Everything you know about Business is Wrong: The viral marketing myth

Worldwide fame at minimal cost is hugely seductive. But don't be fooled by anyone who claims to know the secret.

by Alaster Dryburg
Last Updated: 25 Sep 2013

The idea of viral marketing - worldwide fame at minimal cost - is hugely seductive, especially in the modern 'friction free' world of the web and social media. The only problem is one that has always been there, and which used to be known as the 'blockbuster myth'.

To whit: many so-called experts will try to sell you the recipe for viral success, but the truth is that there isn't one. In fact, it's worse than that. There can't be. Here's why not.

Imagine there were a recipe for certain viral success. Pretty soon, it would itself go viral. There would be millions of viral videos or emails or tunes out there. Just work out the number of views multiplied by the time taken, and it doesn't take long before everyone in the world is spending most of their time watching YouTube videos.

This just isn't feasible.

Then there's the problem that any 'recipe', if it did exist, would rapidly become self-defeating. As soon as it is generally known, it ceases to work.

To succeed at the viral game requires sufficient luck - and novelty - to be better, even if only very slightly better, than the competition.

And the margin of superiority is so thin that it's impossible to recognise before the fact. You only know what's better once you know what has succeeded. So in that case as well it just comes down to luck.

Hollywood's movie moguls were familiar with this problem decades ago, hence screenwriter William Goldman's aphorism: 'Nobody knows anything.' You don't have to be Sam Goldwyn to realise that trying to pick blockbuster movies in advance is a mug's game.

But dressed up in hi-tech viral marketing garb, the idea has found a new currency in other, perhaps less hardbitten, sectors.

By all means work hard to make your ideas engaging and easy to spread, but be realistic. Viral success would be a wonderful thing, but as a business strategy it's in the same class as buying a lottery ticket.

Alastair Dryburgh is a consultant and speaker specialising in problems that cannot be solved by normal means. More at alastairdryburgh.com

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