Viral Lite – not in Barack Obama’s armoury…

It’s been 15 years since I wrote my first book on email marketing – and about a dozen since I coined the term “Viral Lite” to describe most alleged viral marketing. How time and technology fly.


It was Steve Jurvetson one of the original investors in Hotmail, who is credited with coining the term ‘viral marketing’. Hotmail was the first viral success on the interweb. Using a simple signature file on every message “get your free email at”, the service grew to over 12 million users in two years – and they only spent $500,000 on advertising.

Encouraging others to refer friends is not new. It’s been known for decades as member-get-member or friend-get-friend. In the analogue world before the interweb, we used direct mail, telephone and face-to-face methods. Now we use email and social – some thing, different technology.

One campaign I was involved with for American Express ran for 15 months over 3 mailings. We initially isolated a list of members who had referred friends in the past. We then mailed them a tiered range of rewards for introducing new members.

The execution was revised after each mailing. Membership in those days was $50 PA. To say it was a success is an understatement – over 55% response rate to the initial mailing, 35+% to the second and 18+% to the third, and generated tens of thousands of new members.

Now let’s look at what passes for viral marketing in the online world. Bear in mind that every advertising agency will tell you that people need to see a television commercial (that is, a 30 second video) at least 3 times in a short space of time, for it to make any sort of impression on them. See it once and not much is remembered. It is a waste of money – people need to see the ad lots of times for the message to really sink in and work.

Humorous messages tend to be forwarded because people like the joke, not because the advertising proposition motivates them.

Today we believe a viral campaign is a success if loads (possibly millions) of people forward a video hosted on YouTube to their email or social list and those people view it once and pass it along. No data is captured, apart from the number of views and the countries in which the viewers reside – most of whom are usually not your target market.

The brand or sales impact is almost zero. The video is just chewing gum for the brain. This is what is known as “Viral Lite“.

Barack Obama

If you want to see how to really do viral marketing, follow what the US President’s team did for his first election – and I believe subsequent re-election. I had the pleasure of interviewing his campaign manager after he was elected. What she revealed was interesting:

1. Social media did not generate $1 in campaign donations.
2. Social media was used at the top of the sales funnel to get people to identify themselves and their interests.
3. The $750 million raised from supporters came from direct mail, email, telemarketing and events.

Here’s the viral email. It was sent out 1 week before the election to encourage voters to vote – given the appalling voter turn-out in the world’s most famous democracy.

It did a brilliant job of capturing data and growing the supporter database, who were then contacted by email and other channels to get donations.

This is full-fat viral marketing. It is not Viral Lite typical of most alleged viral marketing on today’s interweb. Sure it cost a packet to produce, so did our Amex campaign. But like that one, it was well planned, tested and refined. Most importantly ‘data capture’ was the priority, rather than entertainment.

In case you’re interested in my exciting interview with Meaghan Burdick, Obama’s Director of Direct Marketing, it’s trending on YouTube:)


  1. So true. I lived in the US during Obama’s re-election last year, so got to experience the Democrat’s ground-swell email campaigns first hand. This communication’s spread well beyond election campaign level, and continues to be used to gather support, testimonials, and feedback on policies (like gun ownership). One word – PHENOMENAL. Best emails I’ve ever read, in terms of relevance, timing, copy voice, call-to-action. Incredibly powerful, leaving no doubt that the recipient can and will make a difference. Voices are being heard and influenced at the most personal of contact points – in your home, on your phone, on your ipad. Truly beautiful one-to-one communication.

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