Viral Marketing Alert!

E-mails bearing ads are starting to raise consumers' temperatures

As viral marketing gains momentum, I sure wish I could get a flu shot. It's a deceptively simple concept: Create a message, send it via e-mail, and make it so compelling that recipients want to pass it on to everyone in their address book. Advertisers are hot on the tactic, and the idea of putting consumers to work spreading the word about a brand or service seems sound.

But like most good ideas, viral marketing has its drawbacks--and we may see them very soon. Just like banner ads and portals, viral marketing is being hailed as the Next Big Thing. So expect thousands of such campaigns this year, says Marc Feldman, an analyst with marketing consultancy IMT Strategies. "Marketers are definitely jumping on this bandwagon," he says.

The prognosis for many of these campaigns isn't good. Sure, there are some high-profile viral success stories. Take Hotmail. By simply sending e-mail, consumers hawked the service because every message contained a Hotmail ad. That helped it grow to 12 million accounts in its first year, 1996. The 1999 hit film The Blair Witch Project benefited from similar contagion. On Web sites and in chat rooms, the film's promoters hinted that the fictional tale was really a documentary and let the bug run wild. I had never been to a Blair Witch site, but by the time the movie opened even I had heard that it was a true story. I'd been bitten.

Still, marketers should beware viral overload. Most of the campaigns involve e-mail. Fans of 'Nsync, for example, have been encouraged to pass along an audio clip from the group's latest album. And Lee Jeans sent messages with news of a cool video game featuring characters from TV and print ads.

My inbox occupies an ever-bigger slice of my hard drive. If viral marketers have their way, in addition to my daily dose of e-mails from companies pitching junk, I'll get another pile passed on by friends. It'll be cute once, maybe twice. But there's a viral traffic jam lurking just a few clicks down the Information Highway. Even good friends can be as annoying as marketers if they bombard me too much. Companies think viral marketing will cut through the clutter, but if they come en masse, they'll be the clutter.

Then there are teen troubles. To date, most viral campaigns have targeted high school and college students. But you can't always depend on this group to spread the news. Moviemakers trying to emulate Blair Witch discovered as much last summer. Studios enlisted e-mail-happy teens to flack for Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Cecil B. Demented, and others. None got the viral lift that Blair Witch did. And viral marketing to teens raises privacy issues. Not only do the ads target minors but they also ask their help in plugging the product. That's dangerous territory. Finally, there's the potential for backlash. Once they figure out they're pawns in the latest marketing wars, teens will yawn and move on to the Next Next Big Thing. Or worse, they could turn on the offending company.

Viral marketing is a powerful theory. It attempts to harness the strongest of all consumer triggers--the personal recommendation. In the Net age, it may well be possible to include consumers in marketing and let them spread the word to global millions. But as companies pursue this latest tactic, they would be wise to remember it's no miracle cure for their marketing ills. At best, it's a way to support a broad marketing program. At worst, it's an awful little bug spread by desperate marketers and their unsuspecting consumers. I already feel a chill coming on.

By Ellen Neuborne

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