3 Rules For Managing Viral Marketing – What Every CMO Needs To Know

futurelab default header

by: Karl Long

If you are responsible for the creative output of a marketing department or an agency, then this post is for you. What I aim to outline is some of the key differences between viral marketing and traditional marketing, that might spark some ideas on how you can augment your creative process, and where to invest your time and effort.

Control, success, and execution are all very different in viral marketing and worth paying attention to. The traditional approach of refining ideas internally until you have the one that will be the campaign is doomed to failure, because viral marketing, like lightning is very unpredictable. Even worse than that, in viral marketing what worked last time will absolutely not work this time, think of it like inoculation, once people have been exposed to an idea, they build an immunity.

Clearly marketers are trying out viral marketing with with varying degrees of success, and more often than not these forays end in failure. I don’t think these failures come from marketers not being smart, lack of investment, or bad execution, I think it comes from thinking like a marketer. What I mean by that is traditional marketing theory and methods developed over the last 50 years are antithetical to Viral Marketing.

So why is viral marketing different from traditional marketing? Let me throw out some ideas:

  • Success bares no relation to investment – Traditional marketing there was generally a relationship between how much you spent and how many people saw your message, there is no such relationship in Viral Marketing
  • Viral Marketing does not have a timeline – Traditional marketing calendars, and even the traditional marketing plan is irrelevant when executing and responding to viral marketing efforts. Viral marketing is just not that predictable, which calls for a different kind of planning
  • Number of views bare little relation to reach or impact of Viral Marketing – As viral is something that is shared from person to person, you can be sure that many more people hear about it than view it (a little esoteric I know, but I talk about subserviantChicken constantly, and yet have only been to the site once)

So what are the 3 rules for Viral Marketing, well maybe less rules, but more of a philosophy or an approach: Experiment. Monitor. Respond.


Viral Marketing should be treated as an innovation exercise and you should be focused on building a portfolio of social media experiments. A crucible of creativity through blogs, vlogs, podcasts, widgets, social networks; tools that are easy to engage with and are easily shared. Remember, failure is not only an option it’s a requirement, so “fail faster so you can succeed sooner”*.


Social Media put a plethora of tools in marketers’ hands that allow real time measurement and monitoring of your ideas in the marketplace: technorati, delicious, blogpulse, pubsub are just a couple of tools that can be leveraged to see what ideas are being shared, and what ideas are taking off. Monitoring is not just about measurement though, it’s about listening. A great example of this is the Agency.com subwayrfi tag on delicious, where they have collected links to all the blogs talking about their viral. Paying attention to the conversations, responses, and mashups give you a rich source to draw from when you respond.


When things take off you had better be ready to respond, participate and engage in the ensuing conversation. Can you amplify what’s happening, can you on capitalize what’s happening, can you reflect what’s happening?

Smirnoff failed with their teapartay viral (lazy sunday rip off?), because they have no response, in fact their web site says “teapartay coming soon”.

“Coming soon” is a great message for the half million people that have watched the video.

agentpaprika makes a comment on youtube:

too bad the URL they list at the end goes to a site w/ generic smirnoff content and a little tiny tea partay banner ad that goes nowhere (it just says “coming soon”).
i mean, so i’m supposed to come back some other time and hope they got the new content up? it was sorta entertaining, but not so much that i’ll come back again and again…

So what next

Have fun, have a sense of humor. I actually think there is only one rule of viral marketing and that is don’t take yourself too seriously.

So anyway, that’s my hypothesis, I would be very interested in other ways that viral marketing is distinct from traditional marketing, or even why it’s the same. I would love to hear from you.


Some good sources of viral marketing thinking:

* Dave Kelly from IDEO

Original Post: http://blog.experiencecurve.com/archives/three-rules-for-managing-viral-marketing-what-every-cmo-needs-to-know