Godin’s Viral Equation

We’ve mentioned before, as have many others, that there is no such thing as a viral video. Hence, a client can’t legitimately request one in her brief to the agency.
Marketing guru Seth Godin endeavors to explain:

Word of mouth is a decaying function. A marketer does something and a consumer tells five or ten friends. And that’s it. It amplifies the marketing action and then fades, usually quickly. A lousy flight on United Airlines is word of mouth. A great meal at Momofuku is word of mouth.
Viral marketing is a compounding function. A marketer does something and then a consumer tells five or ten people. Then then they tell five or ten people. And it repeats. And grows and grows. Like a virus spreading through a population. The marketer doesn’t have to actually do anything else. (They can help by making it easier for the word to spread, but in the classic examples, the marketer is out of the loop.) The Mona Lisa is an ideavirus.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Eh?
    Viral is word of mouth online. To that end, it is probably more lasting. Word of mouth evaporates with no written (searchable / logged / near-perpetual) trail.
    It is also (typically) slower to spread across a wider region.
    So, y’know, two points for viral.
    But to say WOM fades to “and that’s it” is to dismiss is out of hand because you’re a bit too much in love with your chosen medium (Seth). It completely discounts the “real-life” viral nature of secondary contacts trying a brand, having an equally good experiene, then telling additional, slowly expanding sets of friends.
    I fail to see, past my original concessions, how the two are different. Having seen both work wonders, I only give points to the latter for having an amplified affect among a certain (though growing) group.
    Blog love. So self-directed …

  2. was anyone (apart from the student in seth’s story) really confused about the difference between word of mouth and viral marketing?
    seth is right, mathematically speaking. i can only TELL so many people who trust me about something. being part of an online virus is much easier by comparison. and requires much less energy. Positive WOM is the ultimate sales aid. but it requires lots of work and a vision. how much stuff is actually worth talking about?
    the chances of actually going viral are very slight indeed. hence his conclusion: make the product better instead. seth is hard to argue with. damn!

  3. I remember getting all excited about this unique baby bottle that seemed to solve my baby’s colic problems. I told every mom within 10 feet of me about them. For the first week. Then it became 30 feet. For another week. Then, just when someone asked what on earth it was that I was using to feed my baby.
    Word of mouth, the in-person or “offline” version, peters out because there’s this concept of “initial excitement.” It’s like the honeymoon. The excitement with the product or service fades as it becomes integrated into our daily lives. You just love the product or service, yet you no longer evangelize unless you are asked. It becomes subconscious.
    I no longer tell people about the baby bottle. It’s still the coolest invention, and I think all baby bottles should be made this way, but I no longer go hunting down new moms to tell them. I let those that have just discovered the wonders of a happy baby do the job for me.
    Yes, part of this is the fact that I no longer bottle-feed babies. But, this diminishing factor happened while I *was* still bottle-feeding.

  4. @xyb –
    Agreed, but … also so stipulated in my original post. Again, my point is, in your anecdote, you can only claim that WOM “peters out” if you only count WOM worthy at the original point of origin.
    But what if one of those mothers you spoke to tried the product and WOM-d other moms? Suddenly, the recommendation has a brand new life, and instead of petering out, it ripples out. Just like a “viral” blog post would. If that’s not a “compounding function,” I don’t know what is.
    I don’t discount for a moment the power of a virally spread blog post; I just think that it can be celebrated without needlessly denigrating the slower (but more personal) old-fashioned viral, Word Of Mouth.
    And what the heck was the Mona Lisa comparison about? 🙂