The Hidden Opposition between Social Media and Viral Marketing

The generally accepted definition of viral marketing is that it refers to a marketing technique in which some marketing objective (often brand awareness) is enhanced by way of a viral process – the brand and/or message spreads like a disease or virus, infecting people, who in turn infect their peers. Something struck me as remarkably odd about this – we are comparing something harmless that requires voluntary user participation with something over which we have no control, that actually inflicts pain and suffering!

The Semantics

A virus by definition is something that ‘infects’ organisms. The term is inherently negative – nobody wants to catch a virus! It seems strange that in the online world, where we are under constant threat from computer viruses, we would refer to a positive marketing experience as being ‘viral’! It is an analogy of course, but does it really work?

Viral marketing relies upon participation. Indeed there are measures for the SNP (Social Networking Potential) of individuals in order to determine who might have the most influence in spreading a viral marketing message (with my lowly Twitter following I doubt I’ll be making it to the top of any lists!). Of course, viruses require a sort of participation but it is involuntary and this is where the analogy doesn’t quite seem to fit.

Have you seen the “Spread” button on Facebook? What about the “Infect” button? No… me neither. On Facebook we ‘share’ content with our friends. Did you notice the juxtaposition there – ‘share’ is inherently positive. It is actually almost impossible to think of a negative use for ‘share’ – try it!

Share Vs Infect

So, on the one hand we have Facebook and Twitter inviting us to ‘share’ with our loyal, well-meaning friends. On the other hand we have these ruthless marketing types wanting us to ‘infect’ the same poor, unsuspecting souls! The thing is, these two separate titles refer to the exact same process, so why the difference in tone?

Viral Marketing Gives Marketers Power

The people who are targeted with viral marketing campaigns are not made aware of the fact that they are being ‘infected’ – so whilst the term is a negative one, it is only really shared amongst industry insiders and by people discussing a campaign rather than participating in it. The term has been adopted on a broad scale and one theory is that it empowers the marketers and particularly marketing agencies. People are apparently powerless to resist the spread of this disease – the marketing is forceful and direct.

Imagine an agency pitching a ‘viral’ marketing idea to a business. Which one sounds more convincing?

  1. This video will go viral; once it starts to spread there will be no stopping it.
  2. This video relies upon people to share it on Facebook and Twitter, and if they do, and then their friends do too, there is potential for it to be seen by lots of people.


The examples are crude and exaggerated but the opposition is clear for all to see. There is a great deal of competition in the marketing industry and most companies want results and they want them fast. This is one reason why many still fail to accept that social media is important and why option “b” here may be less appealing to them – because the ROI remains less clear than it does with the more traditional marketing techniques.

Is the Term Viral Marketing Here to Stay?

In short, it would look that way. Once a term becomes accepted language use, it is not often that it will then be rejected within a short space of time, although I maintain that the analogy is just a little off. Something like ‘snowball marketing’ would work better because a snowball only grows when it is deliberately pushed. Feel free to use that one!