The Cold, Hard Truth About Viral Marketing

It seems every month I get an inquiry from a potential client who is interested in doing “something viral”. I won’t take their money and here’s why.

It seems 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.

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”. They 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 must appeal to the sensibilities of the Internet. This means being 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.

5. The truth is that many “viral” videos have big money behind them.
Many videos have significant and expensive marketing strategies working in the background. Entire teams of people work specific tactics to “hack” online communities and social media. There is nothing wrong with this approach. I share it here because, unless you are willing to spend big dollars on a very unpredictable tactic, “going viral” shouldn’t be part of your plan.

Going viral is also known as “gambling”. We don’t gamble around here. If you are ready to finally get your arms around marketing, let’s talk. You can book yourself on our calendar here. 

Ask Pete a Question or Make a Comment