Launching a Viral Marketing Campaign

Subscribe Launching a viral marketing campaign is a great idea. But what exactly is it? According to Wikipedia:

“Viral marketing and viral advertising refer to marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of pathological and computer viruses.”

Keep in mind that the reference to “pre-existing social networks” means not just Facebook and LinkedIn, but also the Elks Lodge and bowling league. Viral marketing can be powerful and cost effective among any group. But how can you make it happen?

As an up front reality check, consider that most of the social networking and social media vehicles now available have been around for very few years (sometimes very few months) so we are the pioneers. Most were developed originally for consumer use and businesses are just starting to understand how to apply them to B-2-C opportunities, not to mention internal communications and B-2-B opportunities. And finally, understand that even the best first attempt sometimes fails — creating an effective virus can be as much art as science. With those disclaimers on the record, here’s the approach:

1) Be clear on what you want to accomplish. Are you brand building or do you want to drive a specific action, for example, to make a sale? Any answer is fine; just start with a specific and concrete goal.

2) Identify your target. Be clear on exactly who you’re trying to reach. Others may become involved in the program, but it’s only your target audience that matters.

OK, that was easy. Now the harder part:

3) Figure out what incentive you can cause, create, or give to your target to cause them to take the desired action. This is not as obvious as it sounds but two things are certain: They won’t do it “because it helps you” (No… it must help them). And they will almost never do it for money per se.

4) Create a mechanism for propagation, the means by which the message will spread from person to person.


Again, remember that people act only in their own self-interest. Even charity work is done primarily because the doer gets a positive feeling or other satisfaction that exceeds the cost of the effort or investment in their mind. In general, any incentive addresses one of five needs:

  • Status/Respect (externally-oriented self worth)
  • Affiliation (most people like to be part of a group)
  • Doing Good (internally-oriented self worth)
  • Success (including economic gain)
  • Learning/Satisfying Curiosity (intellectual gain)

Let’s look at examples of each of these.


A good deal of MySpace’s incredible growth was driven by the fact that a member’s number of friends was clearly displayed for all to see. Since everybody wants to be popular, people recruited “friends” feverishly.

A less obvious example of status-driven behavior is this viral video by T-Mobile: As of this date, it’s been viewed more than ten million times. A business associate sent it to me. I loved it. I sent it to some of my business associates and friends. My status gain was in sharing something cool. I’m in the know, on the leading edge.


There are many examples of people being driven by affiliation behavior, online and offline. My favorite example these days is happening on Facebook, that social networking phenomenon that spread by first being available only to Harvard students, then to Ivy League students, then to Stanford students, then to any college student, then to any high school student, then to anybody over 13. Facebook recently changed their main page design and since then two people have formed “I hate the new Facebook” groups. Want to affiliate with the 40,000+ people in either of these two groups, just click “Join Group”. Sort of funny, isn’t it? Unless you’re Facebook I guess.

Affiliation increases the power of your voice and your confidence in your beliefs.

Doing Good:

Again, there are a million examples of behavior driven by feeling valuable. My favorite example was one I helped create. There’s a very cool site called Kiva that facilitates microlending (a concept that recently won the Nobel Prize) between the first world and third world. One of my online friends in Paris suggested that we run a 24-hour talk-a-thon on TalkShoe to help raise funds for Kiva lending. We put the word out to our networks and quickly had 24 volunteers to lead each hour of discussion and internet broadcasting. Each of these 24 folks put the word out to their personal networks and a pile of people showed up. We raised several thousand dollars that was loaned out in roughly $100 chunks to third world entrepreneurs. 100% of the money has since been repaid and recently re-loaned to a new group of recipients. Everybody felt good for doing good.

Businesses often take advantage of this incentive by making a contribution to a specific cause in return for an action by an existing or new customer.

Success/Economic Gain:

This incentive is one of the most widely used and may be the easiest to understand. An example of this in its simplest form is the recent Facebook campaign by BurgerKing: “Friendship is strong but the Whopper is stronger”. By “unfriending” 10 people, you earn a free Whopper. Cleverly, through the process those 10 people learn that they can earn a Whopper by unfriending 10 of theirs. Everybody has plenty of extra Facebook friends to dump, especially over something so ludicrous as earning a free hamburger.

Businesses leverage this incentive in many ways, but most typically by giving a current customer a discount for introducing a new prospect.


Curiosity may kill cats but it does the opposite for websites, blogs and viral marketing campaigns. Never underestimate the time someone will spend to satisfy a curiosity. And as they become more deeply invested, they will share more information. The same is true for learning. In the social media world, the more narrow and detailed your information, the more attractive it will be to your core audience.

Propagation Mechanisms:

There are two different classes of viral propagation mechanisms; those that are manual, meaning that they rely on the initiator to use his/her own tools, and those that are creator-facilitated. Examples of each are as follows:


  • Word of mouth
  • Unfacilitated email
  • Unfacilitated SMS
  • Unfacilitated blog post
  • Etc.


Compared to manual methods, these facilitated methods spread far faster:

  • Widgets and badges – The best example of this technique, among many thousands, is YouTube. After posting a video to YouTube, the user can copy a player widget to make that video available on any website or blog. The power of this technique is that in addition to the visitors to YouTube’s website, literally millions of visitors to other websites see YouTube videos. Typically the widget or badge includes a “get your own” link and/or a link to the source site to further accelerate traffic.
  • Forward to a friend via email, SMS, chat, etc. (“send to one contact”) – This technique is widely employed and is a very effective viral propagation mechanism as it requires just one click to initiate.
  • Contact import with facilitated distribution (“send to all/selected contacts”) – Many of the social networks including LinkedIn take effective advantage of this mechanism. With a few mouse clicks, a user’s entire contact list is invited to join the same service/website.
  • Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., applications – This is one of the newer techniques now becoming more widely available as social networks open up their platforms for external application. B-2-B applications are expected to grow in conjunction with Facebook “Fan” pages (as opposed to “Friend” pages).
  • Facebook Connect (leveraging an existing social graph) and Twitter Retweet (leveraging RSS subscription) – This is similar to leveraging a user’s contact list but instead it leverages RSS subscribers or the equivalent social graph (Ning members, Facebook friends, etc.).
  • Affiliate programs including multi-level marketing.
  • User coupling (e.g., to use Skype to call someone, that person must also get Skype). This can be a very effective technique in the B-2-B space.
  • “Franchise partner” – In this case, the application itself is used to recruit other participants. TalkShoe accomplishes this by publishing recordings in directories such as iTunes. Ning uses the topic-centric nature of the member’s social network to attract others sharing that passion through internal and external search engines.

Summary: Every company’s opportunity to leverage social media and social networking tools is unique. When the right incentive is combined with the right distribution mechanism for the right audience, it can result in explosive growth. Two other points to consider in closing: First, a viral marketing campaign must fit with the associated product, service, and/or desired action; it should not be developed in a vacuum. Sometimes, product changes will be required to enable such an approach to work effectively. Or, the product itself may be the ideal vehicle for an integral (not separate) campaign. And second, a viral marketing campaign is just one possible approach using these new social tools. They have a variety of other potential applications to facilitate communication in their own right. Their most important power is enabling a two-way interactive conversation among stakeholders where only one-way “broadcasts” have been done before. This enhances marketing, product design, customer support, and sales.

2 Responses to “Launching a Viral Marketing Campaign”

  1. Robert wentz -carrieking99

    Hello I just wanted to say thanks for twitter and was wondering if someday we could have a video twitter.Each one could be 2-3 mins and we could interact that way.Thanks-Robert

    • davenelsen

      Robert – Thanks for the suggestion. With my new iPhone 3GS and Mac’s iMovie, there’s no technical barrier. What topics would you like to see covered in the 2-3 minute videos?

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