August 13, 2006

what is a viral, anyway?

cluetrain for.jpg

The very smart and talented Tara Hunt, auteur of the successful post-Cluetrain "movement", "Pinko Marketing", takes me to task in the comments for writing about "Virals":

Anyone who even uses the word 'viral' should be dragged out onto the streets and shot brutally within the idea of a 'post-cluetrain' doctrine.

Seriously. Have you seen the try-hard video? It was so lame I didn't even want to post about it.

Hugh, you are better than this.

So I reply:
Tara, not sure if I agree. You could interpret "Viral" as just another term for what Doc Searls calls a "snowball".

You could also argue a viral is just another word for what Juri Engstrom calls an "Object of Sociability".

You could also argue that one of my Stormhoek prints is a viral.

A viral is a form of social gesture, no more, no less. A viral is only as good as the person sending it.

Sure, thanks to certain top-down meatheads in the ad biz, the word "viral" has a bad name. But creating a viral and creating a blog post isn't that much different, as the creator has no control on what happens to it. You make it, put it out there, and see what happens. Neither the ad agency or the blogger has much control over the final outcome. But that's what makes post-Cluetrain marketing so damn interesting.

I think where traditional marketers and ad agencies screw up in this space is, they fail to understand that a viral [or a "snowball", call it what you will] is not a message, but in fact a social gesture.

Ooze, Baby. It's all about the Ooze.

[UPDATE:] John Dodds pipes in:

For me, a major problem is that just as it was wrong to turn the word brand into a verb, it's been wrong to turn viral into a noun (and the same established parties are guilty in both cases). To do so suggests that creating a viral is the goal when the goal is actually the spreading not the creation.

Posted by hugh macleod at August 13, 2006 4:47 AM | TrackBack

In many ways I can empathize with Tara's sentiment, I think the term 'viral' is an overly abused term, and it reeks of hype. That being the case, the way an 'idea' or 'social gesture' passes from person to person acts very much like a virus. It's also interesting, many things that are considered 'viral' only bare watching once, take the subserviant chicken, who the hell goes there on a regular basis, it's kind of like once you've seen it you're inoculated (sorry i'm paraphrasing myself there).

This post from Guy Kawasaki, talking with Seth Godin is interesting:

In it Seth talks about why people share or spread ideas:

1. They (the customers) understand it
2. They want it to spread
3. They believe that spreading it will enhance their power

Now, those points do ring true for me, but they are all things that marketers are notoriously bad at figuring out. If organizations wait for definitive data on the points Seth highlights, before they experiment with social media, then they will never get anything done. Or worse they will waste a lot of money on focus groups before releasing an expensive waste of time campaign that everyone ignores. Bold Moves anyone? the coke show?



Posted by: karl long at August 13, 2006 6:15 AM

It's kind of amazing that ad agencies managed to transform the thought behind a viral from

"Hey, dude, look at this. It's cool!"


"You will look at this. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It IS cool. We said so."

Posted by: Guy Sie at August 13, 2006 3:12 PM

Yikes, more attempted 2.0 terminology revisionism! *yawn* :0

Yup, the term viral may have been semi-appropriated by trad marketing types, but as Karl says, 'spreading like a virus' is still a valid concept for describing the diffusion of an idea through unplanned social connections.

Personally, I think little bits (drops?) of ooze have been around for a long time; we're now recognizing its power and honouring it. For example, I think of Wilson's revival of clan tartans in the 1700s. He could not have forseen (or controlled) the ultimate (marketing) impact of his simple gesture to assign tartans to many clans who had lost their historical patterns during a prolonged period of political troubles/violence.


Posted by: Shazz at August 14, 2006 5:28 AM

a viral is just a hit. something that no-one can resist. so all you have to do is know it when you see it. which is generally a problem ;-)

Posted by: veedub at August 14, 2006 6:48 AM

Viral marketing doesn't work! Tell everyone you know!

Like Huey "Hip to be square" Lewis before them, the Propellerheads and Shirley have it all worked out already:

The word is about, there's something evolving,

whatever may come, the world keeps revolving

They say the next big thing is here,

that the revolution's near,

but to me it seems quite clear

that it's all just a little bit of history repeating

The newspapers shout a new style is growing,

but it don't know if it's coming or going,

there is fashion, there is fad

some is good, some is bad

and the joke is rather sad,

that its all just a little bit of history repeating

.. and I've seen it before

.. and I'll see it again

.. yes I've seen it before

.. just little bits of history repeating

Some people don't dance, if they don't know who's singing,

why ask your head, it's your hips that are swinging

life's for us to enjoy

woman, man, girl and boy,

feel the pain, feel the joy

aside set the little bits of history repeating

.. just little bits of history repeating

.. and I've seen it before

.. and I'll see it again

.. yes I've seen it before

.. just little bits of history repeating

Posted by: Mike Peter Reed at August 14, 2006 10:58 AM