Viral Marketing

Computer Life column for June 12, 1999

Richard Gordon

A friend of mine on the staff at the Wharton School recently introduced me to a term of which I'd never heard: Viral Marketing.

Reach Online services defines Viral Marketing as "Any advertising that propagates itself the way viruses do," adding that it's also called "V-Marketing, organic marketing, word-of-mouth marketing or word-of-mouse marketing."

In its simplest form, v-marketing uses the Internet to amplify word-of-mouth advertising, causing a company's customers to spread the message.

If you've been on the 'Net at all, you've seen lots of examples of viral marketing: for example, the "Send this story to a friend" button on a news site. You click on that button, enter a friend's e-mail address, and send the information to your friend. You've shared what you wanted to; however, the e-mail message you sent probably contains an advertisement for the site you visited. In addition, you've also "endorsed" the site by letting your friend know that you've found something interesting there.

Free e-mail offered by Juno, Hotmail, Excite, Yahoo!, and other companies is the classic example of viral marketing in action. Every time a Hotmail subscriber sends an e-mail message, he or she also sends a short ad for Hotmail as the last couple of lines of the message.

If you use one of these services, you are happy to have free e-mail. The service is happy because each and every message you send not only contains a commercial for their service, but is also an endorsement of that service. According to my friend from Wharton, Hotmail "is now the largest e-mail provider in India, with absolutely no marketing presence" in that country-all done by word of mouse.

It's like an automated Tupperware party: instead of asking you to mingle your social and business lives in your own living room, viral marketers tap directly into your network of friends and acquaintances, piggy-backing their message on every piece of e-mail that you send. Instead of a small commission or free sandwich containers, you get free e-mail out of the deal.

It turns out I'm behind the times: the phrase has been in circulation since at least 1996, when a Harvard Business School professor named Jeffrey Rayport discussed it in the December 1996 issue of Fast Company (

His six rules for v-marketers includes this key to a successful viral marketing campaign: "Let the behaviors of the target community carry the message.... Fashion your messages so that the target markets will transmit them as part of their core interests."

In short, marketers have discovered that formally "pushing the buzz" on the 'Net works. They are getting us to don electronic T-shirts promoting their brand names while we share what we find on the Web, visit message boards and chat rooms, and send e-mail.

Tip of the week


Since it is nearly as easy to send e-mail to 1,275 strangers as it is to send e-mail to 10 friends, lots of advertisers send out unsolicited bulk e-mail or SPAM. Just some common-sense anti-SPAM reminders:

  1. Don't ever reply to SPAM. Even if the message says that the sender will remove you from the mailing list if you reply to the message with such a request, such a reply usually helps the marketer confirm that your address is valid and worth selling to someone else!

  2. If your ISP offers "filtering," ways to control what e-mail ends up in your inbox, use it to screen out obvious SPAM. But be careful that you don't filter out e-mail you do want.

  3. If you have a Web site of your own, don't put your e-mail address on your Web pages. Marketers harvest addresses that appear in the text of a Web document. Make a phrase like "Contact Us" be a link to allow people to send you e-mail.

  4. Get used to deleting SPAM. It's part of the Internet whether we like it or not.

Copyright © 1999, The News Journal Company

Computer Life Index

Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.