Feature Article (Pub: March 04) What is Viral Marketing and how does it work? by Tim Fidgeon

What is Viral Marketing?

The principle behind Viral Marketing is that it encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others. The advantage of getting individuals to pass on a marketing message is obvious - these people become your marketing team, and do it for free.

How does it work?

There are 2 key elements to a viral marketing campaign that need to be addressed:

  1. The Incentive
  2. Easy Forwarding
  3. Design of Message

1. The Incentive

The most successful viral marketing will provide people with an incentive to participate - i.e. a reason to pass on the message to others. The reason for this should be obvious - why should people choose to forward your marketing message to others? You need to give them an incentive to do so. This incentive can take the form of a cash incentive, a 'free' product/service that would otherwise have traditional commercial value (e.g. free online 'disk space' where people can upload documents and access them over the Internet), or some other form of product/service that would not normally be thought of as having value (e.g. a humorous message).

The important point here is that an incentive can take many forms - the exact choice of the incentive depends on your goals, resources and audience.

2. Easy Forwarding

The Internet is the ultimate for of viral marketing because of the ease and low cost of someone forwarding your marketing message.

3. Design of Message & Incentive

In order for a viral marketing email to be successful the design of the Message and Incentive are also critical. The 'idea' of an incentive may be perfect (e.g. 'We'll give people free advice on how to behave in job interviews') but if your viral campaign does not communicate the incentive, and its benefits, effectively enough, you may as well not have bothered. An ineffectively communicated incentive is no incentive at all.

The golden rules in such communication are that the message should be :

  • clear
  • concise

What Now?

Now that you understand the fundamentals of Viral Marketing, the question becomes how exactly it could help your business? For this, you are likely to need help from professionals who understand how to design such campaigns effectively. The fundamental questions any such professionals should ask you are :

  • Who is your campaign going to target?
  • What is the aim of your campaign?

If they don't ask these questions, they'll never get to the 'How' of designing a successful campaign.


Tim Fidgeon (MSc HCI) has worked as information architect and usability consultant for a number of FTSE100 companies for 9 years leading a variety of projects, and heads the usability team at CommerceTuned.

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