Most people in the marketing business will have heard of viral marketing, and some will have even attempted to create a “viral.” Those who have tried to create their own viral marketing campaigns will probably have discovered that it is not as easy as it seems. Certainly, viral marketing is a tantalizing concept because the cost to distribute your message to millions of people is almost free. It seems like magic – create your “viral concept” and then watch the eyeballs roll in, so to speak.

Unfortunately, many of us have the impression that the process is easier than it actually is because, of course, we only see the successful campaigns and they seem to pop up every day. Those campaigns are just the tip of the iceberg, sitting upon thousands of failed concepts that never made it beyond a couple of hundred or even a couple of thousand viewers.

So viral marketing is certainly a legitimate tactic, but it’s very difficult to execute and entirely different from traditional marketing channels. For that reason, this paper will try to outline some of the differences between viral and traditional marketing and suggest a framework/approach for managing viral marketing campaigns.


Viral marketing is an unpredictable tool, with a cost structure different from traditional marketing, which means we need to think differently when creating and managing these initiatives. At the heart of this approach is the idea of starting very small and investing in several ideas at the same time. Get them out there and see what happens. One of the great things about viral marketing is that the feedback is built in. So go ahead and experiment, see what happens and then respond and build upon it.


Rather than running viral marketing as a traditional campaign where you plan, budget and execute, viral should be a more experimental approach. Instead of sinking all your resources into polishing one idea, it is better to invest across a portfolio of ideas or experiments. The idea is, of course, to see which ideas take off and which ones fail. In fact, failure might even be encouraged, as it helps you learn and hone in on the elements that are working right. In the words of David Kelley, co-founder and chairman of innovation and design firm IDEO, you want to “fail faster so you can succeed sooner.”

Managing viral marketing as a portfolio of projects is obviously quite a shift from traditional marketing and, therefore, requires the development of new skills. These involve adding new ideas to the portfolio, killing ideas that are not working and planning investments.


Social media has put a plethora of tools in marketers’ hands that allow real-time measurement and monitoring of their ideas in the marketplace. Technorati (a blog search engine), (a social bookmarking site) and BlogPulse (a blog search engine) are just some of the tools that can be leveraged to see what ideas are being shared and what ideas are taking off in order to inform the direction you take with a viral campaign. Monitoring is not just about measurement, though; it’s about listening and responding.


When your viral efforts take off , you had better be ready to respond, participate and engage in the ensuing conversation. Can you amplify and capitalize on what’s happening?

Smirnoff , for example, executed what seemed to be a very successful viral campaign when it released a music video for “The Smirnoff Tea Partay” to promote its new malt beverage. The video was a huge hit, but at its conclusion, it directed viewers to a page on the Smirnoff website that remained under construction – even after half a million people had watched it.

One person who viewed the video on YouTube left the following comment:

“too bad the URL they list at the end goes to a site w/ generic smirnoff content and a little tiny tea partay banner ad that goes nowhere (it just says “coming soon”).

i mean, so i’m supposed to come back some other time and hope they got the new content up? it was sorta entertaining, but not so much that i’ll come back again and again…”

Response and amplification can be as simple as having a website ready to convert visitors/viewers into customers (and making sure your Web server can accommodate the increased traffi c too). It can also involve putting frameworks in place for continuing the brand conversation and providing tags for customers to use when they create blog posts about your initiative, product or service. And don’t skip the user comments. Look at what people do with the media you put out there and be ready to bring attention to it.


In the end, viral marketing is often treated just like regular advertising, but with lower distribution costs, and I think that is a mistake. Viral marketing is turning some aspect of your brand into a “social object” that people want to share with each other, and they share it because they are motivated to share it. This motivation comes from the desire to look smart or clever, be in the know, etc. So in the creation of marketing materials that are worth sharing, remember, they have to be remarkable; they have to be worth sharing.