There was a time when viral marketing was what Hotmail did so successfully - attaching your pitch and contact link to someone else's messages in order to spread the word through a kind of endorsement-by-default. But as the internet population evolves into more sophisticated networked communication, including p2p communities, viral marketing is getting more subtle -- and more creative.
The contestants on this season's "The Apprentice 2" all have profiles on Friendster, the online community. This is an interesting effort to make reality TV even more real, to add layers of depth to the entertainment experience, and to generate buzz from fans that will bring others into the fan-base. It's not the first time: as part of the marketing of the movie "Anchorman" each of the key characters had Friendster profiles, so you could talk to them and about them.
I suspect this is just the beginning of a trend toward exploiting online communities to build marketing momentum. It's a natural progression for interactive mixed-media marketing campaigns, because it starts to personalize the experience of the individual consumer, and allows for a sustained level of interest and involvement beyond the 15 second spot. Popular television shows and movies started offering fan sites rich in information and background several years ago; then they added centralized threaded discussion capabilities to try to stimulate interaction. Stimulationg decentrazized peer-to-peer communication in an organic community is a logical next step.
But it takes some courage to do this -- traditional marketers have usually had an almost paranoid obsession with controlling what is said about their brand and how it is said. Those who live by viral marketing can die by it too.
Of course, online p2p is only one aspect of the drive to go viral. Face-to-face communication and good old fashioned e-mail and IM are effective ways to spread the message, so long as you have a core group of advocates in your target market ready to get passionate about your product and make the effort to tell their friends. Services like P&G's Tremor are hoping to crack the secret of teen word of mouth advertising. They use "social marketing", leveraging the stories teens tell each other about a product to amplify the essential promise of the product and generate a wave of viral advocacy. Tremor claims to have a posse of 200,000 or more teens on its books who meet the criteria to be "connectors". A connector is someone who is not only networked wide and deep, but is also an enthusiastic early adopter and a persuasive communicator.
Network television should start to worry about losing both audience and advertisers. Not only are teens spending less time in front of the box these days, advertisers are finding alternative ways to get their message out to them.
But it is not just teens who use online communication, so I guess we can expect some of the advertising for cars, financial services, and pharmaceuticals to start along that path any time now. Car manufacturers have already had success with mixed media interactives, such as running radio campaigns that drive listeners to a website. Encouraging knowledge-sharing, community-building, and p2p advocacy under a Ford or Pfizer umbrella may already be on the drawing boards.