Much has been made of the viral nature of the internet and how ‘word of mouse’ can make brands famous over night.
However, if we keep modelling our online communications on a disease, the internet will quickly develop an immune system.
Is it time to make viral marketing less virulent?
All electronic communications, since Maxwell invented the radio, have suffered from an ever increasing signal to noise ratio. The more people that start to broadcast, the harder it is to tune into the signal you want.
We first saw this happen on the internet with email. Most of us now get more spam than legitimate emails, but most of us have worked out ways of filtering the noise out – heavily relying on the sender’s address to spot illegitimate contact from Viagra salesman.
But have we now come to this stage with online viral marketing?
The idea of marketing to consumers via their friends pre-dates the internet.
We trust our friends – well most of them. If they found something funny or useful, we are likely to do so too; it’s why we spend so much time in the pub with them.
Replace the pub with an online social network and you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for viral marketing.
But we are now witnessing what social marketing experts are calling ‘app fatigue’ where the average life expectancy of a viral campaign is getting increasingly shorter.
For those readers who have never been on Facebook, I will explain. But first I must salute you for resisting peer pressure and agree with you that having real friends is better.
Essentially, brands create Facebook applications (or ‘apps’) that are designed to be fun or useful to users, utilising their profile data in some way to be titillating to their friends.
Currently ‘Sell Your Friends’ is the app of the moment on Facebook. I’ve been sold as a pet by one of my ‘friends’ to a stranger for £3,300. A bit of an insult, I think you’ll agree.
The viral element with this app, or the ‘invite loop’ as it is known, is where you are required to invite your friends to join in and are rewarded with credits to buy other people’s friends.
But like the spam email epidemic before it, we are all getting sick of being invited to engage with the latest online nonsense and are thinking twice ourselves before ticking ‘yes’ in the ‘invite your friend’ box.
The social networks are essentially developing a resistance to this form of viral marketing and for it to survive it needs to mutate.
Bizarrely, the most enduring strains will be the ones that are less virulent.
Good content, be it funny of useful, will naturally go viral without a forced invite loop.
It will last longer, reach further and survive by not distressing its host too much.
Chris Tomlinson is head of digital at WAA. This and other unedited articles can be found at waa.co.uk. E-mail email@example.com