Viral Marketing - A Viral Debate.
Hugh has posted today about an ongoing debate about viral marketing. Having started to post a comment, I ended up turning it into this post
For me, a major problem is that just as it was wrong to turn the word brand into a verb, it's been wrong to turn viral into a noun (and the same established parties are guilty in both cases). To do so suggests that creating a viral is the goal when the goal is actually the spreading not the creation.
Thus, Doc Searl's snowball, which I had not encountered before, sounds to me like a case of throwing lots of things against a wall and seeing what sticks and thus deep down is quite redolent of a mass marketing ethos. Some may spread and become viral, but I think that the snowball per se is not.
Indeed the fact that they are evolving may prevent them from being truly viral. In real life, viruses do of course mutate, but they mutate and then spread. I'm no biology expert, but I don't think they mutate while spreading. Perhaps an idea has to be fully formed before it can go viral (and then inspire imitative mutations, spoofs and variants which add to the spread)?
By contrast, Hugh has been pimping his online network in a distinctly viral way - and let me stress immediately that I do not intend to diminish or demean his achievements by using that verb. His work on behalf of various clients has been qualitatively superior to the classic PR email to lists of influencers precisely because his network has not be culled from directories. Rather it has been established (or maybe, given its accidental nature, it's more appropriate to say it has coalesced) over a number of years. It comprises people who on a consistent basis gave credence to what he wrote and/or enjoyed his cartoons and that social cohesion gives his voice potency.
The spread of his viruses are aided by his identity (we're back to classic Godin and Gladwell territory here), so I agree with his premise about the sender, but I think that is neither sufficient nor indeed essential to ensure success.
It's not sufficient because anyone with a social network can post an idea, but for it to spread the initial recipients have to agree with it and then be the type of person who wants to pass it on. We all have experience with blogposts when readers no doubt correctly tut tut and say "he/she's lost it today". That's why, in the commercial arena, Hugh has been very selective about the formed messages he's projecting - there are not endless permutations relating to numerous clients because throwing stuff against the wall is not the way to go.
It's not essential because we can all come across viruses by chance - we may open an email from some stranger who is on a mutual friend's address list or we could be idly browsing YouTube. For me, this emphasies that the key factor is the content not the transmitter. In medicine, after all, many viruses spread, but it's the nature of the pathogen that determines the impact. A sniffly friend might give us an illness but unless he/she and we are very unfortunate we will recover quickly and forget about it.
In marketing terms, the equivalent is that at the heart of something that goes viral is a potent idea, a great product perhaps or a great piece of social interaction. It's not a great viral, it's a great "something else" that goes viral.