral".
Yet Viral does not necessarily mean the desired resutls, as you cannot ensure that those following the chain of links will actually take up the offered service or purchase the listed product.

Does that make sense... or am I explaining it badly?
If you wat clarification and a better understading of where I am comming from, look upthe origins of CokeCola.
They went over 15 years with no market and built up a siolid base by sheer reputation before they got marketing.
There are plenty of other examples were simple reputation has provided the backbone of clietns/income, not advertising or marketing.

As for it being unfair to the article itself, no it wasn't, thus my commetns at the end,
"... All of that aside... I enjoyed the article.
I found it interesting, enlightening and very well written.
Further, your points were very thoughtfully approached and conveyed. ..."

So please, re read the original post, keeping in mind that I enjoyedd readin th article, that I liked thestyle or it's author, that I found it very well crafted - it was simply that I found the lavbels used to be imprecise and the examples provided to be, in my mind, more than a little weighted.

All of that aside, I more than appreciate your view on it, and will re-examine my own view to see if I can find fault with it.

Autocrat, I guess I'm not sure what you're arguing.

You keep saying "the point" of the article is wrong.

The POINT of the article is that viral marketing and word of mouth marketing, while related in concept, are NOT the same.

Do you disagree with that point?

As for examples...I didn't really give many examples. I simply explained a bit about the qualities that define a good viral campaign.

Word of Mouth can get you far (as in the example of folks around the water cooler talking up a new show) and a bad viral marketing campaign might get you no where.

That's called success and failure and it happens with any type of marketing.

My point of view is that there is no real difference between the two, not even the medium used.

In many cases, recomendartions, referals and comments will be made via speech, letter, email, links, social bookmarks etc.

The main difference I can perceive is that a "planned" viral marketing idea will have some form of initial hook, with the aim of getting it talked about, and word of mouth marketing tends to be via the onus of the individual, they have choosen to discuss, they have not been encouraged.

Then again, look at the GoldBlend adverts, where they intentionally "viral"?
What about hte Budweiser adverts?

Now, taking a step back, looking at the difference being one is planned, the other is chance.... one is based on personal preference and value application, the other is encouraged and intended to get a reaction.... which method do you think provides more value, more weight and could be considered as having a better result?
Something that was engineered, or something that naturally achieves it?

Another point of contention, and one that I obviously failed to express, was the examples used in the original article, and in the references, were generally biased to the hilt.
"...Word of mouth fizzles quickly because it takes effort to spread the messages verbally. You have to have an actual conversation with someone for word of mouth to work. This is why the life span of a word of mouth campaign is short...."
Any facts on that?
So we don't use telephones, mobiles, letters or such to pass on coments and referals, only when we talk face to face?
Or is it claiming that as soon as something is refered by any means other than face to face it becomes viral?

Cannot have it both ways!

Does that make things clearer?
If not... think of this....
It is comming up to christmas.
I buy you a present as I like you so much.... now if I wrap it in a Blue wrp and put it in a blue bag... does it make it better than if I put it in red wrap and a green bag?
No difference at all! The value is there - it is how it is presented - which is all that is basically happening in the SE industry off late - a large number of clever people are sticking new labels on old techniques and making claims to fame.

If it's still not getting there, try this...

They are fantastic.... you can now wear things on your feet that won't slip off - increasing the comfort and security of your foot wear!
Fantastic... I could make millions from this... and no, they are not shoelaces, compeltely different!

On the other hand, if you are one to easily fall for spin, prefer to bleat or like the feel of wool on your skin... go ahead, free world, and there is every chance that I'm wrong!

Best wishes this Christmas.

Good article, I don't know why the concept of viral marketing is so confusing to some, it's a simple process, you like something ... you tell people whether it be via word of mouth, blogger, or your tube puppet play, those you share it with also share with others, this repeats until soon, your youtube puppet play is #1.

That was a really good article, well written and very informative.

This former English teacher give you an A+ for crafting a well-planned essay. Our hope lies in young women like you who set the record straight!

You are exactly right; old school marketers still believe one mega site will do all their work for them and they hand out business cards one person at a time, one luncheon at a time which is slow, painful and non-productive.

This process of education is happening at a DIFFERENT pace throughout the states. And that's all I will say about that...

I would recommend everyone pick up a copy of David Meerman Scott's book: The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to use news releases, blogs, podcasting, viral marketing and online media to reach buyers directly! I have found it very, very useful in my own retraining!

Rosanne Ferreri-Feske, CEO
The New Tennessee Woman

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