Viral marketing is the same as word-of-mouth marketing, except that it uses the Internet’s networking power to spread a message among millions of individuals at low or no cost to an organization. Most see viral marketing as “free advertising.” That is partially true. The essence of “word-of-mouth” marketing is credibility that links directly to what public relations is about. There are many viral marketing techniques but they all depend on voluntary action. An individual must find something of enough interest and/or importance to send it voluntarily to others and those persons must also find that thing of enough interest and importance to forward it themselves.

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Such action is usually done without incentives. Anyone who gets e-mail knows about viral marketing. Think about jokes that make the rounds. They are forwarded constantly from person to person until they sometimes return from some circuitous route in the networking ether. There are informal joke networks in which anything one finds funny is sent on to friends who send them to acquaintances who send them to their friends. At some point, transmission stops. An individual may not find the joke funny, may have seen the joke before, or may not, as a matter of practice, forward materials.

In any event, the viral message peters out, but if it is successful, it reaches tens of thousands before it dies. The nature of viral marketing includes randomness. One cannot know exactly where a viral message is going or who is going to see it. It might reach millions in a targeted audience or all the wrong people in an audience never considered.

But when viral message-sending works, it is powerful because the message carries the credibility of the person who forwards it. Each sender says in effect, “I find this interesting, and I think you will find it interesting as well.” One cannot buy testimonials like that. So, how might one use viral marketing in PR? It isn’t as easy, but in some instances, message distribution using viral methods appears to be practical and desirable.

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