The fragmentation of media means that organizations usually have to incur high costs to reach a large number of people. Social media is a significant exception. Social media campaigns are often characterized by the fact that a relatively high number of people can be addressed while the resources required for this remain relatively low. One reason for this is certainly the fact that social networks are designed to encourage users to share content. Users are therefore not classic consumers, but rather act as agents who drive the constant exchange of information. This raises the question of whether organizations should focus more on viral marketing to increase awareness of specific products or their own brand. This post will look at how viral marketing works, why it often doesn’t (or can’t) achieve the desired results, and why scientists often compare such marketing strategies to approaches from epidemiology.
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Viral marketing strategies rely on consumers that come into contact with the presented content acting as a kind of carrier and spreading this content within their community. The exchange of information usually takes place via existing social networks, so that organizations do not necessarily have to create their own network. However, a network of their own can also be advantageous, as this makes it easier to create incentives for existing users or members, making them more willing to share the content. The strong effect of viral marketing also results predominantly from the fact that consumers are not contacted by an advertiser, but by a well-known person who is more likely to be able to influence the individual opinion and thus also the (buying) behavior. Some global organizations have even managed to achieve their leading position in the market almost exclusively through viral marketing. Especially when it comes to increasing one’s level of awareness, viral marketing can be purposeful in that content can spread very quickly. This is also the reason why scientists partly compare the effects of viral marketing campaigns with the spread of epidemics. Individuals who come into contact with the relevant content can be described as “infected” and, by sharing that content with their network, can “infect” more people. As long as the campaign is long-lived enough, many people may come into contact with the promotional content in this way. However, to prevent the spread from collapsing, it is important that those who otherwise consume such media rather passively are also animated to spread the content. Only if this succeeds can the dissemination go beyond a small, closed group.¹
Since viral marketing can only be successful if many people perceive the content of the campaign, the structures of the networks must enable an easy exchange of information. Due to their design, social media in particular promote word-of-mouth advertising within individual communities and are predestined for campaigns of this kind. A key feature of most social media is the simple sharing of content with individuals or groups of people – for example, one’s own followers. This structure thus favors the rapid spread of viral content, as users in this case are not only consumers, but at the same time act as carriers to spread the content. However, organizations must be careful not to focus too much on the commercial idea of the content, as this discourages many users from spreading it. For this reason, viral marketing is more suitable for increasing awareness and accelerating one’s brand building than for introducing and/or distributing new products.² However, an important – but possibly surprising – caveat can be found in the influential work of Leskovec, Adamic & Huberman (2008). The authors found that repeated exposure to content from viral marketing campaigns does not increase willingness to use a product or service or to distribute the content itself, but instead decreases willingness. This is a key contradiction to the classic assumptions from epidemiology that are often used when considering the impact of viral marketing and should be considered by advertisers.³
Since consumers are unlikely to share content with their network for no particular reason, it can be assumed that organizations will have to evoke emotions in some form with their advertising material in order for it to actually be disseminated. On the one hand, this could lead to a lack of focus on a clear marketing message or to polarizing content. The latter could be problematic for organizations, as viral marketing is very difficult to control or manage. Once the content is published, the spread is subject to its own dynamics, which cannot or only with great difficulty be influenced by the creator. Thus, a perception could be created that puts the organization in a bad light and the marketing efforts in this case would not improve the external perception as desired, but instead worsen it. In addition, it can be assumed that such campaigns would hardly deliver measurable results, since the organization would largely relinquish control and thus there would be little room for adjustments and/or improvements. The analysis of the results could – if at all – only be done with the help of qualitative metrics, and the data required for this could presumably hardly be collected. However, it is also conceivable that viral marketing could proceed in a completely different way. If users are so enthusiastic about a product or service that they voluntarily share this with those around them, this could also lead to this opinion spreading by word of mouth. From this perspective, the most effective way to do viral marketing would be to create products and services that excite consumers. Instead of working on fancy and unique marketing campaigns, organizations could use their available resources to solve consumers’ problems as effectively and efficiently as possible. If they do this, it is likely that public awareness will increase all by itself and the organization will be able to differentiate itself from its competitors.
Even though viral marketing has a high potential and requires relatively few resources, it is difficult to realize successful campaigns. Even if the rapid spread of content via existing social networks is possible in principle, in practice this development is often undermined by explicit commercial intentions. Corresponding campaigns should therefore rather be implemented with the aim of generating attention and profiling one’s own brand. However, advertisers must always be aware that viral content can no longer be controlled, so that campaigns cannot be subsequently adjusted, or only with great difficulty, and control no longer lies with the advertising organization. Instead, organizations could also focus on creating products and/or services that excite consumers to the extent that they voluntarily share their positive experiences with those around them.
¹ Bhattacharya, S., Gaurav, K., & Ghosh, S. (2019). Viral marketing on social networks: An epidemiological perspective. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 525, 478-490.
² Miller, R., & Lammas, N. (2010). Social media and its implications for viral marketing. Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, 11(1), 1-9.
³ Leskovec, J., Adamic, L. A., & Huberman, B. A. (2007). The dynamics of viral marketing. ACM Transactions on the Web (TWEB), 1(1), 1-46.