Long before the internet came about, there was already a concept called word-of-mouth advertising. If people thought highly of a product or service, they would tell their friends about it, then those people would tell more people, and so on. Take the same concept and apply it to the modern internet, and you have viral marketing in a nutshell. Any type of business can benefit from viral marketing. Book sales, movie ticket sales, local businesses, and online companies have all benefited from viral marketing. Before the internet, word-of-mouth was effectively limited by the ability of people to physically speak to each other. This is, of course, where the term gets its name from. With the invention of the internet, and even more so lately with the invention of social networking, word-of-mouth style advertising can reach around the whole world to millions upon millions of people easily.
The term “viral marketing” was coined in 1997 by a venture capitalist named Steve Jurvetson. Hotmail was a new email service who’s user-base exploded in 1997 due to a line promoting their service that was automatically added to the end of each outgoing email sent from a Hotmail address. The idea was so effective, that Jurvetson coined the term “viral marketing” to describe it.
There are many examples of viral marketing campaigns that you are probably familiar with. One of the largest and most successful of recent memory was The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The videos spread like wildfire, average people and celebrities were both posting videos. Even President Obama joined in. Vast amounts of money were raised for the ALS Association to help with medical research. Another wildly popular campaign was used to promote Old Spice. Their commercials featuring the “Old Spice Man” were very funny, and already quite popular. People were posting parody videos to YouTube. Old Spice decided to invite people to send in questions for the character. They selected the best ones, and created videos where the Old Spice Man responded directly to people. The Old Spice campaign was hugely successful.
The most successful viral marketing campaigns happen somewhat naturally. You cannot just get a viral marketing book and know with 100% surety that it will work. If a campaign strikes a chord with people, they will share it with others online and it will just end up going viral. You can’t just sit down in a meeting and say, “Let’s make a viral video!” That would be akin to a football team saying, “Let’s win the Super Bowl!”