The venture capitalist behind Hotmail, Steve Jurvetson,
coined the term viral marketing to describe the way the
service grew. Hotmail offered free e-mail. That alone was
a very compelling two-word business proposition. But the
magic of the company was that in every single e-mail you
sent using the service, there was a little ad on the bottom of
the note. And the ad said, “Get Your Private, Free E-mail from
Hotmail at www.hotmail.com.” Every time you sent a note,
you spread the virus. The magic of viral marketing is that the
medium carries the message. The more you use Hotmail, the
more you spread the virus. But note: It was also extremely
smooth…. The Hotmail site was just a click away from an
e-mail, and it took just a few clicks more to start using
it—and start sending Hotmail’s built-in ads to your friends.
Unfortunately, not every product lends itself to viral
marketing. Viral marketing requires that the product
you’re using be communications-focused or very
public. The VW Beetle is an example of viral marketing.
Why? Because the more you drive it, the more people see it. And the
more Beetles people see, the more they want one. It’s not audible
and it’s not as smooth as Hotmail, but it is most defi nitely viral.
What does it take to build and spread an
There are two questions you can ask yourself about your idea
before you launch it:
Is it worth it?
Nobody spreads an ideavirus as a favor to you. They do it because
it’s remarkable, thought-provoking, important, profi table, funny,
horrible or beautiful. In today’s winner-take-all world, there’s
no room for a me-too offering, or worse, BORING products and
services. If it’s not compelling, it will never lead to an ideavirus.
Face it. Nobody is going to hand out big rewards ever again for
being on time, performing work of good quality, being useful,
finishing a project on budget or being good enough. That’s
expected. That’s a given. The rewards (and the ideavirus) belong to
the first, the fastest, the coolest, the very best.
Is it smooth?
After someone’s been exposed to an ideavirus just once, they’re
not likely to actually catch it. We’ve made our brains bulletproof
and ideaproof. There’s so much clutter, so much noise, so many
ideas to choose from that the vast majority of them fail to make a
dent. Think about the last time you walked through a bookstore
(the home of ideaviruses waiting
to happen). How many books did
you stop and look at? Precious few,
that’s for sure.
and, most of
Compare this to the Harry Potter
phenomenon, best-selling books
created just because kids told
kids—a classic ideavirus, and one
that initially grew with no promotion
at all from the publisher.
It’s difficult to get from awareness to the “sale” of an idea, to
convert a stranger into a friend and a friend into a carrier of your
ideavirus. An ideavirus succeeds when it pierces our natural
defenses and makes an impact.
It’s foolish to expect that one exposure to your message will
instantly convert someone from stranger to raving ideavirus spreading
fan. So plan on a process. Plan on a method that takes
people from where they are to where you want them to go. And
while you’re at it, work on the product. Because a catchier, more
compelling, more viral product makes your job 100 times easier.
Three Key Levers That Determine How
Your Ideavirus Will Spread
What are the key elements worth focusing on to turbocharge your
idea and turn it into a virus? There are three things to focus on:
1. How big do you launch?
You can launch big or you can launch small. One of the dumbest
things marketers do is put artificial barriers in the way of trial.
For example, it’s obvious that one of the best ways to kill sales of
a new car is to charge people $100 to take a test drive. When you
launch an ideavirus, the more people who can see it fast, the faster
it will spread.
2. How smooth is it?
In addition to being persistent and cool, an ideavirus spreads
the fastest when it’s smooth. Persistence matters because the longer
people are sneezing about your idea, the more people they infect.
Cool is critical because if it’s not virus-worthy, it’s just not going
to take off. But smooth is essential because if you make it easy for
the virus to spread, it’s more likely to do so. In viral marketing, the
ideal solution is to build smooth transference tools right into the
idea—which can be diffi cult. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t
try. Amazon tried with “Member Get a Member” promotions, in
which they bribe members to tell their friends to
buy books from Amazon (get $5 for your friends
and $5 for you!). Smooth.
3. How do you turn trial into persistence?
Sooner or later, you’ve got to turn momentary attention into an
embrace of your idea, and then, hopefully, into conversion of the
user into a sneezer. Permission marketing becomes a critical tool
in working people through this transition. On the Web, this multistep
process is too often overlooked by companies facing short-term
financial pressure (combine this with the legendary short attention
span of entrepreneurs and you can see why this happens). Instead
of building a virus-worthy cool product or service, identifying a
hive, promoting an idea, and making it smooth and persistent,
they just spend a few million dollars to buy advertising. The hope,
of course, is that somehow by spending enough money on clever
ads, they’ll magically create a critical mass of positive energy that
will turn their idea into a virus. They’re looking for a shortcut,
and as a result, leading their companies to doom. Building a virus
takes insight, talent and most of all, patience.