It seems to me that usage of the word “viral” has gotten a little out of hand recently. A term that was coined during the 90s boom which then fell out of fashion with everything else, it appears to have undergone a resurgence lately. I’ve heard many entrepreneurs say something like: “Our service is viral, so we don’t need to spend much money on (sales and) marketing. Once we get the product developed and a few customers use it, they’ll of course tell their friends, and it will spread like wildfire.” While I do not doubt the power of happy customer positive word-of-mouth referrals, I believe that there is a distinct difference between a product/service that generates excited users and one which is truly viral. I define something as viral if the act of referring another user is deeply incorporated into the product or service itself.
The genesis of viral marketing is usually attributed to Hotmail’s original signature at the bottom of all outgoing e-mails stating “get your free email address at Hotmail.com.” It helped propel the company’s rapid growth because the invitation for others to register was integrated into the outgoing e-mails themselves. One “modern” example of viral marketing and growth is Skype. Inherent in their model is communication over a propriety network which requires that both users use the same service. When one person wants to speak to another who isn’t on the system, it is essential that the first invites the second to join. Again, an invitation from one existing user to another is an essential component of the offering. The “viral” nature of the service is not out of user goodwill from a pleasant experience, but rather a functional component to using the service.
Of course, this viral/non-viral distinction is a grey line and doesn’t necessarily need to be separated. Something can spread with viral growth even if the service itself doesn’t contain viral functionality. My frustration, then, stems not from those who bend the viral concept, but those who break it. (Can a traditional enterprise software product with a nine-month sales cycle involving many decision-makers really be viral? Really?). The problem with this and any overuse of a word is that the excess dilutes its original meaning, and so I wish that we’d save the word viral for those applications that really are.
(Feel free to forward this post to someone… but just don’t tell them it’s viral.)