Social Networks and Viral Marketing

I'm on a joke list-- surprise! I don't know anyone with an email account who isn't on a joke list. I get jokes from people in all walks of life. Some I've never met, yet I have excellent online relationships with them, some I've known in person for years. That distinction is important for what comes later in this column. If you're reading this online, you're probably on some kind of joke list too.

Recently, I received a joke with a link that lent itself perfectly to two areas of research. The first (just completed) deals with determining value in wikis and blogs; the second concerns viral marketing.

What is viral marketing?
iMedia Connection's Media Strategies Editor Jim Meskauskas wrote a two part column on viral marketing almost a year ago, and it remains a good source on the topic. Wikipedia has a good and relatively succinct definition as well. The Meskauskas piece is economically oriented and provides online examples; the Wikipedia piece mentions the term's biological origins.

Meskauskas wrote that viral campaigns are really online versions of word-of-mouth (WOM) advertising. If you remember the "Jesus Christ Superstar" lyric, "What's the buzz, Tell me what's a' happening," then you know what WOM and viral campaigns are all about. Meskauskas offered four items that good viral marketing campaigns share:

  • Entertainment: the marketing is entertaining.
  • Utility: what is being marketed is something the reader can use.
  • Palpable reward: the marketing provides instant gratification.
  • Uniqueness: the marketing is like nothing the reader has ever seen.

He also describes the difference between frictionless and active viral marketing campaigns. Frictionless occurs when the audience spreads the good word via usage, such as Hotmail. Active viral marketing occurs when the audience spreads the word via actively recruiting non-audience members into the audience.

Meskauskas doesn't quite phrase things that way, and this is where NextStage's research might extend the concept a bit.

Spam, joke lists and viral marketing
Joke lists, spam and viral marketing rely on social networks in order to function. I've written about different aspects of social networks in previous columns (Brand Loyalty and The X Funnel). Let's compare Meskauskas' four bullets as they apply to 1) spam (something nobody wants) and 2) jokes from known associates (something people willingly accept and often look forward to). We'll see how the rules of viral marketing make each one what it is.

Joke lists address all four of Meskauskas' bullets. They provide entertainment; there is instant gratification, hence a palpable reward, and they offer the individual something they've never seen before. I'll hold off on their utilitarian aspect for now.

Joke lists are also examples of active viral campaigns and the social networks that empower them. Someone read the joke or followed the link because it was sent to them; they laughed; they then sent it on to me; I laughed, and now I'm now sending it on to you in the hopes that you'll laugh.

Spam doesn't hit any of Meskauskas' four bullets... or does it? James McKim, chairman of SwANH: the Software Association of New Hampshire, says that, "spam is in the eye of the beholder. It all depends upon timing and circumstances of the recipient." His example is looking for airline tickets to take his family to visit his parents. "Most of the year, I would consider emails from Orbitz, Travelocity, Priceline, et cetera spam. However, the time of the year when I'm planning my trip, I would not consider them spam." Here is Meskauskas' Utility bullet writ whole and large, but not the other three. Spam often attempts to mimic social networking with subject lines like "You're going to love this" or "Fwd: Funny" or "Fred Derf said to send you this," and so on.

I know I'm a good guy, but are YOU?
There is an element Meskauskas' article doesn't mention, and it's mentioned only in passing in Wikipedia: Trust.

I trust the people who send me jokes to send me stuff that I'll enjoy. Senders of spam want to fool me into thinking the email is being sent by someone I know and trust. Trust, especially internet trust as it applies to a social network, is a critical element in all marketing. It's particularly critical in viral marketing because we haven't always met the person suggesting we click on the link embedded in the file.

Here's where the distinction between met and unmet correspondents comes in: we trust the person we've never met and have only interacted with electronically to recognize and practice a fair-exchange with us. Fair-exchanges are increasingly recognized as market drivers in neuroeconomics (you can find links to for-pay articles and books here), and they are why some campaigns work and others fail miserably. How can we develop trust when, historically, trust has been based on a series of face-to-face fair-exchanges?

Next: Why viral marketing is pyramidal in structure.