Spreading the Virus

Making the most out of your viral marketing



When a trusted friend, officemate, relative, or acquaintance recommends a product or service to us, we normally won’t hesitate to try that product or service at the first opportunity. And when someone has had a very good experience with your product or service, he or she would most likely turn around and tell as many as 10 people about that good experience. Conversely, however, they would likely tell as many people if their experience with your product or service had been bad or negative.

The phenomenon involved in situations like these is called word-of-mouth (WOM) or viral marketing, which has been described as a promotional method “of customers, by customers, and for customers.” When it brings positive results, such as when your loyal and satisfied customers actually brag about how good your business is, viral marketing is the ultimate dream of every entrepreneur.



There are several ways of doing viral marketing, with each variation operating for different reasons by using different methods to bring in different outcomes. Whatever the variation, however, they largely have the same mechanism at their core—a means for providing customers with quality experiences and for encouraging people to pass the message along.

The entrepreneur can consider using any of the five most common types of viral marketing, namely pass-along, buzz marketing, incentive viral, undercover marketing, and a user-managed database.

Pass-along. This is the type often used by users who do their business on the Internet. It consists of a short note that’s automatically attached to the footer of every electronic message when it is sent out to its recipient. A good example of this pass-along viral spot is the one being used by Hotmail.com. It comes in the form of a tag line at the bottom of every outgoing email that reads “Get your free, private email at http://www.hotmail.com…” The promotion operates on autopilot, with the message automatically spread out by all Hotmail.com users when they use the mail server to send their mail. Through this simple expedient, Hotmail.com was able to rapidly grow a huge subscriber base.

Buzz marketing. This viral type involves getting mass media celebrities to discuss their experience with your product or service, preferably on a provocative but always positive note. The idea is to deliberately create noise and buzz about the product or service among the readers, viewers, or listeners. For instance, Oprah and her choice of Wacoal created buzz on how to alter a woman’s figure minus the expensive surgery.

Incentive viral. This scheme gives people an incentive to pass a viral message or viral object along. To get the reward, the passer of the message must get the user to take the desired action. This type of viral marketing is the primary tool of multi-level marketing companies, some of which have grown from nothing to multibillion-dollar businesses because of some astute use of an incentive viral. Incentivizing viral messages latches onto a force that’s even more effective than broadcast television, yet one that’s far less expensive.

Undercover marketing. This is the most interesting type of viral marketing. It occurs when people don’t know they are being marketed to. Such a campaign needs to be camouflaged as a piece of news, without obvious incitements to link or pass along. Undercover marketing is perhaps the most difficult type of viral spot. It has to be made to appear simply trendy or curious, it should not seem to be asking an individual to forward them, and it should create the impression that nothing in particular is being promoted. This, for instance, is exactly what Canon Inc. did when it sent out couples to the field to pretend to be Japanese tourists politely requesting passersby to take their photos. They would hand a target passerby the newest Canon camera, and this target passerby in the process would subconsciously learn how easy, smart, and fun it is to use the camera.

User-managed database. This refers to a database of prospects that a user generates with the help of online service providers. By inviting other people to join and participate in the user’s group, the user creates a viral, self-propagating chain of contacts that grows naturally, thus encouraging others to sign up as well. Two good examples of this self-propagating type of viral chain are online dating services and the highly popular site Friendster.com.


Viral marketing should be useful particularly to start-up entrepreneurs because of its ability to obtain a large number of interested people at low cost and because of its extensive reach, high credibility, and high efficiency. However, vital marketing has several downsides: the difficulty in measuring the reach of failed campaigns, the lack of control, the risk that the viral message might be perceived as spam, and the limited possibility for segmentation. Since viral marketing depends on people not too familiar with your branding strategies, it is very important to carefully develop a message that’s strong enough to prevent misinterpretations of your brand.

Particularly on the Internet, you should avoid using purely money as an incentive for your viral marketing. This is to avoid the likelihood that your message would be spammed across the web. When you offer money as incentive, most of the time your message would be perceived as ‘too-good-to-be-true’, and you wouldn’t get good results that way. So if you wish to offer incentives to prospective participants to get immediate results, use incentives like discounts or gifts for message recipients instead, or perhaps rewards for those who make referrals.

That way, you preserve the credibility of your message, for the best viral campaigns work on the principle of value, not greed. And since the strength of viral marketing is its credibility, you must avoid being perceived as a spammer, and you must make an effort as well to find appropriate triggers to ensure that customers will function as advocates for the brand, rather than as spammers themselves.

The vital in viral marketing

While it has come under strong criticism from consumers and privacy advocates because of their concern over unsolicited messages, viral marketing remains a good alternative to expensive traditional marketing. Should you decide to use it, you can avoid negative reactions by making sure of using the principles of viral marketing very tactfully. This is because viral marketing is not only about getting someone to interact with a message; it also needs to be really viral—meaning that it needs to have a pass-along effect.

One good example of viral marketing is Bring-A-Friend or Refer-A-Friend promotion, which offers unlimited calls and SMS within the network for a flat monthly or weekly rate. It takes advantage of a natural human motivation, using its own subscribers to create the buzz and recruit new customers. For their own benefit, the subscribers work autopilot to convince friends, relatives, and family members to subscribe to the same mobile phone service. By encouraging others to do so, they can fully maximize the potential of experiencing longer—if not unlimited—call time for themselves.

How to build a successful WOM Campaign

  • Create the Buzz. Create value-driven news using your best customers. Involve them in the process of making and delivering your products or services. This way, it creates positive feelings that lead them to talk about your business.
  • WOM is very much about the “WIIFM” principle: “What’s in it for me.” Offer an incentive to someone to tell others about you.
  • Response rates increase dramatically when users can see that a message is coming from a friend, and it brings instant credibility to your message. If you’re using e-mail as courier of your message, insert the sender’s name in the subject line, like “Juan de la Cruz thinks you will like to avail the exclusive membership fee…”
  • Get ready for the takeoff. If your viral campaign shoots up towards success, your systems have to be ready to handle the traffic and transactions.
  • If you want to be able to measure the effectiveness of your viral marketing campaign, you may want to dissect what transpired that led to the success of your respondents.




 Originally published in Entrepreneur Magazine


The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth: How to Trigger Exponential Sales Through Runaway Word of Mouth by George Silverman
Marketing Management (International Edition) by Philip Kotler
The Six Simple Principles of Viral Marketing by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

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