Don’t Be Fooled by the Myths of Viral Marketing

Don't Be Fooled by the Myths of Viral Marketing
The assumption that messages frequently go “viral” and diffuse through social networks has become conventional wisdom in corporate marketing and the broader culture. But recent research, described in MIT Sloan Management Review, suggests that the term “viral marketing” does not accurately describe what most often happens online.
According to Sharad Goel, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research in New York, truly viral diffusion is extremely rare. In a paper called “The Structure of Online Diffusion Networks” that was presented at the 13th ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce, Goel and his colleagues Duncan J. Watts and Daniel G. Goldstein describe how they studied seven online scenarios to see how a variety of applications and content spread. The researchers studied:
•Yahoo! Voice, an online phone service started in 2004.
•Zync, a Yahoo! Instant Messenger video-sharing application.
•Friend Sense, a Facebook app introduced in 2009.
•”The Secretary Game,” an online hiring game.
•Yahoo! Kindness, a charitable Web site launched in 2010.•News stories sent via Twitter in November 2011.
•YouTube links diffused through Twitter in November 2011.
Goel says that he and his co-authors wanted to see whether adoption spread virally, “like the common cold” or some other sort of biological contagion. In such a model, he explains, “one person gets infected and then their friend gets infected and then a friend of their friend gets infected, and so on.” That process is called multi-step diffusion. And the researchers’ data suggest it’s not how most messages and applications spread.
According to Goel, “What we see is something qualitatively different.” Less than 4 percent of adoption “cascades” that the researchers studied extended more than one person away from the initial adopter.
For marketers, this research suggests that it may be time to abandon the assumption that viral marketing via social media will frequently lead to, say, ten-fold organic growth.
by Dr. Muhamad Yakubu


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