Is viral marketing the same as word of mouth?

I got a note from a college student last week, explaining that his professor told him he couldn’t use the term ‘viral marketing’ in a paper. It doesn’t exist, apparently, it’s just a new-fangled form of word of mouth.

I found the interaction fascinating ("I’m not certain what benefit is gained by arguing with an instructor" is my favorite quote from his teacher) but I got to thinking about whether the instructor had a point.

"Viral marketing" shows up 2,000,000 times in Google, "ideavirus" shows up 200,000 times. Of course, you could argue that just because millions of people are using a term doesn’t make it legitimate (though you’d be wrong).


Viral marketing [does not equal] word of mouth.
Here’s why:

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.

This distinction is vital.

For one thing, it means that constant harassment of the population doesn’t increase the chances of something becoming viral. It means that most organizations should realize that they have a better chance with word of mouth (more likely to occur, more manageable, more flexible) and focus on that. And it means, most of all, that viral marketing is like winning the lottery, and if you’ve got a shot at an ideavirus, you might as well over-invest and do whatever it takes to create something virus-worthy.

And yes, I happen to think that arguing with the instructor is a very good idea.