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Understanding Viral Marketing: An Emerging Marketing Strategy

Posted on April 3, 2011 in Business and Economy


By Ankita Verma:

Spring of 2007 saw Northern Europe covered with posters claiming ‘Zero is more’ , ‘ Zero will give you life as it should be’. The posters also contained a date ‘April 1st’ and a website link www.zeroismore.xx. It created an unprecedented level of curiosity in people, the internet was swamped with people trying to derive meaning out of the cryptic posters. It was later revealed to be a campaign for Coca-Cola’s new flavour “Zero“. While there was a geneal disappointment, the campaign in itself was hugely successful and Coke was short-supplied with the trademark black bottle caps of the Zero bottles following it.

Viral marketing is the new buzzword doing the rounds in the marketing circles. It is a strategy where people become the medium through with a marketing message is passed along. It usually refers to marketing on the Internet. Viral marketing is so named because of the tendency for messages to use “hosts” to spread themselves rapidly, like a biological virus. With the all-pervasiveness of social networking sites like facebook and orkut, viral marketing has gained a lot more prominence. It is being so actively promulgated because it provides a few very obvious advantages over conventional advertising. It is cheap, effective and easy to implement.

The various methods of Viral Marketing-

Chain Letters– A small message at the bottom of a mail, urging the recipient to pass it along to their friends. The success of this method depends largely on whether the mail is engrossing enough for a person to forward it to his/her friends

Stealth Marketing– As the name suggests, it is a form of undercover marketing. The target audience is naive, and not consciously part of the viral campaign. Using clues, graffiti, internet treasure hunts, the marketer tries to intrigue the general audience into becoming a part of the campaign. A famous strategy to boost popcorn sales in the theatres in 50’s was to insert a tiny clip of ‘Eat Popcorn’ in the middle of the movie. Inadvertently, it boosted popcorn sales. There are several ethical questions raised against this form of marketing.

Buzz Marketing– A practise often used to market movies prior or just after its release. Using self-created controversies surrounding lead actors, this technique has now lost it’s novelty. From link-ups to break-ups, we have seen it all.
Viral Marketing is itself fraught with challenges. There is always the scope of misrepresentation.

Also a brand would prefer to be associated with a certain image and limit itself to that section of the audience only. In viral marketing, one can’t effectively control who is spreading the message; it is possible the brand may get associated with an undesirable image.

In some cases, the company just overdoes the controversy aspect of the campaign. Case in point: Calvin Klein , in 1995 released a set of over-the- sexually explicit advertisements. It featured videos which resembled screen tests for low-budget skin flicks. It showed small kids being interviewed for a movie role and being asked provocative questions about their physiques. It created quite an uproar, as Calvin Klein faced a plethora of paedophile allegations, which even prompted the FBI to investigate the company. The campaign was in extremely bad taste and the company was forced to withdraw the ads with an apology. Another possible pitfall in a viral marketing campaign is offering a purely financial-based offer. It can lead to a ‘too good to be true’ kind of feeling, and might not be passed along at all.

Alex Tew came up with a genius way to pay for his education. He conceived a website, which consisted of a million pixels arranged in a 1000×1000 pixel grid, and then he sold each pixel for one dollar. Each block held a link to the advertiser’s homepage. This insane, quirky concept, thanks to a well-defined publicity campaign too, faced a media onslaught and the advertisers got great value, which included names like Yahoo!, The Golden Palace etc. Ingenious, isn’t it?