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Is viral marketing a myth?

You know someone is blowing smoke up your backside if they rattle off cliches. Really. If you are in talks regarding funding a business plan and you hear the word ‘synergy,’ you would be more than justified in throwing up a little in your mouth and listening intently with one eye firmly on the nearest exit. Similarly, if you are interviewing a firm about retaining its services for boosting your online business’ traffic levels, you are more than justified for being extra suspicious when someone throws the term ‘viral marketing’ around. Does viral marketing exist? This is one question many online publishers, ecommerce site owners, marketing companies, and tech industry observers thought didn’t need answering. For the longest time, we all collectively assumed that the answer was ‘Yes’-similar to how many of the emperor with no clothes assumed that pointing out the emperor’s naked shortcomings would make them look foolish. Well, more and more online marketers are asking this question nowadays. Why the sea change? Two words: Google Hummingbird. That’s right-Google’s re-engineering of its search engine operations has many once-proud SEOs shaking in their boots. Many were already humbled by Panda and Penguin and Hummingbird was the last straw for many SEO specialists’ self-confidence.

Many marketers are now looking for alternatives to SEO and many have set their hopes and sights on ‘viral marketing.’ This is their deus-ex-machina-that awesome scene saver or last minute surprise that would reverse a script that was otherwise going to turn out badly. However, as more and more analysts turn their eyes on the operations of ‘viral marketing’ and how to make it produce replicable and, more importantly, predictable results, one sobering realization is setting in-it might not exist. At least, not in the form we all expected. It turns out that all the major ‘viral’ campaigns done on Facebook and Twitter only succeeded because these messages were pushed along by people who already had tons of followers and outsized influence. This is a far cry from the idea that a marketing message, of its own, can have so much gravity that random people will push it along. Nope. You have to reach the right people and make them partners, whether unpaid or paid, in getting your message out. While this is not a deal breaker for agencies with clients ready to foot the bill, this is bad news indeed for small mom and pop operations and low to no budget outfits. We live in interesting times, indeed.