Going Viral – Social Media Epidemics

If pursuing alternative marketing techniques holds any interest for you, you will doubtless already know of campaigns or products that seemingly ‘went viral’ entirely on their own. Hotmail, Apple and, lately, Old Spice are prime examples, each of them representing a giant, gleaming marketer’s dream. The question, though, is how did they do it? So we’re going to look beyond the usual media coverage and examine the principles behind these success stories.

To do that, we need to get a little scientific.

A viral marketing campaign is so called because it spreads… and spreads… and spreads… In the biological world, viruses spread thanks to things called fomites. You don’t need to remember the word, but you do need to know that a fomite is, as any medical dictionary will tell you, ‘an inanimate object or substance, such as clothing, furniture or soap, that is capable of transmitting organisms from one individual to another’. It’s the agent in other words – the transmitter through which a virus moves from person to person, city to city, even continent to continent.

In medicine, for a virus to take hold and become an epidemic, the reproduction rate of the pathogen responsible for the virus has to be bigger than one. The graph below shows why. As you can see, reproduction rates of one or less (the blue and red lines) lead to little or moderate growth, which could be easily countered by other factors (vaccination, for example). Reproduction rates above one (the green line) are therefore critical to the success of an epidemic spread.

The same applies in the marketing arena. As marketers, our goal is to ‘infect’ as many people as possible with information in the form of messages, ideas or products. Do that properly and we create an epidemic. The trick, in social media terms, is to create that epidemic not via traditional advertising but through interpersonal relations. Here, the reproduction rate is influenced by many different factors:

• The transmission environment – Just as a biological disease adapts and flourishes due to the environment in which it is transmitted, so the ‘social virus’ or marketing concept relies on its environment. The relatively new online space and the interaction now offered by social networking sites and Web 2.0 mean that the parameters have changed – greatly increasing the opportunities for the virus to spread.

• The transmission path – In contrast to traditional advertising, most information being exchanged in this new environment is interpersonal or ‘buzz’. This means C-2-C (effectively consumer-to-consumer) instead of B-2-C. If we compare this to the behaviour of a biological virus, we can see that the social marketing epidemic becomes far more ‘contagious’ when the volume of ‘infected people’ grows.

• The transmitter – Remember those fomites – the inanimate agents that cause a biological virus to spread? They’re here in the marketing world, too, and they are just as crucial. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace, Cyworld, Internet forums, email, weblogs, social blogs, wikis, podcasts, microblogging, vlogs, wall-postings, instant messaging, crowdsourcing… these are all fomites in the social marketing world. Because social epidemics exclude traditional mass media communication, they depend on choosing the right people and places in which to seed the message. The change-over to PR is fluent. The limitless reach of the Internet gives everybody a potentially big voice when it comes to opinion formation.

• The transmission object: Getting a certain reaction from your target market requires the creation of a trigger. That trigger can either be a product (Apple), an engaging piece of information (think here about the multimedia aspect of the wildly successful new Old Spice campaign) or in the case of Hotmail, the power of net effects.


So for a message to successfully ‘go viral’ and become a virtual epidemic, it:

• requires a fertile environment where the idea can grow;
• needs to find the path of least resistance and highest contagion;
• must be planted with the right people and channels; and, most importantly…
• be genuinely worthy of generating mass social interest leading to mass social infection.

It’s basic biology!