Why Viral Marketing May Not Be So Infectious in Social Media

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Do you remember chain letters. Back when I was a school girl – many years ago – every so often a chain letter would materialise as if by magic. I was never quite sure how they found their way into our consciousness. Sometimes the content would be threatening but often they promised good fortune in return for copying out the letter five times and distributing it to 5 friends, who would have to do the same. This in its simplest form is viral marketing. Getting an audience to pass on a message to their connections, who in turn pass it on to theirs.

In the world of online communication viral marketing is a lot easier than having to copy (and I literally copied as we didn’t have access to a photocopier) a letter five times. Viral marketing is a form of marketing that involves the uncontrolled spread of a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in terms of the message’s influence and exposure.

When it comes to traffic, it is every business owner’s dream to “go viral”. The instances where a viral campaign has caused ripples across the cyber space time continuum are what businesses with an online presence hope to emulate. For example Martha Payne, the school girl who became an internet hit after blogging about her school dinners and Susan Boyle who rose to stardom when the video of her audition for Britain’s Got Talent was viewed by tens of millions of viewers on YouTube.

Viral marketing is a function of the viral substrate or the underlying communication medium. Clearly, the easier it is to communicate with other people, the more likely messages will to go viral. With modern technologies like email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, text messaging, etc. communication requires minimal effort.

One of the main advantages of getting others to pass on marketing messages is that those people become your advertising team, and of course, this is all done for free. As a result viral marketing is held up as a valuable, cost effective method for businesses to attract a lot of interest in their products and services in a relatively short space of time. For those looking for a way to get traffic to their website, viral marketing appears to be the answer… or is it?

Going back to my schoolgirl experience, what never seemed to happen is that the letters got passed on ad infinitum. What tended to happen is a few (perhaps more gullible) people made the effort of copying out the letter five times; however most only managed once and the majority didn’t bother at all. With natural viral spread, this is what tends to happen with your marketing message.

According to Seth Godin in his blog article Elephant Man, real viral growth happens in the following ways:

  1. Someone or something amplifies your idea, for example they guest star on a national chat show and talk about your idea (back in the days of the Oprah show, her book club item had the power to turn unheard of authors into best sellers overnight!) Or you have ludicrous amounts of money to spend on ads.
  2. The idea spreads with fidelity i.e. one person really does tell the five and those five tell another five and there’s not a lot of leakage. This does happen although it is rare: all the planets need to be aligned in the right configuration in order for it to work this way! Seth Godin cites Starbuck’s as an example of this phenomena.
  3. Your idea is actually viral in the epidemiological sense i.e. one person doesn’t tell five they tell 500. Blogging works in this way because it is lots of small amplifiers working in unison.
  4. Your idea takes a very long time and spreads slowly throughout the years. The growth of religions followed this path in the past; however in our rapid fire world this is now quite rare.

If you are looking to use viral marketing techniques as part of your marketing strategy to get traffic to your website, it’s worth noting that now that everyone is doing it, there is a hierarchy to viral marketing tactics. Before the content explosion, it was the quality of your content that determined whether it got shared. This is still true – great content is much more likely to be shared. However, with hundreds of thousands of people producing good quality content; offering fabulous free e-books and wanting to guest blog on other peoples websites to get their message across, the system is at saturation point. Your readers may love your content, however they most likely “love” your competitors’ content too.

From the point of view of your viral ambassadors, sharing information now becomes problematic because there is so much to share and nobody wants to be the person who is clogging up their friends’ in boxes or has a social media feed with nothing but other people’s articles posted on it. This means that the fidelity rate of blogging decreases – you still get shared but less frequently and the benchmark for ‘killer’ content goes up.

If you’re not a social icon or a major brand, to be effective in viral marketing today, you need a campaign that will amplify your voice. The consequence of this is that you will need to either spend a sizeable amount of money promoting your viral marketing message in order to kick-start your campaign; or find the people who are major amplifiers, i.e. the new “Oprahs” and persuade them to promote it for you. In other words you need a media marketing campaign.

Effective viral campaigns now needs to be supported by traditional media marketing. To “go viral” the media has to “cough” so that more individuals are affected. Media amplification has credibility. Interestingly, stories which are readily available through the mainstream media have a high share rate; people want to be seen to be part of the media buzz.

Personally I believe it was ever thus in viral marketing. Rational deduction would suggest that there were behind the scenes hands at work promoting the Susan Boyle video. A major TV franchise is hardly likely to leave such publicity to chance.

Lilach Bullock
This monthly Social Media Traffic Generation column is contributed by Lilach Bullock. Lilach is highly regarded on the world speaker circuit and has graced Forbes and Number 10 Downing Street with her presence. In a nutshell, she’s a hugely connected and highly influential serial entrepreneur – the embodiment of Digital Intelligence. Listed in Forbes as one of the top 20 women social media power influencers and likewise as one of the top social media power influencers, she is one of the most dynamic personalities in the social media market, she actively leverages ethical online marketing for her clients and for Comms Axis. A business owner, social media consultant, internet mentor and genuine digital guru, Lilach is consulted by journalists and regularly quoted in newspapers, business publications and marketing magazines. +Lilach Bullock
Lilach Bullock


Co-Founder of @CommsAxis with @danpurvis. #Digital #marketing, #socialmedia & #content agency. Get in touch today! Proud mum. #Zumba Tweets are mine
Content is King! Read How to Create Content That Will Get Lots of Shares on #SocialMedia http://t.co/yoAgSq4gyd - 2 hours ago
Lilach Bullock
Social Tools Summit


  1. says

    There’s not enough people writing about this. Instead, we have marketers on stages telling every man, woman and child with a couple hundred Twitter followers how easy it is to amplify their message through social media.

    @LDRK, it’s not so much an issue of who YOU follow, but whether or not the people who follow you have any attention left for the content you publish. Social media can certainly be compared to a Ponzi scheme — particularly if you buy into what many of the charlatans are saying.

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