Lessons from biology: Five steps to succeed at viral marketing in social media

on Nov 25 in business, hints and tips, social media, strategy posted by

In a marketing campaign today, a manager wouldn’t dare to propose strategy that did not include some element of “viral” marketing. 

Search for “viral marketing” on Google and you get more than a quarter of a million hits. Over the past four or five years, searches for the term have remained constant (except for a curious drop around the holiday season).

Search trends for the term “viral marketing” from 2004 to 2009

But what is viral marketing? For that matter, do you actually know what it means? What is a virus, for example? 

As a biologist by academic training, my instinct is to tease apart the concepts and see if I can find appropriate analogies. The idea is that by better understanding the term, we can find ways to better apply the underlying principles.

A virus is a protein packet that contains DNA. It injects the DNA into living cells. The injected DNA then takes over the cells’ copying machinery and forces it to produce more copies of the virus’ DNA and protein. The cell bursts open and the new viruses go off and infect more cells. Simple. Brilliant. Devastating (think of the common cold or bird flu).

So what can your social media campaign learn from this biology? How can your efforts be simple, brilliant and devastating? Here are five steps to help you succeed at viral marketing in social media:

1. Identify your DNA. What is the key message you want to spread? Think of DNA as a meme: a packet of information that can be reproduced and then passed on. Formulate your message as a mission to boil down to essentials.

2. Keep it simple. Ensure your message is as simple as possible. Viral DNA is much simpler than that of a cell’s. That’s why it works. Twitter’s 140 characters work because they force simplicity. Do the same.

3. Identify your audience. Viruses are often specialized to very specific hosts. So make sure you know who will be “susceptible” to attack from your DNA. For social media, this means knowing which bloggers, social networks and Twitter users are the most popular.

4. Figure out your method of attack. Viruses are able to overcome or circumvent a cell’s defenses. How are you going to overcome your audience’s “defenses”? (Which may be a spam filter, for example.) Having a unique offer or special tailored content might work.

5. Evolve. Viruses are successful because they constantly adapt to new hosts (e.g., bird flu) and evolve (sorry, creationists). If things don’t work look through your approach and see what you can change to try things differently.

With these five steps, you will see the viral effect start to work. From the little injection of your meme’s DNA, it will spread to other hosts who will in turn infect others. That’s the power of viral marketing. But you need to have all the pieces together. Lose sight of the biological analogy and chances are you’ll miss one of the five essential steps. Include each of the steps and your campaign will be simple, brilliant and devastating.

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