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What’s wrong with viral marketing?

May 13, 2007

Duncan Watts, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, was recently interviewed on the topic of viral marketing for HBR’s Ideacast series.

Watts started out by explaining how viruses work, highlighting how it’s well known to science that a small number of people start epidemics. For a virus to become an epidemic, it requires each infected person infects at least one other person. Infect less than one and a viral epidemic doesn’t occur.

In science terms, an epidemic requires a “reproduction rate” of 1.

Watts believes marketers need think beyond viral, to an alternative that he calls Big Seed Marketing. This demands marketers go beyond the analogy of viral, where current thinking demands that viruses start with a small number of people. His recommendation is not to replace traditional marketing with viral, but introduce viral elements to traditional programs.

Simply put, pay for an initial base and then add tools to help spread the idea.

Watts used Procter and Gamble’s launch of Tide Cold Water, as an example of Big Seed Marketing in action. P&G wanted a true viral effect, but in tests campaigns generated “reproduction rates” that were significantly less than 1.

Procter then sent the campaign to its mailing list of 900,000 people and discovered that it took 20 people to infect 1. Although the impact wasn’t as viral as they had hoped for, they still added 40,000 people for no cost. Importantly, they didn’t start out small hoping to seed the idea; they started with almost 1 million people.

For years we’ve been using the “viral” in viral marketing, thinking and hoping that it’s marketing that works like a virus, it turns out we were wrong on two fronts; there’s no such thing as a truly viral marketing campaign and if you want to get the next best thing, forget small, you need to start out big.

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