Viral Marketing Backlash

September 20, 2010

A slight departure from the usual scholarly tone

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Viral, Schmiral.

Every occupation seems to have its share of humorous, derogatory pet names.  Lawyers, for example, are often depicted as sharks.  Similarly, marketing professionals have been depicted as snake oil merchants who peddle snappy-labeled bottles of an elixir that promises to cure whatever ails you.  The seller conveniently skips town with our gullible buyers’ money before we can all compare notes and discover the hoax.

This brings me to the subject of the phrase “viral marketing“.

Origin of the term “Snake Oil”

In truth, what often masquerades as viral marketing is merely the ability to reach an initial audience of online influencers in hopes of stimulating broader audience-generated distribution.   More often than not, the hoped-for result doesn’t materialize, and we all know hope is not a strategy.  You could no sooner engage in viral marketing than you could instruct a real virus who to infect next.  We’d all like our marketing messages to take on a life of their own and become distributed to an exponentially larger audience we couldn’t possibly reach on our own.  But to promise your client you can deliver viruslike results?  I’d like a slice, please.  Oh, and I also have this twitch in my neck I’d like you to examine.

The deception is that any business that professes to specialize in Viral Marketing is in fact promising something they cannot deliver.  I recommend we not profess to offer viral marketing as a service that can be packaged.  ROI projections, anyone?

What Viral Is – and Isn’t

If viral marketing were something you could package and market, complete with its list of features and exact processes you could carry out successfully every time, resulting in a marketing message that predictably, reliably spreads exponentially beyond its original audience, then I’d like to shake your hand, personally apologize, retract this article and become your reseller, if you’ll have me.  If you can’t do those things, however, then stop giving your profession a black eye by promising what you can’t deliver.  And get out of town.  After you give back my money.

I have sounded out this issue with a number of other professionals – marketers and non-marketers alike – and visited with real and imaginary people who profess to offer “viral marketing” solutions, to try to figure out this “viral marketing” thing.  So far, I have found nothing new under the sun.  What passes for viral marketing is at best an ability to address a large audience, or perhaps a few influential people.  Hmmm…I thought viral meant able to spread on its own beyond your immediate audience, without further intervention from you.  Being able to blog, tweet, Friend, Link, broadcast, narrowcast or influence someone at the outset hardly seems to match the concept of viral.

Let’s please call Viral Marketing something else, something that says what it does.  How about simply calling it Social Marketing?  What am I missing?   Holla back.


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