We work very hard with our clients to determine not only if viral marketing is the right social media strategy for them, but also to determine which form their viral marketing campaign should take. The internet is fluid and there are various forms of media within it with the potential for viral spread. In speaking with a client the other day about ideas for a new campaign, it occurred to me that in some ways it is easier to describe what viral marketing is not rather than what it is. Indeed, people like neat orderly lists that clearly—albeit incorrectly—assign boundaries to otherwise amorphous concepts. Perhaps in the near future I will write a nice neat list of the many ways one could implement viral marketing, but right now I am more interested in discussing how not to do it. Certainly, knowing what a thing is not will help us to know more clearly what it is.

Viral Marketing Is Not:


  1. Butterfly Marketing: I was aghast when, reading through some marketing forums, I found a user claiming that the only “real” form of viral marketing was butterfly marketing as presented by Mike Filsaime. What’s worse, there were other users agreeing. I vehemently disagree with this statement. I don’t know how Butterfly Marketing works, but I can tell you for sure that there are numerous examples of successful viral marketing campaigns for companies like BMW, Trojan, Office Depot, and Coke that have absolutely nothing to do with a $1,497 program that can earn you “$60,341 in 7 days.” Butterfly marketing is not viral marketing. I am not sure I even want to dignify this scam with further comments.

  1. Repurposing Content: Creating a TV commercial and then putting it on YouTube when it has finished its run is not viral marketing. One of the biggest causes of failure in early viral marketing campaigns was the belief that a funny commercial would automatically viral around the internet. This is clearly not the case. There is now research and data showing the differences of viewing habits online when compared to TV. Marketing content that was originally created for success on television rarely meets with such success online. Coincidently, successful online content would likely fail miserably on television. In marketing, successful viral media must be created with the internet in mind just as successful TV commercials must be created with television in mind.

  1. Bribing Consumers: I fully expect to meet with some resistance on this point and I suppose I will just have to learn to live with the knowledge that some people don’t agree with me. The source of disagreement on this point stems primarily from the fact that I am not claiming this method is “not viral marketing,” but that it is “not the right kind of viral marketing.” Offering existing customers incentives to get their friends to sign up may, in fact, encourage person-to-person to spread. But, I maintain that this practice results in a sort of “one-off” viralness, sacrificing quality of engagement for quantity of new customers gained. For instance, a user of PartyPoker.com may take advantage of the $20 he gets for every one of his friends he convinces to join, but this method appeals to him only financially. I worry that a company-customer relationship built solely on mutual financial gain is fleeting and inherently weaker than a relationship built on trust, loyalty, and engagement. Again, I stress that this is a legitimate marketing tactic which can achieve results. I warn only against the belief that it is the only form of viral marketing that works.

  1. Adding Share Buttons: On this blog, we use the ShareThis plugin to allow readers to more easily share our content on their favorite social sites. There are other ways to do the same thing: FeedFlare, Sociable, or just adding the site-provided buttons of your favorite places. Creating ease of shareability is crucial to the viral spread of many pieces of online media. That being said, putting share buttons on traditional sales documents or web pages will not make them viral…in fact, it will not even help. Yesterday I found the website of a social media optimization company which will here remain nameless. That company had sociable-style buttons for Digg, Stumble, Del.icio.us and a few others on every page of their site. Their “About Us” page was two paragraphs of dense copy that read like a web 1.0 sales brochure and sung the praises of the company in every possible way. But wait! What’s that? Oh, I have the chance to share this page with my friends on Digg…great! It was even possible for me to Stumble their contact page. This is absurd. People share content and it is unlikely that your corporate history page is worthy of sharing in the way that DoshDosh’s new blog post is. Furthermore, in the case of services like Digg, the button is virtually useless after 24 hours following the first Digg. Once that mark is passed you won’t get on the front page and you are not going to get any real traffic from Digg. I have seen similar instances of adding share buttons to things are just not going to be shared. Sure, Stumble might send each of your pages some traffic, but you could achieve that without placing a Stumble button right there on top of each one. There is a lot of great content out there so “shareable” content often needs to be written with that goal in mind. Adding buttons to things willy-nilly will not make them viral.

This is clearly not a comprehensive list of all the things which are not viral marketing. Who knows, there might even be some people who disagree with me and think that putting a Digg button on your site is all you need to market virally. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I think this list almost requires a companion list of some examples of what viral marketing is. I will tackle this next week and hopefully we can start a discussion of the forms of viral marketing and share some more examples of things which are labeled “viral marketing” but really aren’t.



Written by Matt Peters
Matt is the Co-Founder and CEO of Pandemic Labs, and enjoys thinking about, writing about, and talking about social media marketing whenever someone will let him.