Infectious And Contagious: Two Keys To Viral Marketing

How many times has a client come to you and said, "I want a campaign that's going to go viral!"? If I had a nickel...


I'm not knocking the desire for a campaign to go viral. It's just that, well, it's kind of stating the obvious. It's like saying, "I want my business to be really successful!" or "I want a product that people are going to love!" The critical question is, what makes viral viral?

Virulence in the online world has seemed to be an elusive beast, born from a heady cocktail comprising flashes of creative genius, brilliant execution, impeccable timing, and a hefty helping of luck. Malcolm Gladwell discusses virulence extensively in The Tipping Point: how there's often a wide base before an idea "tips,",how we need "connectors" to reach the nooks and crannies of a network, how context affects our perception.

But I'd like to take a step back here and return to the critical question: what makes viral viral?



The virulence of ideas rests on the same two fundamental criteria as the virulence of disease:


  1. It has to be infectious.
  2. It has to be contagious.
If a virus doesn't infect you, doesn't make you sick, doesn't take hold, it will fizzle and die. Likewise, if a virus doesn't transmit easily, through the air or slick surfaces or the tongue, it will start and finish with the same person.


Infectiousness online is about one thing: desire. It is about making content that is compelling enough for people to want to pass it on. It is about producing that sense of inevitability of a successful viral campaign. "Of course it went viral," we think. "It was awesome!"

Fortunately, inevitability doesn't stop us from being able to understand it. Generally speaking, content is compelling for one of three reasons:


  1. It is so funny, shocking, scary, sexy, sad or heartwarming that we can't help but want to share it. Think Susan Boyle.
  2. It makes us feel personally proud.
  3. It has something to do with cute cats.
The first category is the most elusive, the Lotto win of idea transmission. It requires the right timing, the right emotional hot buttons, and the right execution.


It's generally not wise to bank your company's future on a Lotto win, so it's the second category that gives us the best opportunity to create intentional virulence. How can we make our idea personal to people?

OfficeMax's Elf Yourself is a perfect example of this. If those elves had elf faces, you can bet the concept would have died out a long time ago. But because they have our faces, we can't pass them on quickly enough.

And here's where contagiousness comes into play. As much as I like you and your family, I probably wouldn't forward your elves to my friends. But at the end of the song, I'm presented with both the ability to quickly and easily make my own set of dancing elves (making the content personal to me and therefore compelling) and the mechanism to send it to lots and lots of people (making it contagious).

The more you can do to provide the mechanisms and incentives for people to share your content, the more likely it is to go viral. Putting a Forward-to-a-Friend or Share-With-Your-Network link on the bottom of your email is a start, but really, you need to be asking yourself, "Why would people want to forward this in the first place? How can I get them personally invested in its transmission?"

Scott Adams once pointed out that, if you want to be really successful, you can either be the best in the world at one thing or you can be in the top 25% at two or more things. Scott's an OK artist and an OK comedian, but put those two together and you get the magic that is Dilbert. The same holds true for the three types of compelling content. If you can couple good execution with personalization, you're halfway there. Throw in a cat or two, and you're practically home free.

One a side note, I'm aware that I've deviated a fair bit from the specific topic of search into more generalized areas of online marketing. If you're starting to get irritated ("Come on, Kaila, the column's called Search Insider!"), let me know in the comments. If you like this direction, let me know that, too. I'm here to serve.

10 comments about "Infectious And Contagious: Two Keys To Viral Marketing".
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  1. Gabriela Paredes from C-Sync, November 3, 2009 at 10:27 a.m.

    I think this is great content. You brought me back to the basic principles of viral marketing which sometimes are overlooked. Even though its not related to search, I still got something out of this. I look forward to more insight!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 3, 2009 at 11:14 a.m.

    Profitable yes, but you hit the nail on the head with that Lotto win ideal.

  3. Cindy Kerber spellman from GroupM Next, November 3, 2009 at 11:28 a.m.

    Like your article but but I kept wondering where the search element was, either in small or big picture thinking. There are many forums for broader marketing topics where this could run, especially within MediaPost. As we opt-in to receive columns by topic or industry, I personally would prefer search industry-relevant flare and commentary, no matter how broad or narrow, for Search Insider columns.

  4. Daniel Bader from jackpot ventures, November 3, 2009 at 11:32 a.m.

    "...It's generally not wise to bank your company's future on a Lotto win..."
    Unfortunately, I am!

  5. David Wilson from AMN Healthcare, November 3, 2009 at 12:02 p.m.

    I thought this article contained valuable info and didn't mind at all that it strayed from search. The point about making people personally proud is insightful for trying to create viral campaigns.

  6. Vicki Monti from, November 3, 2009 at 12:37 p.m.

    I really like all of your articles! If you get too many votes saying you should stay on-topic, maybe you could consider also writing for one of the other columns? I would definitely read it!

  7. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, November 3, 2009 at 10:08 p.m.

    Thanks so much! I really appreciate all of your comments and always take the feedback on board. @Daniel, hope this column wasn't too much of a slap in the face! ;-)

  8. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, November 4, 2009 at 2:37 p.m.

    If only something in this article allowed me to personalize it and readily send it to my friends. Eight comments and growing means it's got some viral vibe relative to the average though!

  9. Cathleen Olson from COLOURS Marketing Communications, November 4, 2009 at 4:40 p.m.

    Great info. You were able to bring all of the random thoughts out there together in a very succinct fashion. This is great support to the questions we are getting.

  10. Phil Masi, November 5, 2009 at 2:45 p.m.

    Great information. Funny that I just heard a radio talk show host ranting about the same thing -- how all the upper management in their board meetings asks "how do we make this viral?" Nice. Now I'm going to have to go check out these OfficeMax elves.

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