Viral Marketing and Social Networks – Chapter one

Viral Marketing and Social Networks

The key information that can be derived from the term viral marketing is its relation to a virus. The similarities with real life viruses come from the fact that marketing information gets spread just like a virus from a person infected with the “virus” of commercial content who decides to spread it to the members of his or her social network. In this case, consumers willingly send the message to others, no matter if it is an e-mail, blog, video, advertisements, commercial newsletters, or web links to various marketing content.

Birth of a Virus

The origin of the term viral marketing is attributed to Jurvetson and Draper (1997), in an article taking Hotmail as an example. The authors used the term viral marketing to describe the free e-mail service that Hotmail was providing. At the time Hotmail, a free e-mail service, attached a clickable URL to every message sent by a user, underlining the advantage of its free services. In this manner, the users became a com- munication tool through which other consumers found out about the service and received free immediate access. By using this marketing strat- egy, Hotmail reached 12 million customers in 18 months (Dobele et al. 2005). Professor Rayport of Harvard is also cited as mentioning the term in 1996, and research mentions an earlier use of the term in 1989, in a PC User magazine article about Macintosh (Kirby and Marsden 2006; Shukla 2010). Since then, many companies have successfully used viral campaigns to promote their message, from the classical Old Spice and Budweiser viral advertisements, to the flash-mob dancing activities orga- nized by T-Mobile in well-known train stations in top European and American cities. Currently, there are approximately 5.3 trillion display ads shown online each year, 400 million tweets sent daily, 144,000 hours

of YouTube video uploaded daily, and 4.75 billion posts shared on Face- book every day (Libert and Tynski 2013).

Jurvetson and Draper (1997) defined viral marketing as online word- of-mouth which is transmitted and promoted through the use of social networks. The authors considered viral marketing as word-of-mouth enhanced by social networks. Viral marketing includes marketing strate- gies that use electronic media to obtain word-of-mouth referral endorse- ments from one customer to pass on to other prospective customers, with the purpose of transmitting favorable marketing information made available online (Dobele et al. 2005). The key point is the use of social networks to transmit commercial information and to create a widespread diffusion potential for any marketing message, leading to exponential growth in the dispersion of the message.

Welker defined viral communication as “strategies that allow an easier, accelerated, and cost reduced transmission of messages by cre- ating environments for self-replicating, exponentially increasing diffu- sion, spiritualization, and impact of the message” (Welker 2002, 4). Viral marketing is “a marketing strategy that encourages consumers to pass along messages to others in order to generate added exposure” (Plummer et al. 2007, 263) or business “activities to make use of cus- tomers’ communication networks to promote and distribute products” (Helm 2000, 158), all through the use of the Internet and, in particular, social networks.

Besides the exploitation of the benefits of social networking, another key point related to viral marketing is the necessity to offer consumers an incentive to pass the message along to their social networks. These incentives usually come from the entertainment potential of the market- ing message, in particular, with regard to viral advertisements, but there can also be material and financial incentives in the form of discounts, entries into sweepstakes, or other rewards. As practice has shown, market- ing messages need to be innovative, distinct, creative, and generally out- of-the-box to generate consumer interest and the intention to forward them to family and friends.

Successful viral marketing campaigns have specific characteristics and content that encourage individuals to pass along marketing and commercial messages to members of their social networks, creating an

exponentially growing potential for diffusion. Viral marketing needs to include a different, catchy message (blog, newsletter, video, and so on) in the online context, especially in the social media environment. Once released, the diffusion of the message is expected to grow organi- cally, and, just like a virus, become contagious and quickly spread among consumers. Viral marketing helps businesses build a new customer base and improve their brand image with very low costs through consumer- to-consumer communication. It is based on the concept of motivating commercial message receivers to pass the message to members of their network, creating the potential for exponential growth of the message’s capacity for diffusion and effectiveness.

Successful viral campaigns regularly produce more than 1 million impressions, with standouts that can reach tens or hundreds of times the number of impressions. Moreover, viral marketing messages often reach the mainstream media, and receive free exposure on television, radio, and in the print media (Libert and Tynski 2013). Research has also shown that customers who are acquired via viral campaigns and word-of-mouth are significantly more profitable in the long term than customers who are acquired via traditional advertising and promotion (Petersen et al. 2009).

In conclusion, we define viral marketing as online and offline market- ing activities performed to influence consumers to transmit commercial messages and content to other consumers in their social network (Petrescu and Korgaonkar 2011). Viral marketing has distinct characteristics such as word-of-mouth that make it different from other concepts. Viral mar- keting includes online marketing strategies and actions with the purpose of identifying consumers who will forward, usually in its original form, the commercial message to members of their social network, to create widespread (viral) peer-to-peer diffusion. As discussed in this book, viral marketing can take the form of different marketing tools and techniques. The most well-known and used form of viral marketing includes viral advertising, creating advertisements that are creative, entertaining, or shocking enough to persuade consumers to share them with their peers. However, there are also other tools that we analyze, such as blogs, social media posts, and updates and newsletters.

When discussing the life cycle of viruses, in the medical sense, research notes a few key and basic stages of evolution, including exposure of host,

viral entry, viral replication, viral shedding, and viral latency. Exposure of host and viral entry assume that the virus enters the host through dif- ferent ways because of favorable circumstances, such as contact with an infected host. To replicate, the virus needs to take control of the host cell’s replication mechanisms, involving factors such as susceptibility and permissibility. After control is established and the environment is set for the virus to begin making copies of itself, replication occurs quickly by the million. The shedding phase comes from the fact that, after a virus has made many copies of itself, it has usually exhausted the cell of its resources and must find a new host (Dimmock et al. 2007).

In this book we discuss the key phases and influences in the evolution of the marketing virus and focus on the online environment and social networks as potential circumstances that positively affect the exposure of the host and potential viral entry. The book then reviews key viral mar- keting elements, tools, content, and advertising appeals that can affect the host’s susceptibility and permissibility and allow the virus to “take con- trol” of consumers. We focus on factors involved in the replication and shedding phases, when the virus spreads from consumer to consumer, and discuss favoring factors such as interpersonal sources and the involvement of market mavens.

Word-of-Mouth, Buzz, and Viral

Although some researchers and marketing practitioners might use the term viral marketing interchangeably with word-of-mouth, buzz, or viral advertising, in the following we discuss the key aspects that differentiate these marketing tools and ways of communication. Some of the most used terms in the new marketing paradigm include word-of-mouth, elec- tronic word-of-mouth (or word-of-mouse), and buzz marketing.


Arndt defined word-of-mouth as oral, individual-to-individual commu- nication, related to a brand, product, or service, between a receiver and a communicator whom the receiver perceives as noncommercial (Arndt 1967). Word-of-mouth represents a consumer-to-consumer personal

conversation about products or brands, usually between peers, without the interference of commercial and marketing entities. Given the personal characteristic and the level of trust placed by consumers on what other consumers have to say, word-of-mouth is one of the most significant ways of exchanging consumption information.

Different from other types of communication, traditional word-of- mouth uses personal communication from one person to another by using different media, unpaid, voluntary, and a consequence of personal initiatives (Datta et al. 2005; Gelb and Sundaram 2002). In opposition to commercial communication, word-of-mouth embodies an informal form of transmitting information between members of the same social circle, such as family, friends, and consumers, based on personal consumer expe- riences with companies, brands, and products. Word-of-mouth is unpaid, interpersonal, traditional verbal communication between consumers representing opinions, attitudes, and experiences in relation to brands, products, and businesses.

Word-of-mouth happens naturally among consumers as a result of marketing activities, market innovations, advertising, promotions, and, in general, any type of direct consumer experiences. Practice has shown that, usually, positive word-of-mouth is the result of pleasant consumer experiences with products, brands, and organizations, whereas negative word-of-mouth is the result of consumer dissatisfaction. Word-of-mouth has a higher influence on consumers in the case of low differentiation products or brands and advertising evaluations, when individuals are more likely to evaluate and purchase a product because of information received through word-of-mouth (Larceneux 2007).

Perceived source reliability and credibility are important advantages of word-of-mouth, as the information is assumed to come from personal experience and with no financial rewards or outcomes. Moreover, word- of-mouth is an interactive communication between consumers, with no commercial intent to control the attitudes or behaviors of other individ- uals. Because of its personal nature and being an unpaid, nonsponsored form of communication, word-of-mouth has a higher impact than com- mercial strategies on information dissemination and on consumer buying behavior, in particular, in the promotion of low-differentiation and new products (Bayus 1985; Keller 2007). In this case, individuals feel more

connected to their peer who shares a personal experience, because of the “people like me” perception (Allsop et al. 2007).

Regarding the differences between word-of-mouth and viral market- ing, practice shows that traditional word-of-mouth is usually local and slow, whereas viral marketing uses the online platform, can be personal or impersonal, and has an exponential diffusion potential because of the use of social networks and social media. Another difference between viral marketing and word-of-mouth is related to cause and effect, as viral marketing has the capacity to generate word-of-mouth. Therefore, pos- itive word-of-mouth can be the effect of viral marketing (Petrescu and Korgaonkar 2011). Although word-of-mouth is as old as consumption, it too has adapted to new communication platforms and technologies. Electronic word-of-mouth is an important aspect in the new media, effi- ciently using modern tools such as e-mail, blogs, and social media.

Electronic Word-of-Mouth

Electronic word-of-mouth, or word-of-mouse (Breazeale 2009) in more modern terms, is word-of-mouth that uses the Internet, and includes positive or negative statements made by potential, actual, or former customers about a company, brand, or product (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2004). Given the use of the Internet and of social media, electronic word-of-mouth has a higher viral potential than its traditional form, because of advantages coming from the use of different communica- tion platforms, such as reviews, blogs, e-mail, social media, and chat rooms.

Because it has a rather public form and it uses online platforms, elec- tronic word-of-mouth can be less personal than its traditional form. It can be subject to more control, interaction, and intervention from businesses, in particular, in the case of reviews and customer evaluations. As a result of its online characteristics, consumers now have access to the opinions of the members of their social circle and to online reviews and opinions from experts or unknown individuals. Although it provides confidential- ity for reviewers and has the advantage of online diffusion, it can be sub- jected to more commercial and business control or financially rewarded “consumer” communications.

Viral marketing includes activities performed by managers and mar- keters to create and transmit viral commercial messages, while electronic word-of-mouth can be one of the effects of a viral marketing strategy. The result is consumer-to-consumer communication that is encouraged by businesses.

Buzz Marketing

Buzz marketing refers to “the amplification of initial marketing efforts by third parties through their passive or active influence” (Thomas 2004, 64). It includes all marketing efforts with the purpose of identifying consumers to transmit information related to new products or brand experiences. Regarding its relationship to viral marketing, there are a few differences encountered in research and practice. While viral marketing applies to the electronic media and especially social media, buzz marketing can use different platforms and tools, including traditional word-of-mouth or physical interaction (Swanepoel et al. 2009). Consumer buzz, or wide- spread market communication about a certain commercial topic, can be an output or consequence of viral marketing. In this case, consumer buzz is based on a commercial message from a business, is the output of a mar- keting activity that leads to communication from consumer to consumer. Consumer buzz can include professional expert opinions, including mate- rially motivated and user-generated content by consumers.

The main characteristics of viral marketing that make it a distinct strategy compared to traditional marketing campaigns and other modern marketing terms and tools, are:

  • Initial posting of the marketing message by the brand on a variety of online platforms.
  • The transmission of the message from user to user.
  • Distinct appeals and entertainment qualities that make con- sumers like the message and forward it to their social network.
  • Creative, provocative, and out-of-the-box content of the viral marketing message.
  • Use of the advantages, diffusion potential, and low-costs of social networks.

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