3 Rules For Managing Viral Marketing – What Every CMO Needs To Know

If you are responsible for the creative output of a marketing department or an agency, then this post is for you. What I aim to outline is some of the key differences between viral marketing and traditional marketing, that might spark some ideas on how you can augment your creative process, and where to invest your time and effort.

Control, success, and execution are all very different in viral marketing and worth paying attention to. The traditional approach of refining ideas internally until you have the one that will be the campaign is doomed to failure, because viral marketing, like lightning is very unpredictable. Even worse than that, in viral marketing what worked last time will absolutely not work this time, think of it like inoculation, once people have been exposed to an idea, they build an immunity.

Clearly marketers are trying out viral marketing with with varying degrees of success, and more often than not these forays end in failure. I don’t think these failures come from marketers not being smart, lack of investment, or bad execution, I think it comes from thinking like a marketer. What I mean by that is traditional marketing theory and methods developed over the last 50 years are antithetical to Viral Marketing.

So why is viral marketing different from traditional marketing? Let me throw out some ideas:

  • Success bares no relation to investment – Traditional marketing there was generally a relationship between how much you spent and how many people saw your message, there is no such relationship in Viral Marketing
  • Viral Marketing does not have a timeline – Traditional marketing calendars, and even the traditional marketing plan is irrelevant when executing and responding to viral marketing efforts. Viral marketing is just not that predictable, which calls for a different kind of planning
  • Number of views bare little relation to reach or impact of Viral Marketing – As viral is something that is shared from person to person, you can be sure that many more people hear about it than view it (a little esoteric I know, but I talk about subserviantChicken constantly, and yet have only been to the site once)

So what are the 3 rules for Viral Marketing, well maybe less rules, but more of a philosophy or an approach: Experiment. Monitor. Respond.


Viral Marketing should be treated as an innovation exercise and you should be focused on building a portfolio of social media experiments. A crucible of creativity through blogs, vlogs, podcasts, widgets, social networks; tools that are easy to engage with and are easily shared. Remember, failure is not only an option it’s a requirement, so “fail faster so you can succeed sooner”*.


Social Media put a plethora of tools in marketers’ hands that allow real time measurement and monitoring of your ideas in the marketplace: technorati, delicious, blogpulse, pubsub are just a couple of tools that can be leveraged to see what ideas are being shared, and what ideas are taking off. Monitoring is not just about measurement though, it’s about listening. A great example of this is the Agency.com subwayrfi tag on delicious, where they have collected links to all the blogs talking about their viral. Paying attention to the conversations, responses, and mashups give you a rich source to draw from when you respond.


When things take off you had better be ready to respond, participate and engage in the ensuing conversation. Can you amplify what’s happening, can you on capitalize what’s happening, can you reflect what’s happening?

Smirnoff failed with their teapartay viral (lazy sunday rip off?), because they have no response, in fact their web site says “teapartay coming soon”.

“Coming soon” is a great message for the half million people that have watched the video.

agentpaprika makes a comment on youtube:

too bad the URL they list at the end goes to a site w/ generic smirnoff content and a little tiny tea partay banner ad that goes nowhere (it just says “coming soon”).
i mean, so i’m supposed to come back some other time and hope they got the new content up? it was sorta entertaining, but not so much that i’ll come back again and again…

So what next

Have fun, have a sense of humor. I actually think there is only one rule of viral marketing and that is don’t take yourself too seriously.

So anyway, that’s my hypothesis, I would be very interested in other ways that viral marketing is distinct from traditional marketing, or even why it’s the same. I would love to hear from you.


Some good sources of viral marketing thinking:

* Dave Kelly from IDEO

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  1. Posted August 11, 2006 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for including ’100 CDs For 100 Bloggers’. I think monitor and respond are very important, but I think experimenting is a slippery slope. When you think about it, you could say every post we leave on our blogs is a viral experiment, and many times the ones that I think will take off, are flat, and the ones that I write up in a couple of minutes take off. You never know.

    I think as ‘viral videos’ and ‘viral marketing’ become mainstream terms, you’re going to see more and more companies hear what the concept is, and want to replicate it, with no idea how to do that. I think the experimenting should only come AFTER marketers and agencies have immersed themselves in this space and with the tools that are being used. And again, even then it’s a slippery slope.

    Once again, great primer.

  2. karl long
    Posted August 11, 2006 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Mack, you are totally right when you say “every post we leave on our blogs is a viral experiment”, and that’s kind of what I meant when I talked about experimenting. When I said a portfolio of social media experiments, I kind of meant, don’t focus on one off, big bang stuff without the “sharing infrastructure” in place.



  3. Rodrigo
    Posted August 11, 2006 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I would suggest there is another aspect of viral marketing that needs to be considered: multiple targeting (or even no targeting).

    Traditional marketing is bellic. It’s about identifying the target audience and hitting it. Because traditional campaigns used to have wide reach, the execution had a “common denominator” feel about it. After all, you’d only put an ad on TV or a jingle on the radio if you were sure that a high percentage of the audience would like it *and* that not too many people would reject it/be offended by it.

    When doing viral marketing your objective is quite different. You actually want to make sure you are very, very relevant to somebody. At the outset, you can’t quite be sure how big your reach will be (Karl, you touched on this).

    What this means is that the agency needs to switch off/remove all their conservative, common sense filters and… and just go for it! Make something dumb, make something crude; make something risque. Produce content without aiming it at any target audience.

    After all, the whole point, the definition of viral is that individuals will promote the content. So, the name of the game is to ensure that at least one individual absolutely loves it. You can’t do that by trying to please all of the folks (all of the time).

  4. karl long
    Posted August 11, 2006 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    First off, wonderful use of the word “bellic”, i’ve often used described marketing using hunting terminology, and I think John Winsor brought up the term “warlike” on my podcast.

    Totally agree that traditional targeting is not appropriate. I wonder if some kind of “connecter” or “maven” targeting would appropriate. Certainly bloggers can be very good amplifiers of ideas, and are certainly part of the social medium. Anyway, good point.


  5. Posted August 12, 2006 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Hte to say it Karl but I’ve yet to see a tech marketing campaign that either had a solid basis for creation or post campaign measurement except on the simplest of terms. So what you’re describing is fine because the benchmarks for tradtional don’t stand the test of scrutiny in the first place. IMO.

    Disclosure: I’m one of those pesky accountant types though I hope to recover soon.

  6. karl long
    Posted August 13, 2006 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I think that companies need to start using the kind of creativity that comes from designers and artists. In many ways companies need to become a patron of the arts again. A piece of content that is remarkable enough to send to your friends is art.

  7. Posted August 14, 2006 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    Brilliant post Karl. Very insightful.

    Few comments (in no particular order):

    1. As Faris recently argued – Viral is a thing that happens not a thing that is. http://farisyakob.typepad.com/blog/2006/07/pandemic.html

    2. Can we say that viral marketing should be experimemtal playground, as if this is an area where failure is not only acceptable but necessary?

    “failure is not only an option it’s a requirement, so “fail faster so you can succeed sooner”*.

    That easier said than done when you think about it from a marketer POV who might agree with you wholeheartedly but is still accountable for an old school exec that (literally) gets the rash from the word viral…

    3. Biggest chalenge as I see it – experiment, go wild, don’t take yourself too seriously…but how do you make sure that you’re still saying the right thing about your brand???

    4. Very interesting article on virals at the BBC

  8. Posted August 15, 2006 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Karl – great post and lessons that marketers considering using viral marketing should definitely pay attention to. Ultimately it comes down to setting up your message right, and then willing to give up control and let it travel. You might also be interested in a post I wrote about the Chevy Tahoe campaign some time ago, focused on how to spot signs that your viral marketing could flop before putting it out there:


  9. aaron
    Posted August 22, 2006 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    OK, here’s a question for everyone. How do I get a viral marketing campaign to succeed? I mean, of course I want people to talk about my product and service, but that doesn’t mean that they will. We tried tell a friend campaigns, creating a free flash game, and it’s minimal. It seems like it’s just luck. I mean look at “Snakes on a Plane”. Why was there a pre release buzz about that movie, and not others? How did people even know enough about that movie to create the buzz before it was even out?

    We just found a company at fmnmedia.com that gets down to the core of the situation. Viral buzz is people writing about your company online in forum posts, blogs, etc, etc. This company will get people and do that for you. The fastest path between two points is a straight line, no?

  10. Posted September 18, 2006 at 9:15 am | Permalink


    Thought you would enjoy the research HP Labs completed on viral marketing


  11. Posted January 25, 2007 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Experiment. Monitor. Respond. Check out the 2000 Blogger Project

    at http://hotelanyware.blogspot.com


    Are we there yet?

  12. Susi Ma
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Great post! But just a suggestion from a non-native english speaker

    “Success bares no relation to investment…” wouldn’t you use “bears” instead of “bares”?

  13. Dan
    Posted February 21, 2007 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Interesting thoughts about viral. Some of what you say is not in doubt, but I would disagree with your point about costs not being at all proportional to success: a “viral” campaign it is much more likely to succeed if the right amount of money has been put into two things: the creative development, plus the seeding. That is not to say that there are not expensive flops or no-budget successes, of course, but I think a correlation does exist.

    Since you mentioned it on our Nokia intranet, I would like to point out that I didn’t personally call the http://www.The-Passenger.com site viral (… at least not yet, though viral is an ambition), but what we have tried to do is take the product demo of car products to another level, and I think we have definitely succeeded in that sense. It is also a site that people are starting to talk about, which was an aim: to create a piece of advertising worth mentioning in the right blogs. That process is just starting, and hopefully will continue.

    In general it is very difficult to ensure that what is created is cool enough to make people want to pass it on, especially while staying on brand etc: I would be interested whether you have ever created a successful viral campaign, perhaps even utilizing your rules?

    Perhaps test and learn is the best strategy though: a sort of real options theory for creative development.

  14. karl long
    Posted February 21, 2007 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment Dan, and I think you have a point about costs. Maybe what I should say is success bares “little” relationship to cost, as opposed to “no” relationship. Your point about making something remarkable and staying on brand is an obvious challenge especially when you are in a very large company. I personally think that marketing and branding theory is somewhat behind the times, companies are becoming more prorus (as demonstrated by this conversation) and therefore monolithic command and control is a hindrance to the innovation that can happen at the edges.

    That being said I have never created a viral adversing campaign, and my theories about how to manage them are just theories. The theories mind you actually come from product innovation process that I learned on my Design Management MBA, I haven’t invented the idea of an innovation portfolio approach, just adapted it from industrial design theory to viral marketing.

  15. Posted February 21, 2007 at 11:11 pm | Permalink


    Great post on viral. One observation I’ve noticed is that we tend to associate viral marketing with glamorous PR stunts. However, the most valuable buzz- product recommendations- come from little acts that surprise and delight consumers: JetBlue’s free DirectTV, Apple’s design asthetic, and Scion’s no haggling price policy. Get an entire company, product designers, customer service reps and all, to start thinking about viral and now you truly unleash the power of viral marketing.

12 Trackbacks

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