Is viral marketing the next big thing in Internet marketing? While viral campaigns can be embraced with almost cult-like enthusiasm, backlash is also very possible.
Although viral marketing is more frequently used to describe online phenomena, the concept in itself is not entirely new. Any self perpetuating, word-of-mouth process that depends on pre-existing social networks can be thought of as a "viral" process, and it is arguably one of the most ancient ways of building brand-awareness. However, the term "viral marketing" was coined in 1997 and is now largely associated with online advertisements. Since the Internet is rife with sub-communities such as forums, blogs, and social networking sites, there are more networks that can be accessible to advertisers than in a real life situation. As well, since massive amount of information can be transmitted in an instant, online advertising via viral marketing is superbly efficient and can generate a large amount of user interaction.
Since the return generated by online viral marketing can be difficult to quantify, many viral campaigns are carried out by brands or companies that already have a certain level of recognition. In such cases, the viral marketing strategy serves to reinforce the pre-existing consumer base, or in some instances to generate hype for a new product. One key feature of online advertisement through viral marketing campaign is that it often tends to cater to a specific demography, and aim to generate a cult-like following while remaining relatively low-key in the mainstream media. This is how such strategies differ from regular publicity stunt type of campaigns.
Viral marketing can also be a form of stealth marketing, in which the users are not aware that they are being marketed to. This usually entails an "undercover" marketer, who enters an online community to initialize the viral process, for instance post a link, a video clip, or certain messages. This method is not without its detractors, but overall it is a very cost-effective way to generate potentially large benefits. It has some inherent risks, the most notable being the potential of backlash if the targeted community realizes the real intent of the undercover marketer. Therefore, lots of research and a high level of familiarity with the targeted demography are pre-requisites of running similar kinds of campaigns.