Viral Marketing on the Internet
Part 4. Advertising and Integrated Communication
Published Online: 15 DEC 2010
Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. All rights reserved.
Wiley International Encyclopedia of Marketing
How to Cite
Eckler, P. and Rodgers, S. 2010. Viral Marketing on the Internet. Wiley International Encyclopedia of Marketing.
- Published Online: 15 DEC 2010
Viral marketing applies traditional word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing to the online environment. Much confusion exists about its actual definition, as the terms viral marketing, stealth marketing, buzz marketing, and viral advertising have been used interchangeably (Golan and Zaidner, 2008). The authors define viral marketing as a broad array of online WOM strategies designed to encourage both online and peer-to-peer communication about a brand, product or service (p. 961). These include, but are not limited to, viral videos, email messages, use of online social networks and online forums, text messaging, interactive microsites and online games, blogs, podcasts, and so on. Viral advertising, on the other hand, is a subset of this larger umbrella and is defined as unpaid peer-to-peer communication of provocative content originating from an identified sponsor using the Internet to persuade or influence an audience to pass along the content to others (Porter and Golan, 2006).
The term viral marketing is credited to venture capitalists Steve Jurvetson and Tim Draper who used viral to describe the marketing techniques behind Hotmail's growth in 1996. The catalyst for success was the promotional tag on each outgoing email, which turned subscribers into company salespeople who took the message to their own WOM networks (Jurvetson and Draper, 1997). Thus, the viral message spread organically with spatial and network locality, much like a virus, and garnered 12 million subscribers in 1.5 years for less than $500 000 ( Jurvetson and Draper, 1997). Since then, viral campaigns have become increasingly popular.
3 Unique Features
Unique to viral marketing is its focus on the message, not the product. Thus, the brand is often secondary in viral videos, as they aim to look more like entertainment pieces and less like branded commercials. The success of a viral campaign can be attributed to its emotional or entertainment value rather than information about the brand or product (MindComet, 2006). Appeals related to humor, sexuality, nudity, and violence are more common as compared to television ads (Porter and Golan, 2006). More extreme appeals are often needed because viral ads must prompt “forwarding” behavior not just awareness or liking, as with traditional advertising.
In viral campaigns, initial exposure is achieved through seeding, which “plants” the message in selected consumers, who then spread it to their social networks. Seeding decisions depend on the target audience for each campaign (MindComet, 2006).
Similar to other marketing tools, viral marketing has unique benefits and drawbacks. Advantages include the following:
reduced cost of promotion because of free peer-to-peer distribution and eliminated media buys;
increased credibility due to friends' endorsement (Chiu et al., 2007);
increased visibility as messages cut across media clutter (MindComet, 2006);
decreased interruption as viewers choose the time and place to view viral messages (MindComet, 2006); and
improved format flexibility as messages can take various forms.
Viral marketing disadvantages include the following:
reduced control of the marketer, as a viral campaign relies on consumers to spread it;
increased reliance on consumers' motivation to spread the message for campaign success;
increased risk of negative reactions as viral ads may become too unconventional.
Effective viral marketing depends on consumers' forwarding behavior; therefore, understanding consumer motivations is vital, as is research on the content features that motivate consumers and the consumers most appropriate for initial seeding. As with other marketing tools, viral approaches must be integrated into the Marketing Mix and typically are not a standalone promotional strategy.
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