What is viral marketing really? Go to Wikipedia and you will leave none-the-wiser; the page has become the battleground of an ongoing dispute about who originated the term, but provides little insight into what it really means. Other attempts at a definition vier off at two tangents – either getting lost in epidemiology or waxing rhapsodic about social media. Or we revert to the “I know when I see it” school, which ladles out a stream of ex post facto cases-in-point that illustrate the effect without enlightening us about what is taking place.
Arguably viral marketing is nothing new. If you look at early research into the effects and efficacy of propaganda, the mechanisms by which mass media impact ideas, or the ways that innovative ideas are adopted, they all suggests ways that messages and ideas are disseminated through a population. The concept of viral marketing is really a restatement of these old theories, adapted to the new communication tools of today.
A good theory and definition of viral marketing would provide an explanation based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning. It could be tested and confirmed and would help explain and predict the way some markets work or how some products become popular. It would build on what we already know from propaganda, mass media and public relations. What we've got instead is a lot of sound a fury every time a YouTube video gets a boatload of views, without any reasoning or insight.
At least, that's what I thought until I came across this blog post by David Skok. David applies some simple math along with a useful concept – the K factor – and provides an abstract model of how viral effects work. He also derives some very useful variables to consider, and some principles describing what makes viral marketing viral. To take one example:
Virality is not a marketing strategy that can be executed by the marketing department. It has to be built into your product right from the beginning. This is a function that needs to be thought through by the product designers and developed by the engineers.
This is not how most people think and at first it appears counterintuitive, but he's right. Marketing may play a role in amplifying a viral effect, or reducing the time cycles on virality, but it can rarely be the prime mover in making a product “go viral.” There really is no substitute for a good idea well executed.