Viral marketing – use your clients to speak on your behalf

The concept of viral marketing has been debated and applied since the 1990s. The dawn of social media propelled it forward as another element in die marketing mix. Extracting real business value from social media is the challenge faced by all marketers who would like to embrace this avenue to market.

The Wikipedia definition of viral marketing states that it is “A method or product promotion that relies on getting customers to market an idea, product or service on their own, telling their friends about it, usually by e-mail.” or if we use the Oxford University Press definition which states it as “A marketing technique whereby information about a company`s goods and services is passed electronically from one internet user to another.”

According to marketing professors Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein (both from the ESCP Europe Business School – Paris campus), to make viral marketing work, three basic criteria must be met, i.e.:

  1. Giving the right message (only messages that are both memorable and sufficiently interesting to be passed on to others have the potential to spur a viral marketing phenomenon)
  2. to the right messengers (here are different messengers – people who have their fingers on the “pulse of things”, people who have large social networks and sales people who have the ability to amplify a message)
  3. in the right environment (the timing and context of the campaign launch must be right).

Case study

Here is a brief overview of the “Hotmail” case study to illustrate the power of viral marketing:

Between 1996 and 1997, Hotmail was one of the first internet businesses to become extremely successful utilizing viral marketing techniques by inserting the tagline “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail” at the bottom of every e-mail sent out by its users. Hotmail was able to sign up 12 million users in 18 months. At the time, this was historically the fastest growth of any user-based media company. By the time Hotmail reached 66 million users, the company was establishing 270,000 new accounts each day.

How can we apply the principles of viral marketing in our own businesses?

  1. Decide what you want to promote – your website URL, your newsletter/articles or your web-based products? The most successful viral marketing campaigns are consistent and promote one thing at a time.
  2. Identify Your Tools. You can use email signatures (like the Hotmail example above), e-books, free software, paid advertising, newsletter subscriptions, assorted freebies and members only privileged information on your website.
  3. Add value by giving out “freebies” to your existing customers and requesting them to distribute it within their personal networks.
  4. Drive traffic back to your website and collect contact information from each prospect that you gain. You may request a valid e-mail address, for example, before a prospect can receive a free item or subscribe to receive your articles.

The benefits of viral marketing

  • Successful campaigns will drive consistent traffic to your website.
  • More website traffic may lead into increased sales.
  • If your clients and people in your personal networks edify your business and value proposition, it adds to your credibility.
  • It is a very cost-effective marketing element as you will be using electronic media to communicate your message.

In conclusion

Viral marketing can be a productive addition to your current marketing mix. By doing some reading on the subject matter and starting to experiment, may pay off handsomely on the bottom line.


The content in this article was provided by Jannie Rossouw, Head: Sanlam Business Market. Sanlam is a diversified financial services group, headquartered in South Africa, operating across a number of selected global markets.

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