Int. Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, Vol 3, Issue 1, 2008
Internet-induced marketing techniques: Critical factors in
viral marketing campaigns
Maria Woerndl
empirica Gesellschaft fur Kommunikations- und Technologieforschung mbH
Oxfordstr. 2, 53111 Bonn, Germany
Tel: +49-228-98530-0
Fax: +49-228-98530-12
Email: maria
Savvas Papagiannidis
Business School, Newcastle University
Armstrong Building, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 191 222 5724
Fax: +44 (0) 191 222 8131
Michael Bourlakis
Business School, Brunel University
Elliott Jaques Building, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 1895265427
Fax: +44 (0) 1895 232806
Feng Li
Armstrong Building, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, United Kingdom
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 191 222 7976
Fax: +44 (0) 191 222 8131
The rapid diffusion of the Internet and the emergence of various social constructs facilitated by Internet
technologies are changing the drivers that define how marketing techniques are developed and refined.
This paper identifies critical factors for viral marketing, an Internet-based ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing
technique. Based on existing knowledge, five types of viral marketing factors that may critically
influence the success of viral marketing campaigns are identified. These factors are the overall
structure of the campaign, the characteristics of the product or service, the content of the message, the
characteristics of the diffusion and, the peer-to-peer information conduit. The paper discusses three
examples of viral marketing campaigns and identifies the specific factors in each case that influence its
success. The paper concludes with a viral marketing typology differentiating between viral marketing
communications, unintended viral marketing and commercial viral marketing. This is still a rapidly
evolving area and further research is clearly needed to monitor new developments and make sense of
the radical changes these developments bring to the market.
Keywords: viral marketing, marketing campaigns, internet word-of-mouth, social networking
Int. Journal of Business Science and Applied Management /
While the underlying principle of word-of-mouth marketing is well-established and acknowledged
(Richins, 1983; Wilson, 1991), the Internet fosters new marketing strategies (Achrol and Kotler, 1999;
Arnott and Bridgewater, 2002), one of which is viral marketing. At the core of this emerging form of
marketing is the transmission of marketing messages through various Internet-based channels by peers.
During these transmissions, information passes between individuals without the involvement of the
original message source, propagating like a virus would have done, infecting the hosts.
This paper synthesises the emerging literature on viral marketing and identifies important factors
that need to be considered when organising a viral marketing campaign. The paper first defines viral
marketing and reviews emerging research streams. It then identifies the benefits and challenges
associated with viral marketing and presents the critical factors that need to be considered when
organising viral marketing campaigns. The paper then explores these factors in the context of three
case studies. The paper concludes with the development of a viral marketing campaign typology before
outlining future research possibilities and practical implications.
The short history of viral marketing is generally agreed to have been launched by Hotmail’s tag
line “Get your private, free e-mail from Hotmail at” (Helm, 2000, Porter &
Golan, 2006) and the resulting successful widespread diffusion of Hotmail. This tag line, added
automatically to every email sent from a Hotmail account, was passed on from existing Hotmail users
to the recipients of their email messages in the way that viruses spread, hence the term viral marketing.
While for Welker (2002, p.7) viral marketing is nothing more than “a new interpretation of the good
old word-of-mouth-paradigm”, the use of the Internet for spreading the message clearly is a new
concept that would not have been possible without the widespread diffusion of information and
communication technologies. For the purposes of this study we will consider viral marketing as a
technique which utilises the Internet to transmit and spread messages among individuals who will filter
and forward the messages to their peers, who may be potentially interested in the message’s content.
The communication style used for transmission is usually informal. Messages are spread through
different channels such as email, chat rooms and discussion forums. They may contain various types of
content ranging from text and images, to MS PowerPoint files, Adobe’s Flash animations and so on.
Recently, users found an additional channel to distribute and share their video clips online via services
like YouTube. The value of such services and their potential impact as viral marketing tools were
vividly demonstrated by Google’s acquisition of YouTube in 2006 for 1.65 billion US dollars (BBC,
2006a). One significant benefit of web-based viral channels when compared to other informal channels
is that they often provide mechanisms for measuring the popularity and success of a campaign. For
example, YouTube measures the number of times a clip was viewed and the viewers’ ratings, while it
allows qualitative feedback through the viewers’ comments. This information is publicly available and
will be used later in this paper when benchmarking the critical factors in two of the case studies
2.1 Traditional ‘word of mouth’ marketing and viral marking
Word of mouth implies that informal, ad hoc communication between individuals concerning
products and services (Bayus, 1985) is taking place. This communication can be positive as well as
negative, depending on the satisfaction levels of the individuals (Evans et al, 2006). In comparison to
other forms of marketing communications, information dissemination and sharing among individuals is
rapid when word-of-mouth occurs. The behaviour and views of individuals are significantly influenced
by negative word of mouth communication, which tends to be weighted more heavily by consumers
than positive communication (Solomon, 2004). Research has found that 90% of dissatisfied consumers
do not purchase products or services of the company involved in the negative word-of-mouth
communication (Solomon, 2003). Equally importantly, these consumers will communicate their
dissatisfaction to at least nine other people and 13% of these dissatisfied consumers will communicate
their negative view to more than thirty people.
The Internet ‘word of mouth’ communication, i.e. viral marketing, is a far more effective,
penetrating and faster medium compared to the traditional word of mouth communication (Helm,
2000). It is also a far more focused medium as consumers communicate their views in their social
sphere (friends, colleagues etc) where their influence is more critical. This kind of communication can
reach a wider audience gradually and can maximise its reach not only in their locality (as was the case
Maria Woerndl, Savvas Papagiannidis, Michael Bourlakis and Feng Li
with traditional word of mouth) but even on a national and global scale. The content of the message
remains the same whilst it could be biased and filtered during traditional word of mouth
communication (Helm, 2000).
2.2 Viral marketing positioning and emerging research streams
Viral marketing spans a number of marketing domains. Kaikati and Kaikati (2004), for example,
categorise viral marketing as a stealth marketing technique. While stealth marketing is a recent
proposition within marketing, viral marketing relates to the advertising (Phelps, et al., 2004, Porter &
Golan, 2006) and brand (Dobele, et al., 2005, Moore, 2003) elements of traditional marketing. Of the
emerging new marketing streams, viral marketing is firmly positioned in the e-marketing domain. The
other major domain that viral marketing fits into is marketing communications. This approach puts
emphasis on the spread of the message and its viral characteristics (Welker, 2002). While conventional
communication in marketing directly addresses the consumer, viral marketing communication aims to
create an environment where customers and consumers transmit messages without the involvement of
the original source. Therefore, viral marketing can also impact on consumer behaviour by influencing
consumer perceptions, attitudes and views and has the potential to emerge as a key element of a
company’s promotional mix (Kirby and Marsden, 2006). The underlying principle of viral
communication, however, remains the ‘traditional’ word-of-mouth paradigm that is now facilitated by
the Internet.
The existing literature on viral marketing indicates four emerging research streams making both
theoretical/conceptual and empirical contributions: viral marketing comparisons, consumer-to-
consumer (C2C) viral marketing, studies of communications media and viral marketing positioning.
Comparisons investigate different viral marketing variables in light of other marketing techniques such
as television advertising (Porter & Golan, 2006). C2C viral marketing examines specific issues within
the consumer context, such as impact on costumer value and loyalty (Gruen, et al., 2006).
Communications media studies may examine specific transmission modes like e-mail (Phelps, et al.,
2004) and include communication domain studies (Welker, 2002). The final stream is viral marketing
positioning, where research is concerned with identifying the positioning characteristics of viral
marketing and drawing conclusions about the viral marketing domain (Dobele, et al., 2005, Helm,
2000). This research fits into the positioning stream as it investigates critical success factors of viral
marketing, by developing, mapping and testing a model of critical factors for viral campaigns. The
review of the literature, presented in the following sections focuses on the benefits and risks associated
with viral marketing and constructs the basis for a model that could be used for viral campaigns.
2.3 Benefits and risks of viral marketing
The heightened attention paid to viral marketing in the computer and management literature is a
sign that there can be significant benefits to be gained from viral marketing. One important benefit is
that viral marketing is relatively inexpensive in comparison to many other forms of advertising and
marketing campaigns (Dobele, et al., 2005, Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004, Welker, 2002). The other major
benefits relate to the positive diffusion characteristics: viral marketing can, for example, reach
audiences within a short period of time (Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004) as messages spread exponentially at a
fast speed (Helm, 2000, Welker, 2002). This rapid diffusion can significantly boost the speed of the
adoption of the marketed product or service (Dobele, et al., 2005). Yet, besides positive financial and
diffusion implications, viral marketing makes use of peer-to-peer transmission (Dobele, et al., 2005),
which is one of the most influential marketing methods available to marketers and it overcomes legal
and privacy concerns as messages are not unsolicited anymore and hence may avoid being considered
as ‘spam’. In addition, viral marketing can help achieve substantial audience reach as marketers get
access to diverse audiences through social contacts (Helm, 2000) and can profit from effective
targeting (Dobele, et al., 2005). The above points can be grouped into four categories as shown in
Table 1: financial, diffusion speed, peer-to-peer transmission and audience reach.
Int. Journal of Business Science and Applied Management /
Table 1: Potential benefits of viral marketing
Category Benefit References
(Dobele, et al., 2005, Kaikati &
Kaikati, 2004, Welker, 2002)
Reaches audiences within a short period
of time
(Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004)
Rapid, fast diffusion (Helm, 2000, Welker, 2002)
Boosts adoption speed (Dobele, et al., 2005)
Diffusion speed
Exponential (Helm, 2000)
Voluntary transmission by sender (Dobele, et al., 2005)
More effective targeting (Dobele, et al., 2005)
Audience reach
Access to diverse audience through social
(Helm, 2000)
Yet, besides these significant benefits, there are risks and challenges that marketers have to face
when engaging in viral marketing campaigns. Probably the biggest risk is the lack of control associated
with viral marketing campaigns: organisations have no means of controlling the spread of the message
and the content of the transmission (Dobele, et al., 2005, Helm, 2000, Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004, Welker,
2002). The receivers of a message may even consider the transmission as ‘spam’. With this lack of
control comes the potential of a negative impact from a viral campaign. Negativity can occur through
backlash and unfavourable word-of-mouth, and may result in a negative brand image, product or
service boycott, unfavourable attributes associated with the organisation and its products and services,
hate sites etc. (Dobele, et al., 2005, Helm, 2000, Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004, Phelps, et al., 2004). A lack
of legal standards in terms of viral marketing is another potentially risky issue (Kaikati & Kaikati,
2004). The dependency on the consumer for message transmission is a further risk as consumers, for
example, may want a return from the organisation for passing on a viral message (Helm, 2000). The
final risk to be considered when engaging in viral marketing campaigns is the lack of ethical standards
(Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004): consumers may feel exploited, cheated, and used (Dobele, et al., 2005), and
may view viral messages as an invasion of their privacy (Phelps, et al., 2004). Table 2 provides an
overview of the risks associated with viral marketing.
Table 2: Risks associated with viral marketing
Category Potential risk Reference
Uncontrollable nature, in particular loss over
content and audience reach and few possibilities to
measure success
(Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004)
Total loss of control in particular content and
(Welker, 2002)
(Dobele, et al., 2005)
Lack of
Lack of control mechanisms:
o No control over distortion processes
e.g. information passed by consumers
might be filtered, incomplete, and
o Adverse selection of customers
(Helm, 2000)
Risk of backlash and negative brand impact
(Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004)
Negative word-of-mouth can happen
(Dobele, et al., 2005)
Negative WOM leading to boycott, ruin,
unfavourable attitudes
Hate sites
(Helm, 2000)
May lead to negative perceptions of brands
(Phelps, et al., 2004)
Consumers unwilling to provide referrals
unless there is some return
(Helm, 2000)
Maria Woerndl, Savvas Papagiannidis, Michael Bourlakis and Feng Li
Lack of legal
Emerging legal issues have to be considered
(Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004)
Consumers may feel exploited, cheated, used
(Dobele, et al., 2005)
Emerging ethical issues have to be considered
(Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004)
Lack of
Consumer privacy invasion
(Phelps, et al., 2004)
2.4 Critical factors for viral marketing campaigns
From the previous discussion on benefits and risks, a number of critical factors applicable to viral
marketing campaigns are emerging whilst the relevant literature acknowledges five key issues that
critically influence viral marketing campaigns: the overall structure of the campaign, the characteristics
of the product or service, the content of the message, the characteristics of the diffusion and, the peer-
to-peer information conduit (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Emerging critical factors for viral marketing campaigns
The overall structure of the campaign needs to encourage viral activity and address ethical and
legal issues. In cases where, for example, ethical issues are not considered, the viral campaign may end
up in a negative outcome for the organisation launching it. The second critical factor is related to the
characteristics of the product or service that is to be marketed. Whereas some products and services are
suitable for viral marketing campaigns, others are less suitable. Another crucial element is the content
of the message transmitted. Messages that foster imagination and provide entertainment to the receiver
or even intrigue the receiver are more likely to be sent voluntarily. Overall, a message should be
actively engaging the receiver in order to convert him or her to a transmitter. The fourth critical factor
is related to the characteristics of the diffusion: at what speed is the message transmitted? What
audience does the message reach? What is the nature of the exponential spread? The remaining critical
success factor for viral marketing is the peer-to-peer information conduit: the transmission of a
message depends on the communication channels and technologies available to the sender and used by
the individual; and the combination of technologies leveraged. Another critical element is the
credibility of the sending source. Table 3 illustrates these five critical factors for viral marketing
campaigns, including specific aspects and example questions. These are placed in context in the next
section using three cases of viral marketing campaigns.
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Table 3: Critical factors for viral marketing campaigns
Critical factor Specific aspects Example questions
Does the message spread exponentially among
Does the message spread at a very rapid pace
among audiences?
Audience reach
Does the message reach a wide and the right
Channels available
& used
What communication channels are available to
message transmitters and receivers? What
channels do transmitters use to transmit the
available, used
What technology is available to message
transmitters and receivers? What technologies
do transmitters use to transmit the message?
What technologies do receivers employ to get
Combinations of
technologies leveraged
What technologies do transmitter and receiver
combine to send and receive messages?
information conduit
Source credibility
How credible is the message transmitter to the
message receiver?
Is the message imaginative?
Fun & intrigue
Does the message offer fun & intrigue to
transmitter and receiver?
Ease of use
Is the message easy to use? Does it have a
high visibility?
Message content
Does the message engage both the transmitter
and receiver?
Is the product and/or service marketed suitable
for a viral marketing campaign?
Encourages viral
Does the campaign encourage viral marketing
Overall campaign
Ethical & legal
Does the campaign adhere to ethical
Does the campaign follow legal requirements?
This paper is exploratory in nature as there is scant theory and literature about the phenomenon of
interest, i.e. viral marketing. As the objects of enquiry are the campaigns a case study approach is
appropriate and has been applied, combined with extant secondary data analysis (Yin, 1984). Such an
approach limits our analysis and discussions to the content of each campaign and does not take into
consideration the aims and goals of the campaigns designers and initiators, neither does it take into
consideration the opinions and perceptions of the recipients of each message.
The three cases illustrated in the following pages are prime examples of viral marketing
campaigns and, as will be fully illustrated in the next section, they represent very distinctive types of
viral marketing campaigns. The number of cases is sufficient considering the scarcity of previous
empirical research in this scientific field. The three cases are studied and are subjected to comparative
analysis where underlying similarities, differences and systematic associations are sought out (Ragin,
1987) and subsequently, further insightful findings are generated.
Maria Woerndl, Savvas Papagiannidis, Michael Bourlakis and Feng Li
Case 1: Social viral communication in practice: A ‘news -game’
In the final game of the 2006 FIFA Football World Cup, Zinedine Zidane, the captain of the
French team, head butted an opponent on the pitch in front of millions of football enthusiasts. The
referee instantly sent Zidane off the pitch for his violent act against the Italian player in the 110
minute of the game. Famously, Italy went on to win the World Cup in a penalty shoot-out.
Viral marketing campaign characteristics
The world cup final took place in Berlin, Germany on the evening of July 9
, 2006. It started at
8:00pm Central European Summer Time (CEST) and ended after 120 minutes excluding half time,
extra time and penalty shoot out time. The Zidane head butt happened at approximately 10:00pm
CEST. In a matter of a few hours the Internet was taken by storm by the ‘Zinedine Zidane Game’,
developed by Alberto Zanot, an Italian graphic designer from Milan. The game encourages the
computer user to head-butt the Italian player by way of mouse movements and mouse clicks. Zanot
took less than an hour to develop the game using Macromedia flash, Action Script language, and TV
shots of the football players (Heffernan, 2006). He initially emailed the game to friends, effectively
initiating the viral marketing campaign. On July 11
, in a matter of one single day, the game had been
viewed more than 1.5 million times (Heffernan, 2006). The game was spreading at an exponential rate
around the globe, corresponding to the first critical factor, an exponential, fast, and wide reaching
The two identifiable core channels used for peer-to-peer transmission in the Zidane case were e-
mail and online communities. The source of the game, Alberto Zanot, initially emailed his friends a
copy of the game. These friends then sent it on to their friends and posted it in online communities.
Even three months later, in October 2006, a Google search on the keywords ‘Zinedine Zidane game’
discovered many online resources for the same game. The Zidane game therefore satisfies the second
success criteria, as it employs the peer-to-peer information conduit.
The message transmitted in the Zidane case was an interactive online game. The game itself is
very simple, based on Adobe’s Flash, basic graphics and minimal game-play. From the web game
developer’s perspective, the purpose of the game is twofold: it aims to entertain and it seeks to
comment on a news event, hence it is categorised as a ‘newsgame’ (Frasca, 2006). The original game
was enhanced with a timer and score at a later time. The game further provoked different spin-offs such
as FootyMax (, where the various views of stakeholders are
interpreted and pictured in a funny fashion. The French, for example, would have seen the Italian
player running against a lamppost. The game scores on source imagination and contemporariness, for
the fact that making a game about a topical, controversial action on the football pitch is engaging. The
Zidane game therefore addresses the third critical factor, message content.
The Zidane game is in a format that is suitable for viral communication as it is a computer game
that can easily be transmitted over the Internet. A particular feature of the game is that it stimulates
recipient action: the receiver of the game is encouraged to play the game. The game is easy to use and
understand, and it is funny. The game is about a topical event that reached a wide coverage in the news
and promotes transmission through its characteristics including this association with the recent news
event. The Zidane game therefore satisfies the fourth critical requirement, appropriate product
When it comes to the overall campaign structure, there is no information available regarding legal
issues raised in regards to the game. Potential legal concerns can arise from using images of the two
players, therefore infringing image and personal rights. Another possible question is whether FIFA
World Cup copyright laws have been breached and whether FIFA will take legal action against the
game developer. The violent action displayed by Zidane during the game is a negative feature of
football over which FIFA has only limited control: during the game, the referee did send Zidane off the
pitch and FIFA did carry out an official investigation following the game. A specific feature of the
Zidane game campaign structure is that it is short-lived, being based on a news event (Frasca, 2006). In
terms of ethical issues, there are no indications that FIFA had any involvement in the message
development and transmission process. A specific ethical aspect regarding the game is the fact that it
displays violence, which message recipients and victim support groups may find disturbing.
Social viral communication as evident in the online game case contains messages about certain
brands, organisations, events, etc. These parties and product/services involved can benefit from this
type of communication. Still, the lack of control over message content can be an issue. Another
important thing to note is that as news-games are topical they may end up having a shorter life -time
span, which wears off as the related news and events buzz decreases. Still, this case clearly illustrates
the potential of viral marketing as an information transmission mechanism that could be used for
commercial purposes too, as show in the following two cases.
Int. Journal of Business Science and Applied Management /
Case 2: Unintentional viral marketing: The pancake video
On August 25
, 2006 the BBC published an article about a pancake video on its news website
(BBC, 2006b). This video, documenting the making of pancakes, was produced by a 1
year computer
science student at Aberdeen University and uploaded onto on August 13
, 2006. The
video has not only been shown to about six million viewers of ABC's Good Morning America, but it
has also been featured on Fox news in America, Sky News, and Five News in Britain and in Australia
by the Australian Broadcasting Company. By October 23
, 2006 the pancake video had been viewed
more than 1.2 million times on YouTube (
Viral marketing campaign characteristics
The hundreds of thousands of viewers who watched and continue to watch the pancake video are
testimony to the suitability of this kind of video clips for viral purposes. The pancake video
incorporates the first critical success factor, an exponential and fast diffusion that is reaching a wide
range of audiences. It took only three days for the video to become the week’s hottest video on the
YouTube Website and another nine days to appear on the BBC news website. By the time the BBC
published the story the video had received more than 700,000 hits. With the number of hits the video
was getting and the ‘buzz’ about the video spreading around the world, the diffusion is characterised as
being exponential. Following the initial hype about the video in the first two weeks after the upload, the
diffusion process slowed down slightly, but nevertheless it remained popular, managing to exceed 1.4
million viewings by early January 2007.
The second critical factor, i.e. peer-to-peer information conduit, incorporates communication
channels and technology available, used and leveraged by the message senders. In the pancake case the
exact message channels available, used and leveraged for information transmission, are not known.
What is known is that the uploading of the video onto YouTube ignited the diffusion process. ‘Buzz’
about the video was generated by a large number of people viewing it measured by way of hits. This
initial exponential diffusion of the pancake video also captured the interest of ABC's Good Morning
America and resulted in an article on the BBC website, which further fuelled the success of the video.
When it comes to the content, the pancake video is based on both vision and sound. The video
shows the process of making pancakes while the viewer is exposed to a pancake song specifically
composed for the video. This song was very well-accepted among viewers and it even climbed to
number one in the Israeli single charts. The message of making pancakes is engaging, imaginative fun
to watch and intrigues through its simplicity.
Interestingly, although the video is primarily about the process of making pancakes, it features the
following products indirectly promoting their use: BeRo Plain Flour, milk and eggs (no brand visible),
Sainsbury’s raspberry jam, Sainsbury’s pure Canadian maple syrup, Nutella chocolate spread and Tate
and Lyle sugar. Various unidentified items of crockery and cutlery are used in the process of making
the pancakes. The video also shows one individual making and eating the pancakes, but it does not
show the face of this person, nor does it disclose the identity of the person. It is evident then that a
range of companies have been the recipients of a free promotion notwithstanding the stimuli given to
viewers to engage in making a new activity, i.e. pancakes. It can be argued, although this needs to be
empirically tested, that the pancake video could result in increased sales of specific products and could
influence consumer behaviour towards novel uses of products. It also increases awareness and loyalty
for the products and services involved and, at least in this example, it transmits positive marketing
connotations for them.
When it comes to the last success factor, i.e. the overall campaign structure, the pancake video has
been produced by an individual out of pure enjoyment for making videos. There was no identifiable
commercial reason for making the video. There are no obvious ethical issues associated with the video
either which encourages spread by sheer enjoyment of watching the video. This is not the case, though,
when it comes to legal issues. It is unlikely that the owners of these brands shown in the video were
aware that their products were being used in a video production. With the widespread diffusion and
attention the pancake video was getting in the press, these brands receive free marketing, associated
with enjoyment, without their involvement. Whether the organisations would have chosen to get
involved in the first place remains open to question and shows the lack of control that organisations
have over viral marketing. In this case the buzz that the clip generated could be perceived positively by
the above mentioned companies, but there is no guarantee that this will always be the case.
Maria Woerndl, Savvas Papagiannidis, Michael Bourlakis and Feng Li
Case 3: Commercial viral marketing in practice: An Internet video ad
Fat Wallet Inc. provides shopping discounts and pricing information for online shoppers. The
American company, based in Illinois, commissioned the Scottish student who produced the pancake
video to develop a promotional video. In this video advertises its services using the
slogan ‘Pocket the difference’ to the online audience. The video has a similar look and sound to the
pancake video and was also well-received by the YouTube audience as indicated by the comments the
viewers made.
Viral marketing campaign characteristics
The diffusion process commenced when the video was placed on YouTube
( and a link was made from the FatWallet website to this
video on October 19
, 2006. By early January 2007, the video clip had been viewed more than 25,000
times. Although the diffusion is not as fast as the pancake video, for a commercial ad it is considerable
exposure. Hence, the commercial Fat Wallet campaign is satisfying the first characteristic of speedy
diffusion and reaching the audiences. Source credibility was high as the producer could capitalise on
the earlier success of the pancake video too. While it is clear that people interested in the producer’s
videos and will spread the message, it remains unclear what attributes of the message
foster its non-commercially related diffusion among peers. Fat Wallet, however, makes clever use of
the producer’s peer-to-peer network.
The content of the Fat Wallet video message is clearly commercial. Both, the producer as well as
the organisation paying for the video promotion are open about this issue. In the comments left on the
producer’s section in YouTube as well as on the Fat Wallet forum, the viewers express a positive flair
towards this openness. The majority of viewers considered the content of the message, the commercial
ad, to be entertaining and particularly like the music. The FatWallet video therefore fulfils the second
characteristic: a fun message that is worthwhile transmitting.
With the buzz surrounding YouTube, online videos are increasingly proving to be a well-received
method of communication. Online videos are easily transmitted by electronic means; this ease of
electronic transmission is a key advantage in terms of viral marketing. Hence, the product
characteristics make videos a suitable product for spreading viral marketing messages.
The FatWallet campaign’s clever use of the peer-to-peer network of the producer ensures that the
video reaches a target audience, giving the organisation some degree of control over transmission. As
FatWallet paid for this ad, the company was in total control of the message content. The content
produced was original (for example the song was specifically composed for this advertisement)
avoiding legal issues, such as copyright issues.
The three viral marketing campaigns discussed above illustrate the various aspects that contribute
to a successful campaign. The first case is an example of how personal desire for social interaction can
attract the users’ interest and spread very quickly. In the second one although the prime aim is to
produce an entertaining clip, the video unintentionally acts as a marketing conduit for the featured
products. Finally, in the third case a company with clear commercial motivations aims to capitalise on
viral mechanisms in order to promote its services.
Table 4 is derived from a literature synthesis and cases of viral marketing campaigns. The three
aspects of diffusion characteristics are all fulfilled in the social interaction (SI) and unintentional viral
marketing (UI). For the commercial campaign (C), it is unclear whether it spreads exponentially and at
high speed. It is, however, reaching the audience targeted by the organisation because the video was
commissioned and placed on the web space of the producer of a successful UI campaign. If the
organisation had not intended to target the followers of this producer, it would not have commissioned
the clip and had it placed on this person’s YouTube web space. While email and online communities
were the key channels and technology used in the SI campaign, a YouTube clip snowballed into
various news coverage and email notifications in the UI case. The peer-to-peer information conduit in
the commercial campaign uses the producer’s peer-to-peer network on YouTube; emails; forums and
the organisation’s own website for spreading the message. All three originating sources are credible as
none of the sources appears to be hiding their origin and intentions. For message content, SI and UI
fulfil all the criteria identified (e.g. imagination). The commercial campaign is imaginative, fun, and
easy to use. All three types feature suitable products and services. Equally, all three campaigns
encourage viral activity although the activity at the commercial level is by no means as strong as in the
other two. While there is no information available regarding legal issues that have arisen, there are
potential legal grey areas in the SI campaign. UI campaigns remain to be studied in terms of ethical
Int. Journal of Business Science and Applied Management /
issues, while there may also be legal issues caused when using referring to brands that are protected,
e.g. by using trademarks. There are no legal and ethical issues emerging from the commercial
Finally, in terms of controlling the viral marketing campaign, it is evident from the previous
analysis that we are dealing with a rapidly evolving phenomenon that operates within a very short
timeframe and its power of online influence via the ‘word of mouse’ is critical during message
dissemination (Skrob, 2005). This unique on-line channel puts the internet user at the centre of its
operations and its strength lies within internet users’ willingness to share the message with friends,
relatives and other interested persons (Skrob, 2005). Firms need to be aware that, upon the release of a
message during traditional word of mouth marketing, consumer behaviour is influenced either
positively or negatively by conditions such as awareness, expectations, perceptions, attitudes,
behavioural intentions (Buttle, 1998). Day (1971) stressed that the impact of that medium is bigger
compared to advertising in raising awareness during his examination of a product innovation. Firms
face similar issues during viral marketing, an area where further research is highly recommended.
Table 4: Viral marketing aspects for social interaction (SI), unintentional interaction (UI) and
commercial (C) campaigns
Factors Aspects SI UI C
v v Unclear
v v Unclear
Audience reach
v v Potentially
Channels and
available, used
and combined
News coverage
Org. Website
Source credibility
Original source
Original source
credible (student)
Original source
credible (openly
v v v
Fun & intrigue
v v Fun
Ease of use
v v v
v v N/A
Product service
v v v
Encourages viral
v v v
Ethical & legal
Potential legal
Potential ethical
None None
Maria Woerndl, Savvas Papagiannidis, Michael Bourlakis and Feng Li
The cases presented in the previous section illustrate that there are different types of viral
marketing. In the first case there is viral communication, which is interaction between message sender
and receiver about a worthwhile issue. In this case, products, services and organisations are not a
feature of the message; knowledge about these is intangible and intrinsic. In the second case, the
transmission contains the actual product, service or organisation marketed, but the aim of the message
is not to market these. Therefore, it is unintentional viral marketing. In the third case, the message
contains the product, service and/or organisation being actively promoted. This type of viral marketing
is commercial, as the aim is to promote a product, service or organisation. Table 5 tabulates these three
types. Message content in terms of product, service and organisation visibility determines this viral
marketing typology.
Table 5: Viral marketing typology
Type Social Interaction Unintentional Commercial
Motive Co mmunication Communication Create interest
Visibility Intangible Identifiable Intention driven
Intention Not viral Not viral or concealed
Open viral vs. concealed
Basis Social Social and/or commercial Commercial
The viral marketing typology presented in Table 5 differentiates between social interaction,
unintentional and commercial viral marketing. The key factors that determine this differentiation are
the underlying motive for the action, the visibility of the product, service and organis ation, the intention
of the originating source and the communication basis. The motive in both social interaction and
unintentional is communication. In the commercial group it is to create interest in something such as a
specific product, brand, service, or organisation. Visibility is different in all three categories: in social
interaction it is intangible, with the message not containing any obvious marketing messages. In the
unintentional type, products and services are included in the content. In the commercial group,
visibility is driven by the intention, which can be openly viral or concealed viral. Openly viral is where
it is clear who the organisation is or what product or service is being marketed. In concealed viral the
intention is unclear. In this sub-type, ethical issues are likely to arise. Users may, for example, be
tricked into believing a message originates form an un-biased, un-related source when this is not the
case. The intention of social interaction is purely not viral marketing. In unintentional it can be not
viral, concealed viral or a combination of both. As is the case in the commercial group, concealed viral
raises concerns regarding ethical issues. The communication basis in social interaction is purely social.
In unintentional it is social and/or commercial and in commercial it is commercially driven.
This paper has synthesised the emerging body of literature on viral marketing and in doing so,
developed and tested five critical factors for viral marketing campaigns. The validity of the synthesis is
underlined by a viral marketing typology which differentiates between social communication with viral
elements, unintentional viral marketing and commercial viral marketing. For each form of viral
marketing critical aspects emerge which are tested by way of using the three cases presented. In terms
of the model and the typology developed, future research could test the validity of the model in
different contexts and settings. The typology needs refinement and testing, which is another avenue for
further research. Researchers may find it interesting to develop their own typologies and future
research can then compare these typologies.
As with any emerging field of study, empirical evidence will bring in -depth understanding
fostering knowledge creation about viral marketing. Scholars may be interested in empirically
investigating diffusion patterns. Questions that may be of interest include: what are the diffusion
patterns of different viral marketing campaigns and what are the differences between regions, countries
and continents? In addition, what boundaries do messages cross and what are the transmission barriers?
Moreover, at what speed do different messages spread, what factors increase/decrease message
diffusions? In terms of peer-to-peer information conduit, researchers may be interested in studying
what communication channels message transmitters use frequently/infrequently, what technologies are
Int. Journal of Business Science and Applied Management /
used and to what extent, and whether the lack of certain technologies inhibits message transmission.
What makes a source credible is another interesting question as is what characteristics do frequent
message transmitters have? Another question might be how to foster viral activity among individuals.
In terms of message content, interesting questions are: what are common characteristics of successfully
diffusing viral marketing messages and what are the differences between highly successful versus
mildly successful campaigns? Also, what are the key characteristics and attributes that make a message
viral? For product and service characteristics, future research could investigate what products are
specifically suitable and unsuitable for viral marketing and the underlying reasons for this suitability or
unsuitability; and one could study what makes a product suitable for a viral marketing campaign and
the underlying reasons. Researchers may also find it interesting to study differences between product
and service campaigns. In terms of overall campaign structure, a potential line of inquiry is how
organisations can ensure ethical issues are addressed and develop ethical standards for viral marketing
campaigns. At this point in time, legal issues applicable to viral marketing campaigns are unknown and
further exploratory research is needed. The emerging literature treats viral marketing as a purely
individual centred phenomenon, yet it would be interesting to study the role of organisations and
organisational networks in the diffusion process.
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