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Viral Marketing, an Oxymoron?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, September 6 2007

Seth Godin credits me, I think (how many other Micahs does he know?), for sending him a link to news report about a JupiterResearch study that found that most viral campaigns fail because they only work 15% of the time. Umm, <cough>, I didn't send him that link, but his post prompts me to add my two cents and a link to another piece, by Duncan Watts and Jonah Peretti, on the Harvard Business Review's site.

First cent: I agree with Seth, you can't market something virally in the sense of getting people to share something by word-of-mouth/email/blog that they're not inherently into. The Jupiter study notes that most marketers aim their campaigns at influentials as if those people can somehow, by force of will, get their peers to pay attention to something. Seth writes, "True viral marketing happens not when the marketer plans for it or targets bloggers or skateboarders or pirates with goatees, but when the item/service/event is worth talking about." [Emphasis in the original.] Amen.

I got into this argument with some colleagues not long ago, when I mentioned how it appeared to me that the iPhone and the Harry Potter book had sold themselves (in part, I think, because they tapped into some deep yearnings for transcendent technology, or magic, becoming real in our lives). They insisted that in both cases, Apple and Scholastic had spent millions on marketing their new products. True, you have to design the look and feel and roll out the goods with ads, etc. But when millions of people are moved to talk about something on their own, that, in my view, isn't marketing in the old sense of spending money to get people to buy something they might otherwise not be interested in.

Second cent: But, then, does it make sense to talk about something called "viral marketing"? Maybe we're using the term "viral" in too literal a sense. That's the point that Watts and Peretti make in their article. They note that it's a very rare product or idea that spreads in a truly viral sense; that is, where the number of people affected rises on an ongoing basis:

The standard viral-marketing model is based on an analogy with the spread of infectious disease. It assumes that one starts with a seed of individuals who spread a message by infecting their friends, where the expected number of new infectious people generated by each existing one is called the “reproduction rate,” or R. When R is greater than 1, each person who gets the message will, on average, spread it to more than one additional person, who then does the same thing, and so on, leading to exponential growth in the number of people who receive it—an epidemic. By contrast, viral messages with an R of less than 1 are generally considered failures. That’s because purely viral campaigns, like disease outbreaks, typically start with a small number of seed cases and quickly burn themselves out unless their R exceeds the epidemic threshold, or tipping point, of 1.

Their point, which I think is logically valid, is that a message campaign that doesn't actually go viral can still be effective if you start with a large seed group. That's because even if only half the people who receive your initial message pass it on to one friend, you will still reach a much larger number than your initial list of recipients. For example, "an initial seed of 10,000 people would pass it to 5,000 new recipients, and those 5,000 would pass it to a further 2,500, and so on, eventually reaching a total of 20,000 people—twice the number that would have been reached by the traditional campaign."

That leads Watts and Peretti to argue for "big-seed" campaigns as a way of dealing with the fact that most messages aren't interesting enough to go viral. But something about their argument leaves me dry. In effect, they're justifying the value of a big list, even the value of spamming people, because some percentage will respond. The exciting thing about the notion of a "viral" message is that sense that it spreads because it actually matters to us in some way.

How does all this relate to the current election? Well, only obliquely, I'll admit. But so far 2008 is NOT the year of the viral campaign. We had "Vote Different/Hillary 1984" and the "Obama Girl" videos, which definitely spread virally. And, for a little while, Obama had his "Million Strong" movement on Facebook. And Ron Paul has something going for him, though judging from how demand for him appears to be flattening out on Eventful.com, I'm not so sure his movement is continuing to grow at a fast pace. Are we growing an immunity to political messages? Or, as Seth would suggest, are the messages just not very compelling?