The Cold, Hard Truth About Viral Marketing

Every month I get an inquiry from a potential client who is interested in doing “something viral”. If that term isn’t familiar, allow me to explain. According to, The term “viral marketing” was coined by a Harvard Business School professor, Jeffrey F. Rayport, in a December 1996 article for Fast Company magazine. It refers to marketing techniques that self replicate – similar to the spread of pathological and computer viruses. It can be word of mouth or by Internet but the bottom line is that people pass along the message voluntarily in great numbers.

These potential clients understand that a successful viral campaign would provide enormous visibility for virtually zero cost. Hence the attraction to the idea. Unfortunately, launching a successful viral campaign is not so simple. How do I know?

In the last four weeks, I’ve had a pet project go truly viral. My son’s video show “Enzoology” (his name is Enzo) started as a short video about the Praying Mantis. We put the show on YouTube to share with some family and friends and what happened next was completely a surprise. Within hours, I had 15 emails asking about an Enzoology web site. I quickly responded by building and began to monitor traffic. Within four days, my seven year old son’s web site had two thousand hits and continues to attract about two thousand visitors each week. We knew something big was going on when a family recognized Enzo at Sea World.

My theory of why this all is happening so quickly is that the video has something people like – perhaps it’s the cute kid scientist angle, perhaps because of the purity of the content, maybe because Enzo is really good in front of the camera. I don’t know – it was a total accident.

Why 99.999 percent of viral attempts fail

1. It is impossible to predict what will go viral.
Most viral campaigns aren’t really campaigns at all. They are simply a funny and/or obnoxious video or other content that people discover, enjoy and tell their friends. Most were not created with the intention of “going viral”. There were made just for fun and had some value to someone. Just because it’s funny to you doesn’t mean anyone else will agree.

2. You don’t have the courage.
By their very nature, companies are not well suited to producing viral campaigns. To have a successful viral program, you need to be truly funny, outrageous, obnoxious, offensive or have some hard to define value that people really like and get jazzed up about. If your CEO is willing to drop his pants at a board meeting, get up on the table and dance like Michael Jackson to the horror of the other board members and you can get it on video, you may have a viral sensation. (See rule #1)

3. It can’t be contrived.
Viral success hinges on being authentic. It must be genuinely funny or pure in some way. People see right though lame attempts at promotion disguised as entertainment. Most companies can’t muster what it takes to be simple and pure. For example, I’ve seen a parody of the TV show “The Office” – it was very well done but it just wasn’t funny. The video spent too much time attempting to promote the company.

4. Before you go viral, go basic.
Most companies that are interested in viral marketing are simply trying to save a few bucks. Usually, upon asking a few questions, it becomes clear that they don’t even have the fundamental marketing and sales processes and plans in place. They are simply reaching for a magic bullet that costs nothing and will generate huge sales. Good luck with that.

I wish more companies could loosen up and have some fun – be outrageous and silly, pure and funny. Business is a serious endeavor but we should never forget that we are selling and marketing to people – not businesses. And people like crazy, funny stuff.

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