More Hot Stuff on Viral Marketing

By Rob Stokes on 2004/02/11

One of the best examples of Internet viral marketing is Hotmail. When the company first started, they were the only one of their kind to offer a free email service. To promote this, they included a tagline line at the bottom of each email their users sent out which offered a free email address by simply clicking on the link. Results were phenomenal. Spending less than $500k on marketing, advertising, and promotion, Hotmail went from company launch to 12 million users in less than a year and a half - eventually to be taken over by Microsoft.

The real question is, what makes viral marketing a success? According to Dr Ralph Wilson ( a successful viral marketing strategy:

  1. Gives away valuable products and services:

    This could include free information, products, software, or services. If marketers can generate interest from something free, they are sure to profit in the long run.

  2. Provides for effortless transfer to others:

    Viral marketing works famously on the Internet because instant communication is so easy and inexpensive.

  3. Scales easily from small to very large:

    To allow the virus to spread like wildfire, the transmission mechanism must be scalable from small to very large. This is especially important if the host is required to transmit the virus (as in Hotmail's case). If the host is not required to transmit the virus, control and tracking become bigger issues than scalability, although many marketers would argue that the more you try to control a viral campaign, the smaller that campaign will be.

  4. Exploits common motivations and behaviours:

    A clever viral marketing plan must be appealing to pass on. This is often done by using common human motivations such as the need to be popular or accepted by one's peer group, or simply the desire to get stuff for free.

  5. Utilizes existing communications networks:

    People typically have a network of between 8 and 12 close friends and family that surround them. The viral message should be placed into existing communications between this group, such as email or SMS, which can then be rapidly multiplied its dispersion.

  6. Takes advantage of other's resources:

    By taking advantage of resources other than your own, scalability becomes less of an issue. For example, an email with a catchy viral attachment intended for forwarding will take advantage of the web's plethora of mail servers and will therefore not tax your own. Once again however, by using other's resources, control and tracking of the campaign becomes more difficult than if the virus is spread from a central source.

  7. (Our number 7): It must carry the brand appropriately:

    Many marketers make the big mistake of getting so carried away with making a fun piece of entertainment that the brand becomes an afterthought. Successful viral marketing incorporates the brand into the message while still maintaining a consistency of the values that that brand embodies.

So there you have it, the first part of our viral marketing bumper edition. We'll be back next month to talk more about different applications of viral marketing, specifically "in the wild" and controlled viral campaigns.