The Myth of Viral Marketing And The Rise Of Status

“Viral Marketing” is a myth. Always has been. It never existed. And as you’ll see, even if it had, you would want nothing to do with it. “Word of Mouth”? Less toxic, but critically, equally incomplete. Social Network Marketing? Swarm Marketing? Mobile Marketing? Just more opaque containers. In a revealing display of the industry’s ongoing struggle with interactive, none of the terms in use today comes close to illuminating how an advertiser can approach inspiring that Holy Grail of interactive marketing, a User-distributive spread…  Until now.

The term Viral Marketing (or “v-marketing”) was coined by Harvard Business School professor, Jeffrey Rayport, in a rational December 1996 article for Fast Company The Virus of Marketing. Rayport is a passionate, engaging public speaker, and a brilliant thinker. And in 1996, a time when ad agency executives were still uttering the words, “…’new media’, huh?”, “Viral marketing” might have resonated for some and brought an easy mental image to this strange new behavior of consumers online. Unfortunately, Rayport’s metaphoric, arm’s-length reference to the term “viral” was almost immediately shortened to nil and ham-fistedly adopted as the all-purpose agency weapon of choice, it’s obvious limitations unrecognized by over eager marketers, desperate for answers.

Despite Rayport’s loose analogy, the fact of the matter is that there never was a practicable connection between a virus and any form of legal marketing that any of us have employed in the last 15 years. And yet – walk into any ad agency in the country today and say you want a “viral campaign”, and they’ll smile knowingly and give you the thumbs up.

Before I go further, we’ve got to do this, here’s the definition of “virus”, really, humor me here:

virus |ˈvīrəs| noun
• Any of various simple submicroscopic parasites that cause disease- unable to replicate without a host cell.
• An infectious disease caused by a virus.
• A harmful or morbid corrupting influence on morals or the intellect. Something that poisons the mind or the soul.
• (also computer virus) a segment of self-replicating code planted illegally in a computer program, that has a detrimental effect, such as corrupting the system or destroying data.
(from the Latin “virus” meaning “toxin” or “poison”)

…that, plus “Marketing”.

You can see why marketers loved this term. Seriously. In the face of a strange, new medium, where content was suddenly, confoundedly, intertwined with a rapid stream of complicated, new technology, where audiences had become vapor- diffused, elusive and unpredictable, behaving nothing like the reliably passive, pre-aggregated viewership that marketers were so used to, the “there” no longer being there, where virtually none of advertising’s old skills and tactics got traction – and ultimately, where an utter lack of control hung thick in the air of every ad agency conference room across the country, “Viral Marketing” brought an immediate sense of relief and comfort, because “Viral Marketing” seemed to promise control.

To a population of office workers suffering under an ongoing reign of computer viruses, where the viruses were clearly a type of offensively potent “winner” over the Internet-connected masses, this term brilliantly dovetailed two perviously disparate data points, and in doing so, created the first sensation of power any advertiser had ever had relative to Interactive.

Just imagine, being able to create an ad that you could literally unleash on unsuspecting Internet consumers – one that would spread surreptitiously and offensively mind you, “infecting” vast multiples across the consumer population- powerfully, virilely, unstoppably changing brand preferences as it devoured it’s unwitting hosts, until the World succumbed to the disease of your clients’ brand positioning.

That’s admittedly extreme, but never-the-less it is “Viral Marketing”‘s clear linguistic suggestion. And too many advertisers allowed this not-so-subtle suggestion to color their unconscious hopes and expectations, falling victim to one of advertising’s own superficial methods of persuasion.

The Myth Persists

Ultimately, it was to the decade-long (and still running strong) detriment of advertisers who eagerly drank this infected kool-aid. The true virus is the subconscious subtext that Viral Marketing is some sort of actual deployment tactic that gives advertisers control over the medium or their audiences. Or a valid deliverable an advertiser might offer a client. All of which placated advertisers, pulling their innovative attention away from the real challenges.  This was the critically destructive impact of the misnomer. Such was the perfect storm in advertising then that virtually no one questioned or challenged the term, rather it was fervently embraced and espoused across all levels of the industry – despite the fact that no one really knew what to do with the idea.  And so it remains, for good reason.

A vast majority of advertisers who still use the term today, have probably not read Rayport’s article and recognized it’s undercurrent of proposed misrepresentation and unintentional User behavior, which just doesn’t ring true today.  Wish as marketers might.  And ultimately it’s this suggestion of power and control that is the concept’s undoing.

Some have had to learn the hard way, that “Viral Marketing” isn’t really. Today, when the term is spoken, advertisers now in the know experience a reflexive double-take that “Viral” doesn’t mean “Viral” at all, it means “…something cool… that will hopefully be embraced by Users and shared”.

A lot of terms have been employed over recent years to try to explain the nature of such a spread. At Red Sky in 1996, we called this phenomenon (the sudden user-distributed spread of a piece of content or an ad)  “Friend to Friends Marketing”. If unwieldy, to this day I think that name rings truer than “Viral”, because “Friend to Friends” connects, if ever so naively, with the actual, functional, activity that causes such a spread.

Today the term “Word of Mouth” is often used in place of, or in addition to “Viral”. “Word of Mouth” is generally considered an advance in the thinking, and different than “Viral” to the extent that WOM perhaps is not dependent on a distributable digital item, but rather a good impression of a product or brand that can be communicated through the users’ network, both in, and out of the medium. WOM never-the-less does not sufficiently suggest any actual strategy or tactic that an advertiser might use to market in a way. If “Viral” is the worst offender, grossly referring to the mere spread of a meme via an inaccurate functional metaphor, Word of Mouth comes in second revealing nothing but a past-tense condition, void of an approach to marketing. Then there’s “Swarm Marketing”. Do you see a pattern? A swarm may be an interesting behavioral metaphor with respect to users’ interconnectedness, perhaps more accurate in its distantly observed behavior than a mere “social network” but again, it does not illuminate a direction, a plan of action that marketers can act against. Just another coat of paint on a box we’ve never figured out how to open. Ultimately, each of these terms only do service in assessing a previously generated condition, what happened – after the fact. Long after the campaign ran it’s course, long after the planners and strategists and creatives did their work, and after the media buy, after, by some stroke of good luck, some critical mass of users saw fit to share the thing or idea with their friends and connected networks, only then do these terms find any relevance. Advertisers step back, and look at what happened, and where it happened and announce that it spread “virally”. That it was spread, and consumed through “word of mouth”… by a swarm… in a social network.  …via Mobile.

And all of this matters to those of us who wish to understand and recreate the phenomenon.  To work in front of, and through the opaque walls of those terms.  If you’re like me, you want to know what you can actually do, proactively, to make that kind of spread happen.

Peeling Back The First Level Of Granularity

I’ve heard a lot of smart people opine on this subject. And I have not liked their answers. The more naive answers have centered around facilitation of a spread, such as variants from adding “a send to a friend button” to “seeding communities”. But clearly these do not inspire a user to send a piece of content to his friends. Others circle around the idea that the content (the ad) must be “relevant”. As you have probably seen in other posts on this site, I agree with that premise. However, again, in terms of inspiring a “Viral Effect”, a successful Word of Mouth campaign, it is incomplete. Relevance to the target User is unquestionably necessary, but let me draw a distinction, it must be relevant for an individual User to adequately consume and positively regard a piece of content. But that does not reveal why a user will pass it on in multiples.

Inspiring Distribution

To understand, facilitate the creation of, and incidentally perhaps better label this type of marketing, one must first understand the psychology that drives this kind of interaction at all, this kind of content and meme sharing. One must understand the psychology of communication.

Human beings are story-telling animals. We are, at our core, communicators. Always have been. As far as my research has revealed, this core need to communicate spans cultures and time. More precisely, we are communicators within a society. This is how we survive as a species. Further, as members of a society we are constantly measured against others; where communication is our primary tool for managing that measurement. Look at communication behavior closely and you will see that we do not communicate with altruism. We have a goal. Our goal is the increase of our individual status compared to others in the society.

Within Maslowe’s “Esteem Needs” (the level it’s safe to assume most Americans experience most of the time), literally all human interactions are governed by the continuous adjustment of status. Status is the very currency of human communication. Status, in one form or another is the basis for all communication. Also note that status is a relative measure – to gain higher status I can either increase mine or decrease everyone else’s. Most people are constantly and unconsciously engaged in ongoing status battles. You see this dynamic being played out in virtually every conversation. In virtually every exchange. It is universal in our society.

And folks – therein lies the answer.

The distribution of digital content and communication by an interactive media User can be interpreted as an attempt on the part of that User to increase His social status within the online society.

When a User’s recipient responds with any level of praise– “That was hilarious, Dude! Thanks!” (I say “Dude”… sue me) an increase in status is confirmed. Conversely consider the deflation that accompanies the reply “Yeah, I saw that last month, you just saw that now?”. The user’s status has lowered. And pray the recipient is so kind. Even a lack of response is the tactic of some for managing status. The range and subtleties of these interactions, and the emotions they impact are powerful evidence of Status jockeying.

Now, we must take this insight one step further, we must bring “Status” into the advertisers’ toolbox, and identify our role, as the creators of ideas, of content- of relevant value. As I hope you can see, it is not enough merely to provide relevant content or a relevant experience. Let’s connect this insight to the first rule of Interactive:

Interactive AXIOM #1: The User Is Your King, & You, The Content Creator, Are A Subject.

What does it mean then, to serve our King if we now know that the King, confronting communication in this medium, is in point of fact, always engaged in a war for status? That when he considers sending a piece of content, or sharing a view, or even responding to someone else’s blog (hopefully with our marketing message), his primary goal in doing so is that it result in an increase in His status and/or a decrease in his recipients’?

Got it?  Clearly our role, as the creators of content that we hope He will send on, as the creators of positive brand memes that we hope He will share, is to provide our King with content or ideas that will, as He perceives it, raise His status.

I call this proactive planning approach to inspiring the User-distributive spread of an ad, or a meme, “Status Marketing“.

Status Marketing

Status Marketing is a proactive strategy that results in positive “word of mouth”, that results in a “viral effect”. Status Marketing must be the foundation of every online marketing campaign being planned today.

This is a very different exercise than merely attempting to create a “powerful brand message”, “relevant content”, a hilarious ad, or seeding a swarm or mobile network. These approaches, these types of marketing, are simply lacking in the direction necessary for motivating audiences who are entirely in control.

If you look at the main components of every single successful online campaign throughout the life if the commercial Internet, you will find effective “Status Marketing” plans at work – not “Viral” marketing plans, not “Word of Mouth”, and not “Social Network Marketing” or any of the other after-the-fact or container observations. You will find Status Marketing strategies and executions that either intentionally, or unintentionally, tapped into this single powerful principle.

Conversely look at those campaigns that failed to achieve wide-spread, “viral” distribution, and you will see an utter failure to acknowledge the Status concept, or you’ll see an ineffectively executed attempt to raise the target audience’s status among their peers. Either way, this is the key, folks.

Identify what will help your King raise His status among His peers and network, what kind of content, tools,  images, ideas, and data, will provide Him with that result, should He send it, and you will have discovered the Holy Grail of online marketing.

Status Factors

In a bit of an arm’s race, the form of ideas and items that are going to raise a user’s status will change over time, based on numerous dynamics.  But there are a number of basic factors that will enhance the likelihood that your User will subconsciously perceive the potential for an increase in His status.  To wit, one might argue that what’s important is not whether an ad actually does raise the User’s status, but that the User believes it will, if only He sends it on. That said, if the belief isn’t paid off, your brand may not get another chance with that uUser (see: AXIOM #2 – section: Branding the Promise).  Here is an admittedly incomplete short list of status-enhancing factors:

1)  Relevance – I give you permission to say: “No Duh”.  And while critical, this topic, alone, is usually the extent of the discussion in other Viral Marketing / Word of Mouth circles. The distinction in this context is that relevance will be measured by the User not necessarily just on whether the item resonated with Him, but how He feels it may resonate within His network.  Remember you are providing tools for the user to, Himself, enhance His brand. It’s a skew that should dramatically change the way you approach the subject of “relevance” for your audience, and the creation of your marketing plans.  Typically, this topic relates to the perceived value in the offering.  If it’s a joke – how funny is it?  If it’s news, how timely is it?  If it’s a tool, how useful is it?  But in this context, most importantly – how valuable will He feel His network will feel it is?

2)  Discovery – This is key.  The User must have the sense that He discovered it. That He has unearthed the find.   On the contrary, are you likely to share an item or idea if you feel it is commonly known or previously distributed?  Will you send it, or announce it if you feel it may have already been “discovered” by your network?  What would that do to your status?  To honor this factor on behalf of your User, consider what it means to make your ad/idea appear to be rare.  To have it, in fact, intentionally appear largely unknown or previously unseen.  A piece of work that appears to be well travelled or well marketed – will that help, or hurt the likelihood that your User will send it on?  Consider executions like “Subservient Chicken” and the ancient “Blair Witch Project”, the grandfather of “look what I discovered” viral marketing.  These arguably “best of class” executions well demonstrated that items need not be polished and “professional” in the graphic sense, and in fact, the raw, unprofessional aesthetic of the work rather enhances it’s “unlikely to have been seen before” perception.  Conversely, pieces that are beautifully polished and appear to be the result of large, well-funded teams, may not hold the same knee-jerk sense of scarcity (and therefor value!) that something appearing to have been created by teams of one or two people do.  Consider that strange little one-man video clips on YouTube achieve a critical mass of sheer distribution that any Fortune 100 Company would kill for.  It’s about relevance, but it’s also about your User believing that “it probably hasn’t been seen before”.

3)  Own-ability – The Users’ brand must be allowed to dominate the “conversation”, and own the exchange.  This critically applies any rise in status to Him.  Items that allow the User to customize content, create, and exert His creativity are powerful examples of “own-ability”.  Excellent examples include OfficeMax’s “ElfYourself”, and Burger King’s”SimpsonizeMe”.   Further, when a user espouses His own thoughts, he entirely owns that exchange.  Thus providing him with data, or information that He feels confident will make him appear smarter, righter, funnier, etc, can be effective.  Conversely, items that are too-heavily branded with product logos and messaging or too thick with brand or product references can undermine this factor, wresting perceived shares of status away from a User and minimizing the likelihood that He will wish to share or send it on.

4)  Control – The User must feel He is in control of the content, His actions, and His status.  Prescriptive marketing distribution tactics (“send this ad to a friend!”) can actually weaken the likelihood that the User will comply.  Give up- the User is in control.  You’re not.  The User must be allowed to “invent” the idea to send something on or share an idea.  This runs to the heart of what so many comedians will tell you is a critical component of comedy – trusting the intelligence of the audience.  Similarly here, we must trust that the User will a) invent the idea to send it along, and b) know how to send an appropriately designed item on- should He decide to.  On the surface, this means that some items should appear to be for the User’s sole enjoyment- even though it is hoped that He will forward the item.  Facilitate the downloading or saving of the item for the User’s “personal use”.  Post it in a format that interfaces with popular social networks – without “suggesting” what to do with it.  He’ll know what do do after that.  To a degree these tactics, and the extra effort that may be required by Him to distribute an item, can also enhance the perception of its scarcity.  Which can be a good thing.

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list, nor must all of these factors be in place to their full extent to generate sufficient distribution.  But it hopefully illuminates some of the most basic principles impacting Users’ perception of Status-Building.

The term Status Marketing reminds us what ultimately drives the distributive online interaction that our Users engage in every day, and further, what our job is, as servants to our interactive Kings.  Ultimately we must empower Users to be smarter, funnier, more insightful, talented, and connected, in their battles, amidst their societies, for Status.  This is the one and only engine that drives online distribution.

Take Status Marketing to heart – no matter who your target User is – and your campaign will succeed.

1 Comment The Myth of Viral Marketing And The Rise Of Status

  1. Justin

    brilliant! you’ve changed my world view of advertising in 5 minutes. i can’t thank you enough! it seems so obvious, but it’s never been expressed so clearly before.


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