The concept of "Viral" marketing is infectious but unhelpful

Companies, brands, and marketers in the modern age are learning to navigate a data-saturated public sphere. Twenty-four hours a day, consumers are switched on to a dizzying array of stimuli - from constantly updating news feeds (like twitter) to binge-ready box sets on television, tablet, and mobile offered by a variety of services (like Netflix and Hulu). Where companies used to be able to dictate the reputation of their brands through ads on television and in magazines, those channels are now supplemented by others - mainly the Internet, especially in the form of social media and discussion forums - which are much more difficult to influence. Consumers no longer take ads at face-value: instead, they inform one another by sharing first-hand experiences online, through amateur product reviews and social media discussions.

In this environment - teeming with unpredictable channels of discussion, and characterised by the figure of the intimidatingly well-informed consumer - brands have resorted to a strategy which, unfortunately, is largely founded in myth. This is the theory of so-called “viral” marketing, which, in the words of Derek Thompson, “assumes that simple word of mouth can easily take a small idea and turn it into a phenomenon”.

Why is the “viral” marketing theory so appealing to brands? Simply put, the theory comfortingly implies that one needn't invest in costly distribution strategies to achieve success; instead, all a company needs to do is create an inherently attractive product or campaign, and then sit back while consumers spread it like a virus.

But do ideas really “go viral”? Unfortunately, as Derek Thompson writes in his new book The Hit Makers: Why Things Become Popular, “the answer appears to be a simple no”. In a 2012 study conducted by the search-engine Yahoo, millions of twitter posts were studied to trace the extent to which messages go viral. More than ninety percent of the posts did not diffuse at all; only a tiny one percent of posts were shared more than seven times. Nothing, however, went fully “viral”.

How come some content becomes so overwhelmingly popular, then, shared and liked millions of times over? The answer is not that the content is shared between consumers like a virus, but that many consumers respond to a single source commanding a large audience (such as The New York Times, or Kim Kardashian's Instagram account). The lesson to learn here, from Derek Thompson and others who are beginning to question the wisdom of “viral” marketing, is that brands need to work on maximising their audience instead of investing all their energy in quirky, “viral”-worthy content which, it is unrealistically hoped, will be shared explosively and exponentially simply by virtue of its quality.