Now I am sure that I know what people mean when they say these things. They mean, can I spend a little money to create some content with my brand name all over it, and then get that content viewed by millions of people for free? In other words, can I fundamentally change the attention/cost equation of reaching my market with my brand message?
In order to understand why this is fundamentally the wrong question, it is worthwhile to go back to the original idea of online "viral" marketing, understand what a virus is (and thus why this phrase was introduced), and then address what companies CAN do to achieve that objective -- fundamentally changing the attention/cost equation...
So lets turn the clock back to July of 1996 when an innovative web company was introduced and then really began to take off, showing the kind of exponential growth that Internet sites are now famous for achieving. The company was Hotmail. Tim Draper, one of the company's investors, attributed the success of HotMail to something he called "viral marketing," specifically referring to "...Hotmail's e-mail practice of appending advertising for itself in outgoing mail from their users."
This to me is a much more useful definition of viral marketing than the more general usage of individuals proactively passing a piece of advertising around amongst themselves -- it gets at the heart of why it works.
So WHAT is a virus? A virus, as Wikipedia so helpfully tells us, is
a sub-microscopic infectious agent that is unable to grow or reproduce outside a host cell.In the case of Hotmail, the host cell was an email message. The infectious agent was a tagline at the bottom of the message which said something like "get a Hotmail account for yourself" -- that is, a call to action to get this free web-based email service.
Why is this important? Because the thing which Hotmail was doing was NOT the virus, the virus was something users of the service passed along to each other unintentionally through using the service.
Which brings me back to how companies need to think about viral marketing -- the starting point is to determine what value the company can create for its target market. After determining what valuable contribution to this market the company can make, then the company can design a virus to be implanted within that host which does the work of spreading the company's message.
Please - stop with the "make me a viral video" - and start really creating value for your markets. You'll find that when you do you earn awareness, then attention, then respect. And you'll succeed in fundamentally changing the attention/cost equation of reaching your market with your brand message.