According to Wikipedia, viral marketing is defined as “marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of virus or computer viruses.”
This particular form of advertising has many benefits over more traditional types, primarily because of the speed at which the message spreads and the validity associated with it. Let’s look at one of the classic examples of viral marketing, the launch of Hotmail. Back in 1996 Hotmail was one of the first web-based email services. Accounts were given away for free, with the hopes that advertising revenue would produce a nice profit. The key then was to get as many active users as possible signed up in the shortest amount of time. This is where viral marketing comes in.
The founders of Hotmail decided to use the service to promote itself, by appending a small message to the bottom of all outgoing mail that read something like: “Get your private, free email at http://www.hotmail.com.” Whenever someone opened a message sent from a Hotmail user they would see this line and be all the more inclined to click on the link and maybe even sign up for free. Then when they sent a message to a different friend, the cycle would repeat itself again and again each time increasing the scope of the advertising campaign.
Just like the spread of a virus, Hotmail’s active users multiplied in a compounding fashion and in less than one year from launch it was bought by Microsoft for about $400 million. Currently, Windows Live Hotmail is the world’s largest web-based email service with an estimated 364 million users and this once tiny dot-com has viral marketing to thank for its speedy success.
Moving forward, things have certainly changed since the early days of viral marketing campaigns, which were largely based around email communications, as in Hotmail’s case. You see, back then we would share things with others through email, since we didn’t really have a dedicated social network like Facebook. Email chain letters were extremely popular and emails would be forwarded to friends, family and co-workers at an amazing speed. Think about a snowball rolling down a hill and how it collects more snow on the way and grows even larger; this is how viral marketing through email worked.
In more modern times however, the game has changed. Believe it or not, email is fading from the spotlight it once held and it is being replaced by social network communications. These days many folks would rather send someone a message on Facebook than send an email. They would rather mention someone in a tweet or post on their wall or tag them in a note. All of these new methods of communications are slowly taking over the role email once played. Think about it; when was the last time you forwarded a chain email filled with jokes or sent a link to a news article in an email to your friends?
The bottom line (backed by statistical data) is that we now spend more time visiting social media sites than we do with emailing. What does this mean? Well, email will continue to have a place for a while, but it will shift more to the professional side of online communications. For the fun stuff, social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr are already the standard for social sharing and they have all the necessary tools for doing so built right in.
Moreover, the way information is shared through viral marketing is also evolving, along with the specific platform used. For instance, we are now much more likely to post a funny video or tweet about a news article rather than send it to specific people. The idea is that if our friends and “followers” are interested enough in what we have to say, they’ll find it on our social profiles; there’s no need to single them out and fill their inbox. That is the power of viral marketing, no matter what shape it takes.