Wikipedia defines viral marketing as:

marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness, through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of a computer virus. It can often be word-of-mouth delivered and enhanced online; it can harness the network effect of the Internet and can be very useful in reaching a large number of people rapidly.

Or how about a simpler version:

Compelling enough to tell someone else about

Increasingly we are seeing companies trying to make it viral for their online and offline marketing campaigns. A lot of these focus on the mechanics of viral, but we think this misses the point entirely. To be truly viral, the idea has to be compelling enough to encourage people to spread the word without being prompted.

The contenders

The approach: RealEstate

RealEstate’s concept is to donate space on a big billboard that lots of people drive past. The cause is a good one; promoting awareness of foster homes (hence do something big for kids).

The proposition is that they have hired this billboard. If 100,000 people hit the Do Something Big page on their site by Nov 14, they will donate the billboard space for the remaining rental period. Get your friends to come and click on the page to get to the target earlier.

Real Estate

The approach: Threadless

Threadless’s concept is nothing new : give something away to reward ongoing patronage. If you’re a member, you see the Loves page, where all the current promotions are. The latest of which is 550 free tshirts. For every tshirt you buy, you get an extra entry into the draw. If you take a photo of yourself wearing one of the shirts, you can upload it to the site and earn money towards your next purchase. And if that wasn’t enough, if you refer a friend to the site, and they buy a tshirt, you get even more money off your next shirt.


What worked, what didn’t: RealEstate

1 – Conceptual issues

The idea itself is a nice simple one that ties in well with the brand- helping find homes for kids in need. Perhaps it all started as an idea about running a billboard, and then someone suggested tacking on a viral web strategy thingamejig. You can almost imagine how little improvements were added in:

No, let’s not just give it away- let’s advertise that we’re going to give it away, and then give it away then, Hey, we need to also drive web traffic- lets make people come to our site first!

Surely it would have been simpler, cheaper and more effective to just donate the banner?

2 – That url

  • too long to remember
  • people don’t get underscores. They look too much like an underline, and are a pretty unusual character for a non-webdeveloper to ever need to use.
  • the banner was positioned in a way that made the underscores hard to read when the banner is viewed from below

3 – And the point of this is?

  • No mention of benefactor in online and offline banner, so most people wouldn’t realise that it wasn’t actually an ad for RealEstate
  • Gets less attractive over time- they only have the billboard for 4 weeks. They reach the target, and then flip it over. This makes it most attractive right at the start, but the attraction decays over time. Week 1 and 2 it might be worth the effort, but come week 3- is it really worth the effort to get your friends to visit if it means a week of donation? All the while RealEstate has been advertising themselves for the other 3 exclusively – it just doesn’t seem right.

4 – You get there, and

  • And then what? The experience was a bit underwhelming – it would have been good to at least find out some information about the problem that DOCs is solving, or other ways that you can help. Or other initiatives that RealEstate is involved with. I’m sure they are very fine people and support some great causes, but this campaign doesn’t really communicate this. Failing to take people to the post-viral landing page was a big mistake.
  • There is a send to a friend thing (albeit simple) – but just by having this there doesn’t endow the page with magic viral qualities. It has to be compelling enough for someone to want to tell people about.

5 – Oh- and the counter doesn’t work

  • If the key thing is hits on the page, then its important to make sure that it works well. When we visited in the early days of the campaign, the website counter didn’t work- a small but significant problem that undermines trust.
  • A better approach might have been to explicitly acknowledge that YOU have just made a difference, Mr IP number from Surry Hills, NSW, Australia. And tick it over in real time so that you can see other people hitting the page after you.

As of today, they failed to reach their target by the suggested deadline. To the credit of RealEstate, they have gone ahead with the new outside campaign regardless. And it looks great. There’s even a shiny new Why did they not just do this in the first place?

The original Do Something Big page had recieved some 80,000 hits by Nov 14 (according to its counter), but even if every one of those was a unique visitor, they would have had NO WAY of getting to the new Home For Kids site, unless they happen to see the new outside billboard. So any good will that was generated by the first half of the campaign has now gone to waste.

What worked, what didn’t: Threadless

For Threadless, the proof is in the pudding. As highlighed in a previous article on 37Signals, this small company has in the past year sold more than US $6 million in stock, and plan to triple that in the next year.

People are talking/blogging about it

So popular is the site that there are fan sites dedicated to news and competitions from the website, forums set up specifically to talk about content on the site, and all of their competitions are made with the specific desire to increase brand awareness.

It’s easy to understand

The campaign is simple to understand – buy stuff and we’ll reward you. Tell your friends and they can win stuff too. Tell us about it in a photo and we’ll reward you.

Real impact

What’s more, all the campaigns they run are accountable, because they are based on real users who really want to engage with the content (and really want what Threadless have to offer them in return). And other companies love Threadless – which itself spawns much of the giveaway content on the site.

But is it viral?

After all this analysis, we are back to the initial question. One way to measure this would be to look at the final numbers for each of the respective campaigns.

Another much more subjective way is to apply the Pub Logic test (thanks Justin): Imagine you’re at a noisy pub with a friend. Is it simple enough to explain it quickly between beers? Secondly, is it worthwhile telling them about? – nup


  • All external advertising (outdoor banner and web banners) came across as a corporate advertising themselves rather than a worthy cause
  • You couldn’t do anything about it once you saw the banner – apart from try to remember a very long URL for when you’re next online
  • The reason to tell someone else about it wasn’t particularly compelling (particularly towards the end) and hard to explain

Threadless – yep


  • There’s a direct reward in it for me
  • They encourage people to talk and blog about it
  • pretty easy to understand how it works