Despite popular belief, the Internet is not the father of "viral marketing."

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Viral marketing, which is just a fancier name for word-of-mouth marketing, has been around for as long as people could communicate. The only contribution made by the Internet - as well as the printing press, the telephone, the ratio and the television - is that once the word is out, it can get around faster than ever before.

But getting the word out in the first place is something the majority of businesses - even many that claim to be viral marketing masters - simply don't know how to do. Others don't recognize its benefits, or feel that their product doesn't lend itself to a viral marketing campaign.

Whatever the case may be, one fact remains: Viral marketing campaigns have a greater return on investment than virtually any other promotion strategy - if you do it right.


Viral marketing is a promotion strategy that piggybacks on the consumer's penchant for passing the word. Where, say, a typical television commercial attempts to get the customer to buy the product, viral promotion inspires the customer to spread the word about your product, service or organization. In this way, a good viral marketing campaign gets the word out to an initial few in the hopes that the rumor mill will do the bulk of the promoting for them.

Viral tactics are carried out through virtually any marketing channel that has direct contact with the customer, including television, radio, film, the Internet, print media, fliers and in-store service. Other promotion strategies may rely on buying expensive airtime or assembling a sophisticated print ad in an effort to reach perhaps millions of customers. Viral marketing, however, can be extremely successful just by reaching a few initial customers and inspiring them to spread the word. It's no wonder that viral marketing efforts are often much more affordable than other promotions.

Viral marketing can often have greater co-optive power than other promotion strategies. Co-optive marketing power is the ability for a company to absorb a person into its customer base through subtle social influence, rather than via promotions that attempt to convince the customer to buy. This social influence may lend credibility to a product or service; or it may depict the product as an opportunity for customers to assimilate into popular culture. For example, viral marketing campaigns often co-opt us to see a movie that "everyone is talking about," even when we are not attracted to the film's concept in the first place.


Despite its simple elegance, viral marketing is not easy. Good viral marketers understand three basic things: First, they know how to inspire customers to praise them. Second, they understand how to find the champions of the company. Third, they know how to work with them effectively. We will cover each of these components in kind.


A viral marketing campaign is nothing unless there is something for customers to talk about. In this article, we consider three types of customers: external customers (those who buy your product), dissatisfied customers (those who suffer at bad experience with your product), and internal customers (your employees, board members, and other stakeholders). For each we look at ways to inspire them to spread the word.

External customers gain inspiration when they receive the highest possible value for your product. One of the best ways to do this is by offering your customer something they weren't expecting to receive.

Does this mean that a Spago should give the occasional free meal? Should Amazon give away a free book? Should your local car dealer give you a free oil change?

Absolutely not.

Adding unexpected value only occurs when the company goes the extra mile for a customer at the expense of its own comfort. Under this framework, Spago would add more value by taking the trouble to remember which customers like which dishes. Rather than give away a free book, Amazon may want to warn the customer against buying a book that the company thinks he or she may not like. Forget the free oil change; your local car dealer would be better served in the long run by recommending a cheaper model car to you if that is in fact in your best interest.

Dissatisfied customers, those that suffer inferior service while in your midst, have another set of criteria for being inspired. For them, value comes when you thank them for their complaint and subsequently do something about it. This is an important point. It's not enough for you to tell your customers that you will fix the problem; rather, you have to demonstrate that the issue is being taken care of with direct action.

This may mean taking care of the problem immediately and, if possible, in their full view. Or, this may require that you file the customers complain, return to them and assure them that the proper managers have been notified. In either case, the customer is left to feel that he or she is a priority, and that the pain they just felt will never happen again. Why is this so important? Simple. Negative word of mouth occurs 5 times more than positive word of mouth, so you have to be very careful not to let negative word of mouth occur!

Company stakeholders can be considered internal customers. Certainly, while you may be their boss, they are indeed spending resources (i.e. time and energy) for something you are ostensibly offering them (i.e. a rewarding career). Why should you inspire them? Because if these customers aren't satisfied, no marketing move you make will ever see its full potential.

For this reason, it is vital that you be honest and fair with your employees. You should offer training and career opportunities. You should promote continuous quality improvement. And you should offer incentives for good performance.


A viral marketing strategy cannot succeed unless you first identify those who will spread the word right off the bat. Giving a champion the feeling of "being found" is a form of thanking them for their hard work as your supporter, and inspires them to continue promoting your goods.

But the question remains: How do we find the champions?

One way to do this is by asking customers how they heard about your product or service. This can be done with a form, or simply by asking the customer directly. Both techniques allow you to identify the players who bring you business.

Another technique is to ask your current customers whether or not they have transmitted information about your firm to other people. This goes for external customers as well as internal customers. In doing this you not only discover how your viral marketing campaign is being spread; you're also implanting the idea in your customers' minds that it is a good idea to recommend your product or service.

Finally, the web provides numerous opportunities to discover who your champions are. One example is the email newsletter. Webmasters can track who forwards email newsletters on to colleagues. This is wonderful evidence for the effectiveness of your campaign.

There are tons of sites on the web that will talk about tactics for finding champions (chat rooms, discussion threads, etc.), but the major point is you need to be careful to find champions that believe in your product or service and don't use it to just promote themselves. It isn't easy, but careful analysis will help you find these champions.


Building relationships with champions keeps them talking about your business, and also gives you a platform from which you can virally market new products and features.

Building these relationships starts with thanking your champions for promoting your business. This thanks is most effective when done in full view of those who are not champions of your product or service.

For example, consider a restaurant that gives high-volume repeat customers a special membership as thanks for their business. This membership grants them a monthly tour of the kitchen, free cooking lessons at the restaurant, and one free dish every time they return to eat. Notice, all these gestures are done in view of the rest of the customers. Such an arrangement both inspires those champions to keep up their good work and encourages those who are not yet champions to become one.

The restaurant membership does more than that, however. It also ensures that these premium champions have accurate information about the product. It gets these customers personally involved with the product or service. And it provides then with new information about the restaurant. All these things serve to keep a continual flow of information into the viral market.

If possible, do this right away can be done by fixing the problem right away (lower the air conditioning if the customer is cold).


That's right. Viral marketing works mostly because people have something interesting and perceived unique to spread around. If you start to advertise too early, you can kill the incentive of champions to pass along a great message. After all, one of the benefits of being a product champion is that you and your message are unique. Take that away and viral messengers have less incentive to pass the word along.

Now that you have the essential elements of word of mouth marketing (oh yes, viral marketing) in hand, you're ready to make sure your customers heard it positively through the grapevine.

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image of C.W. Park

C. Whan Park is the Robert E. Brooker Professor of Marketing at USC's Marshall School of Business. He is co-author of a recent book on brand admiration, which blends years of best-practice thinking from academia with the real-world practice of marketing. He is internationally recognized as one of the most frequently cited researchers in the area of consumer behavior.