Is Viral Marketing a Myth?

That ideas can go viral is now a given in corporate marketing and the culture – but new research suggests the term “viral” marketing does not describe accurately what happens in the market.

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That ideas can go viral is now a given in corporate marketing and the culture — it’s even part of the plot of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” But new research suggests the term “viral” marketing does not describe accurately what happens in the market.

“It is not happening at all,” says Sharad Goel, senior researcher at Microsoft Research in New York.

I saw his research into virality mentioned by one of Goel’s colleagues at the Marketing Science Institute Big Data conference in December. It turns out the paper, “The Structure of Online Diffusion Networks,” by Goel, Duncan J. Watts and Daniel G. Goldstein (all of Yahoo! Research at the time, now at Microsoft Research) was first presented last January, and is publicly available. Intrigued by its counterintuitive finding, I got in touch with Goel.

Viral myth

Goel and his colleagues studied seven different online scenarios to see how they spread:

  1.  Yahoo! Voice, an online phone service started in 2004;
  2. Zync, a Yahoo! Instant Messenger video-sharing application;
  3. Friend Sense, a Facebook app introduced in 2009;
  4. “The Secretary Game,” the online  version of a classic hiring test devised by psychologists;
  5. Yahoo! Kindness, a charitable website launched in 2010;
  6. News stories sent via Twitter in November 2011;
  7. and Youtube links diffused through Twitter in November 2011.

Goel says they wanted to see whether these spread virally, “like the common cold, some sort of biological contagion. One person gets infected and their friend gets infected and a friend of their friend gets infected.” It’s called multistep diffusion in technical terms. And Goel’s data shows it’s a fantasy.

“What we see is something qualitatively different. Most of the time it adopts and dies out within one generation,” Goel says.

Try 99 percent of the time, in fact. The best any of these seven online scenarios did was to get passed along more than once in six percent of cases. That happened both for Yahoo Voice and Friend Sense. Goel isn’t using models, by the way; this is real world data.

For marketers, Goel’s research means it’s time to abandon the idea that viral marketing via social media will lead to tenfold organic growth.

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Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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Comments (5)
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Gemma Laming
What a boring read!

More to the point, all of the marketing was effectively passive. Now anybody who's familiar with direct marketing knows that it relies on your *reacting* to what your customers are telling you (put better, doing - that is to say, who's buying). 

One reason for the explosive - that is to say, uncontrolled nature of viral marketing is that it has none of the feed-back loops that a direct marketing campaign will have in place. That means to say, viral marketing is completely hit-and-miss. There's no way to tell if it'll happen or not. 

As importantly, in direct marketing where the feedback loops are actively developed, you have a very different situation. You have control over what's happening- you know if it's working or not. That gives you the power to respond when it DOES WORK. And as importantly when it does NOT. If ever you've heard of the "jetstream" in the Google display network, that's viral marketing done the direct marketing way. Someone worked hard to fine-tune their responses to the right market.