Kudos to Trendspotting's Eva Hasson and her recent call to replace the term 'viral' with 'spreadable' in discussions of social media and  buzz campaigns (see her complete 70-slide deck presentation here).  According to the Advertising Lab blog, Hasson's message is but another battle cry in the growing movement which the former dubs 'the spreadable war on viral media.'  Ad Lab traces this movement to abandon the term "viral" and start referring to passalong content as "spreadable" to a 2009 eight-part blog post by Henry Jenkins, and reiterated by bloggers like Mike Arauz, Sam Ford, and Faris Yakob.  Even earlier, Market Navigation, Inc. founder George Silverman, author of The Secrets of Word of Mouth Marketing, wrote the following in his chapter that appears in my 2005 book, Marketing Communication:

I believe that ideas do not spread like viruses. Viruses tend to spread with relatively low rates of contact, though pervasive contact, in a slow but very steady manner. Ideas tend to spread explosively, in a chain reaction that is more like a nuclear explosion, rather than the slow and relentless spreading of something that requires an incubation period. Either one gets the job done, but the explosion model obviously gets it done faster. Nevertheless, word of mouth sometimes does spread slowly. But in such cases, the slow spread reflects the likelihood that the idea is not exciting enough for it to keep going, and it usually fizzles once it gets beyond the initial enthusiasts. Successful word of mouth has the characteristic that no one has heard of the product, and then suddenly, often within hours or days, everyone seems to be talking about it.

I'm not in love with Silverman's nuclear explosion metaphor, but I think his argument is a good one, and it is consistent with Hasson's point that the creation of an ultimately effective spreadable message is foremost dependent on quality.  The inclusion of content that is relevant to a particular social community or network and strikes a chord - be it as a function of its humorous or provocative content, it's value in the marketplace of information exchange, or in it's confirmatory power for its audience (i.e., it justifies, reinforces, or extends people's values, attitudes, beliefs, sense of self, and so on) is more likely to spread and have an impact than content that merely provokes a 'lol' response.  By now, it is an old message, but one that marketers still need to hear: you cannot literally create a viral marketing advertisement, a viral marketing video, a viral email campaign, etc.  As Sean X. Cummings aptly pointed out, "you can make a effort to "reach an acceptable level of self-sustainability through the inclusion of elements that encourage re-distribution."  In my mind, Cummings' term 'self-sustainability' really nails what viral marketing is supposed to be about, and conforms more to the inherent meaning of 'spreadable' than 'viral.'

Additional related points about viral marketing - what it is, what it isn't, what it should be - are discussed in Chapter 8 Connected Marketing II: Viral and Live Buzz Marketing Techniques in my book, Connecting With Consumers.  But before bringing this excerpt to a close, I think three essential takeaway points from a recent article by Jim Meskauskas,  "The problem with 'going viral'", really clarify what everyone needs to know about viral marketing, or whatever we ultimately choose to call it:

  • What makes something viral is in no small part its authenticity, and the intentional structure of marketing is in direct violation of this
  • Viral marketing isn't a strategy -- it's a possible outcome that brings an unplanned life to a piece of advertising
  • The best one can hope for is to make your marketing great -- the rest will take care of itself