What is Viral Marketing?

As the name suggests, it’s a way of spreading your marketing message from person to person, rather like the flu virus is passed on. You give the germ to, say 5 friends/colleagues/family members, who in turn each pass on the bug to 5 more (5×5=25), who then spread it to another 5 (25×5=125) and so on until after just 8 levels, you reach the staggering figure of 1,953,125. 

The classic example of viral marketing is Hotmail.com, one of the first free Web-based e-mail services. The strategy is simple: 

1. Give away free e-mail addresses and services

2. Attach a simple tag at the bottom of every user’s email message sent: “Get your private, free email at http://www.hotmail.com” and,

3. Then stand back while people e-mail to their own network of friends and associates

4. Who see the message signs up for their own free e-mail service, and then

6. Propel the message still wider to their own ever-increasing circles of friends and associates 

What makes marketing ‘Viral’? 

A viral marketing plan usually has some or all of the following basic elements: 

1. Provides a product or service free 

2. Makes for easy transfer of the message to others 

3. Allows easy growth from small to very large 

4. Exploits common motivations and behaviours 

5. Uses existing communication networks 

Let’s look at each of these in turn. 

1.Provides a product or service free 

“Free” is the most persuasive word in marketing. Most viral marketing campaigns give away a product or service to get people’s interest. Free email service, free software, free information etc. Then, when you have their attention, when you have their trust, sell them something. Hit them with a sales pitch first, chances are they won’t be interested. 

2. Makes for easy transfer of the message to others 

Viral marketing works so well on the internet because quick communication has become so easy and cheap. Your marketing message must be simple so that it can be passed on without losing its effectiveness. The simpler and shorter the better, remember the hotmail example: “Get your private, free email at http://www.hotmail.com.” 

3. Allows easy growth from small to very large 

To grow rapidly, the necessary infrastructure must be available. The best viral marketing makes use of the resources of others. This was the only weakness in the hotmail example, the service required its own mailservers.   

4. Exploits common motivations and behaviours 

What motivates people to use certain products or services on the web, and to recommend these to their friends? The practicality of a product, sure, but more than that – the desire to be popular, thought of as cool etc. Greed also motivates, hence the power of the word ‘free’! 

5. Uses existing communication networks 

Most people have around 5 to 12 people in their close network of friends, family and work colleagues. On the internet, nearly everyone has email addresses in their contacts list, and favourite websites stored in their web browser. Utilise this fact in your marketing campaign. For example, when you give away a free product, ask the recipient to provide the email addresses of others who may be interested. 


Viral marketing costs very little, in fact if you go to the right places it can be free. Given that, and the huge potential benefits, your marketing campaign really should catch the viral marketing bug!

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