shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
The Toughest Virus of All 
07/11/2000 

"Viral marketing" is back, making its return as one of the gotta-have-it phrases 
for dot-com business plans currently making the rounds. The phrase was coined (by 
Steve Jurvetson and Tim Draper in "Turning Customers into a Sales Force," Nov. ’98, 
p103) to describe the astonishing success of Hotmail, which grew to 12 million 
subscribers 18 months after launch.

The viral marketing meme has always been hot, but now its expansion is being 
undertaken by a raft of emarketing sites promising to elucidate "The Six Simple 
Principles for Viral Marketing" or offering instructions on "How to Use Viral 
Marketing to Drive Traffic and Sales for Free!" As with anything that promises 
miracle results, there is a catch. Viral marketing can work, but it requires two 
things often in short supply in the marketing world: honesty and execution.

It’s all about control

It’s easy to see why businesses would want to embrace viral marketing. Not only is 
it supposed to create those stellar growth rates, but it can also reduce the marketing 
budget to approximately zero. Against this too-good-to-be-true backdrop, though, is 
the reality: Viral marketing only works when the user is in control and actually endorses 
the viral message, rather than merely acting as a carrier.

Consider Hotmail: It gives its subscribers a useful service, Web-based email, and then 
attaches an ad for Hotmail at the bottom of each sent message. Hotmail gains the 
credibility needed for successful viral marketing by putting its users in control, 
because when users recommend something without being tricked or co-opted, it provides 
the message with a kind of credibility that cannot be bought. Viral marketing is 
McLuhan marketing: The medium validates the message.

Viral marketing is also based on the perception of honesty: If the recipient of the 
ad fails to believe the sender is providing an honest endorsement, the viral effect 
disappears. An ad tacked on to a message without the endorsement of the author loses 
credibility; it’s no different from a banner ad. This element of trust becomes even 
more critical when firms begin to employ explicit viral marketing, where users go beyond 
merely endorsing ads to actually generating them.

These services–PayPal.com or Love Monkey, for example–rely on users to market the 
service because the value of the service grows with new recruits. If I want to pay you 
through PayPal, you must be a PayPal user as well (unlike Hotmail, where you just need 
a valid address to receive mail from me). With PayPal, I benefit if you join, and the 
value of the network grows for both of us and for all present and future users as well.

Love Monkey, a college matchmaking service, works similarly. Students at a particular 
college enter lists of fellow students they have crushes on, and those people are sent 
anonymous email asking them to join Love Monkey and enter their own list of crushes. 
It then notifies any two people whose lists include each other. Love Monkey must earn 
users’ trust before any viral effect can take place because Metcalfe’s Law only works 
when people are willing to interact. Passive networks such as cable or satellite 
television provide no benefits to existing users when new users join.

Persistent infections

Continuing the biological metaphor, viral marketing does not create a one-time 
infection, but a persistent one. The only thing that keeps Love Monkey users from 
being "infected" by another free matchmaking service is their continued use of Love 
Monkey. Viral marketing, far from eliminating the need to deliver on promises, makes 
businesses more dependent on the goodwill of their users. Any company that incorporates 
viral marketing techniques must provide quality services–ones that users are continually 
willing to vouch for, whether implicitly or explicitly.

People generally conspire to misunderstand what they should fear. The people rushing 
to embrace viral marketing misunderstand how difficult it is to make it work well. You 
can’t buy it, you can’t fake it, and you can’t pay your users to do it for you without 
watering down your message. Worse still, anything that is going to benefit from viral 
marketing must be genuinely useful, well designed, and flawlessly executed, so consumers 
repeatedly choose to use the service.

Sadly, the phrase "viral marketing" seems to be going the way of "robust" and "scalable"
–formerly useful concepts which have been flattened by overuse. A year from now, viral 
marketing will simply mean word of mouth. However, the concept described by the phrase–
a way of acquiring new customers by encouraging honest communication–will continue to 
be available, but only to businesses that are prepared to offer ongoing value.

Viral marketing is not going to save mediocre businesses from extinction. It is the 
scourge of the stupid and the slow, because it only rewards companies that offer great 
service and have the strength to allow and even encourage their customers to publicly 
pass judgment on that service every single day.



Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source