Is viral marketing the same as word of mouth? Seth Godin asked the question after receiving an email from a college student whose professor wouldn’t allow the phrase “viral marketing” in a paper, insisting the term was meaningless proxy for word-of-mouth.
First of all, yes, viral marketing does exist. But it’s a combination of tactics that, hopefully, eventually, enable positive word of mouth to spread. (In a moment, I’ll share a remarkable story of one family-owned e-commerce shop that saved a network TV show from extinction with a few viral marketing tactics, a strong will, and 20 tons of nuts. But first… ) Let’s take a look at how Godin explains the difference between viral marketing and word of mouth:
Word of mouth is a decaying function. A marketer does something and a consumer tells five or ten friends. And that’s it. It amplifies the marketing action and then fades, usually quickly. A lousy flight on United Airlines is word of mouth. A great meal at Momofuku is word of mouth.
Viral marketing is a compounding function. A marketer does something and then a consumer tells five or ten people. Then then they tell five or ten people. And it repeats. And grows and grows. Like a virus spreading through a population. The marketer doesn’t have to actually do anything else. (They can help by making it easier for the word to spread, but in the classic examples, the marketer is out of the loop.) The Mona Lisa is an ideavirus.
Word of mouth expert Andy Sernovitz sees it a (slightly) different way:
Word of mouth marketing is the big category. Viral marketing is one of the many techniques used to help word of mouth travel (usually by email).
Think of it this way:
- “Advertising” includes TV, print, billboards, etc.
- “Direct Marketing” includes catalogs, mail, telemarketing, etc.
- “Interactive” includes web, search, email, etc.
- “Word of Mouth Marketing” includes viral, blogs, communities, etc.
Are these two very smart people that far apart in their thinking? If not the category itself, it seems both would agree that word of mouth is the ultimate goal of viral marketing. So, when Godin calls word of mouth “a decaying function,” what he means is that it’s an effect that can be nurtured with various marketing tactics (e.g., blogs, video, remarkable PR). The surest key to successful viral marketing is having a great product. But the other key is having that something extra, that, je-ne-sais-quoi that, as Godin likes to say, makes a company a purple cow.
When the CBS drama Jericho was canceled earlier in the year, the folks at NutsOnline.com saw a chance to sell — literally — tons of product by rallying a wave of new customers to send nuts to the network’s midtown Manhattan offices. Using viral marketing tactics to attract fans of the show, NutsOnline bombarded CBS with 40,000 pounds of nuts from Jericho fans around the world. But here’s the amazing part: The network listened, and pledged to return the show to its schedule.
This video shows how it all came together:
Not only did NutsOnline save their favorite show by selling $55k worth of nuts, they gained tons of positive word of mouth — and new customers — in the process. (Read the letter from CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler or watch this video for details.)
As a matter of disclosure, both NutsOnline and CBS are clients of Future Now. We weren’t involved in the Jericho campaign, but we remain very proud of the outside-the-shell thinking from both companies; NutsOnline for seeing the opportunity to save the show (they got the idea because one of the characters says “Nuts!”
a lot at the end of the show instead of surrendering*), and CBS for being savvy enough to respond so gracefully and smart enough to use existing grassroots support to attract viewers. (I had never even heard of the show until it was off the air!)
In a nutshell, viral marketing is only as good as the concept it promotes — something granular enough for people to grok instantly. Otherwise, the result is difficult to digest, let alone share. Don’t you think?
Seth is right, by the way. Momofuku is a great restaurant — but don’t take my word for it. As far as the 3 triggers of word of mouth are concerned, Momo is both kinetic and generous. And apparently, you might run into famous people like Jodie Foster or Seth Godin.
[*UPDATE: My colleague Jeff Sexton informs me that "Nuts!" really is taken from The Battle of the
Budge Bulge -- easy now -- in which U.S. General McAuliffe gave the response to the German Commander's eloquent call for surrender. Sorry for missing the tie-in, Jericho fans. Please don't send truckloads of peanuts to my alma mater. ]