Viral Marketing - Reaching out to Millions

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on February 06, 2015

Marketing by interrupting people isn’t cost-effective anymore. You can’t afford to seek out people and send them unwarranted marketing messages, in large groups and hope that someone will send you money.

Viral Marketing has become one of the most sought after marketing strategies in recent times. It is technology that has given a boost to this most ancient form of marketing, otherwise known as WOM (Word of Mouth) marketing. This article gives an understanding of Viral Marketing, the elements that contribute to its success and also its shortcomings.

Image Courtesy:, Master isolated images 

Emergence of Viral Marketing:

It is almost impossible to pinpoint when viral marketing originated. The concept has been around since time immemorial in the form of word-of-mouth marketing, the world’s first marketing technique. However, with the advancement of technology the definition of viral marketing has changed over the years. Today, internet based word-of-mouth marketing has come to be termed as viral marketing or to a lesser extent “Word-of-Mouse”. The internet has managed to catapult word-of-mouth marketing to new heights by improving communication and getting people and communities closer. Further, technology has enabled viral commercials to take the form of funny video clips, interactive flash games, images or even text.

It is believed that the term “Viral Marketing” was first coined in 1997 by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) in its netscape newsletter to describe hotmail’s e-mail practice of appending advertisements for themselves to outgoing mails from their users. In his article “What is Viral Marketing?” Steve claims that the original inspiration came from the pattern of adoption of hotamail with its launch in 1996. The end result was that all Hotmail users became involuntary salespersons by simply using the product. Due to its tremendous success, Hotmail is now considered as the pioneer of viral marketing.

Douglas Holt explains the meteoric rise of viral marketing as a marketing strategy, in how brand becomes Icons, “….As the name suggests, viral branding focuses on the paths of public influence: how non-company actors influence customers to value the brand. The viral approach is a compendium of ideas rooted in the classic ideas about public influence – diffusion of innovation, word-of-mouth and public relations that responded to two major shifts in the 1990’s, the increased cynicism towards mass marketing and the emergence of the internet.

Defining Viral Marketing:

Viral Marketing has been defined differently by different people. According to Dr. Ralph F. Wilson , the former editor of Web Marketing Today, “Viral marketing describes any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing messages to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the messages exposure and influence like viruses, such strategies take advantage of rapid multiplication to explode the message to thousands to millions”.

Theresa Howard in her article, “viral advertising spreads through marketing plans” states that, “viral marketing is today’s electronic equivalent of old-fashioned word-of-mouth. It is a marketing strategy that involves creating an online message that’s novel or entertaining enough to prompt consumers to pass it on to others, spreading the message across the web like a virus at no cost to the advertisers”

The above definition helps us understand viral marketing in today’s context.

Key Elements of Viral Marketing:

As in any medium of communication, be it print or TV, a few key factors determine the success of viral marketing strategy. The six main elements necessary for a successful strategy are:

1. Giving away valuable products or services “Free” is a very powerful term in a marketer’s vocabulary. Hence, giving away products and services for free is bound to generate a lot of interest, that too quickly.

2. Marketing message must be simplified to enable easy and quick transferability.

3. The viral model must be scalable from small to very large. This means that the mail servers must be designed to take the load of viral spread without crashing.

4. Marketing strategy should be designed to exploit common human motivation and behaviours such as greed, being cool etc.

5. Its campaign should capitalize an existing communication networks, i.e., tap on the network of family, friends, acquaintance, etc. to each customer.

6. User other resources to build your customer base. This is possible through the use of affiliate programme, placing of articles by authors in their websites, etc.


In spite of its stupendous success, many are sceptical about viral marketing as a marketing tool. The most popular criticism against it is that firms let others do the marketing for them, thus handling over control to others. This might dilute the brand. Further, the more the companies try to plan and control their viral marketing strategy, the less likely they are to succeed. Instances of viral marketing attempts backfiring are not uncommon. Sony hired an outside agency to create a humorous PSP site for the holidays. However, the tongue-in-cheek nature of the site, did not go down well with the public. Sony was accused of underestimating gamer’s intelligence with the campaign following which they were forced to stop the campaign and get the site altered.

Another trait of viral marketing that could prove discouraging is the lead time. As with real viruses, which don’t become epidemics till they reach a critical mass, the effects of viral marketing too will be visible only when it reaches a certain level of scale and visibility. Thus, viral marketing takes time and so the marketers using this strategy are advised patience.


Shortcomings aside, viral marketing seems to become on a roll. The entertainment sector is credited as being one of many earliest to cash in on viral tactics. Though many firms attempted the magic formula, and some of them did fail, the charm of viral techniques continued. Viral Marketing has helped in turning films like Spiderman and Transformers, into blockbuster. Even as viral advertising and marketing gets mainstream some be concerned that with over-exposure, the cool issue would vanish and its effects could taper off.

This article has been authored by Neerja Kulkarni from Symbiosis Centre for Information technology


1. Seth Godin, Unleashing the Ideavirus,

2. Steve Jurvetson, “What is viral Marketing”, Red Herring May 1, 2000,

3. Ralph F. Wilson, “The six simple principles of Viral Marketing”,2005,

4. Theresa Howard, “Viral Advertising Spreads Through Marketing plans”, USA Today, June 22, 2005,

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