Viral Marketing 101: The Difference Between Viral Memes & Viral Platforms

There are two types of viral. Viral memes and viral platforms.

Viral memes are things like subservient chicken, and email chains about rat feces in your coke can. They spread quickly because they hit a nerve in popular culture. They're shooting stars. They spread fast and then they disappear. This is natural. After all, when's the last time you watched "David at the Dentist", or any of the other viral hits of the past year?

Too often Interactive marketers try to create the next big viral meme. They want to make the next "elf yourself" or the next "subservient chicken." But, time and time again, they fail. They fail because memes are unpredictable. They require an adoption by the greater culture that is completely random. This doesn't mean brands shouldn't create fun and entertaining content. They should, but they shouldn't create it because they want it to go viral. They should create it because it has value. Because it makes people smile, it communicates a product benefit or because it's strikes a chord with their target audience.

The opposite of the viral meme is the Viral Platform. Viral platforms are unique because they become more useful as more people join. Think flickr, facebook, paypal, or even farmville (a viral game platform built on top of an already existing viral platform). Viral platforms exhibit the same rapid growth rate as viral memes, but they have staying power. Since their utility increases as more people join, their growth leads to stickiness. These positive network effects create a feedback loop that leads to rapid growth, rapid adoption and long term utility. And amazingly, their growth rates are almost completely predictable. Once you know the viral coefficient, you can model their growth up until they reach the saturation point.

Unfortunately, most marketers don't understand the difference between these two approaches. If you want to create a successful viral campaign/business, the first step is deciding which of these two approaches you want to take. Both approaches can work, but you need to be realistic in your expectations. Meme's are great, but you have to throw a lot of stuff against the wall to try to get something to stick. There are no guarantees. Viral platforms are more predictable and long lasting because of their positive network effects, but it takes a lot more effort to create them. They have to provide utility, or fill a need. But, if you can create a successful viral platform, the efforts can be well worth the investment.

Written by Adam Harrell on March 8, 2010


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Adam Harrell