Viral Marketing is Stupid

I have to give credit to Duncan Watts on this one.   His presentation at iCitizen a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about viral marketing. His forest fire analogy brought it home for me.

Forest fires start and stop all the time. There are thousands of forest fires every year. Only a few of them become the monster forest fires we see on TV consuming homes and acreage in vast quantities. How are these few mega-fires different from the thousands of small ones? Is it because they started from a really “special” tree? (An influential tree perhaps??)

No. The mega-fires started in a place and at a time where fuel, weather and other conditions were precisely right, and continued to be precisely right to grow into a TV-worthy blaze.

What does that have to do with viral marketing? Well, do you think the Coke-Mentos phenomenon was planned by an agency? Do you think the Blend-Tec videos were planned by an agency? NO, they just happened to appear in the right place at the right time with the right content. And they took off.

Viral marketing is like a baseball team trying to win all their games with home runs.


Figure 1: Credit – Exp. Flickr


6 Responses to Viral Marketing is Stupid

  1. Ishwar S says:

    Very interesting thought and probably true. The Mentos – Coke could not have been planned, but I am not so sure about Blend Tec. It seems to have been very neatly made for and launched on youtube.

    Even if they haven’t been planned in the past, there is nothing stopping companies and marketers from doing so in the future

    Sure it needs the right ingredients, but assuming that its impossible to plan, will make it just that – Impossible!

    Plus it might just put the emerging social media marketers out of business 🙂

  2. rkenneth says:

    Point of interest. This is the second time I’ve stumbled on this post. This morning, via a post on Harvard Business Publishing’s conversation starter blog. Previously, via whatever. Way to get your “tiny URL” out there TO’B.

  3. Daniel Edlen says:

    I think first that viral marketing is just a buzz word for basically really understanding the psyche of the masses and how to get them to do your marketing for you in a huge way. Is word-of-mouth stupid? Getting a tribe of people willing not only to buy your product, but tell people about it can be huge. It’s all about exposure and attention now, so as long as the video does a good job of communicating what the product is about as well as getting the video spread, it’s worth trying.

    So second, criticizing the analysis and categorization of viral marketing because there are too many categories isn’t very constructive. Marketers want to try to learn and create videos that hit, so taking some extremely successful ads with appropriate bad examples too and bunching them into categories is helpful in that it can help focus the idea, no matter how many there are. It’s just a way to stir creative juices and focus them. Find the ad that you liked the most, try to come up with an idea for your product that uses the same framework, do it really well, and maybe you’ll hit it!


  4. tomob says:

    Hi Daniel:

    Thanks for your comment. I admit that my title is a bit provocative, but I really do think that planning on viral marketing is like planning on winning the lottery. You might get lucky with a number selection system, but most likely not.

    I agree that there are common elements – but there is also an illusion of control – which does not exist. Because you can see successful ones doesn’t mean yours will be any more likely to be successful.


  5. This further clarifies for me what you need to be successful. It’s about helping to create the right conditions as much as it is the spark.

    I may re-blog this. Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. […] being deployed by big companies, and some of them will work.  But to me it feels more like Viral Marketing than anything else.  Rather than engaging your REAL brand users on the level of their personal […]

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