Viral Marketing

Viral marketing. A pillar of the digital world. Check out any new campaign today reported by any of the industry magazines from anywhere in the world. Look at websites. Listen at conferences. Read the experts — amazing how this newly invented form of marketing has swept up everyone’s time and attention. But wait!!! Have you ever seen the following?

Norman Rockwell, the famous American Artist who created this, didn’t know about viral communications. He called it Gossip…

Rockwell’s neighbors in Arlington, Vermont modeled for this picture. Norman Rockwell included himself in the painting in the bottom row (he is the one pointing to himself). Rockwell’s wife Mary is one of the gossips – she is the second person from the left in the third row. There are two views of each person: first listening and then passing along the story.

“I used my neighbors in Arlington as models for the gossips cover. ‘Gee’, they said when I showed them the sketch, ‘we’re not gossips, are we?’ So I put Mary and myself into the cover to avoid any suspicion that I was insulting my neighbors.” — Norman Rockwell

His message was pretty clear: the power of the pass along viral but its inherent danger as well.

Funny, isn’t it—that the word viral has so much negative meaning at its core.

We shudder thinking about viruses. We have software and protective systems to shield us; the obvious bio references are clear. What many consider Viral others look at as spam and clutter.

Think on this definition of Virus:

“Something that has a corrupting or poisonous effect, especially on the mind”

Now take a synapse leap with me to Metcalf’s Law:

Robert Metcalf’s law states that the “value” or “power” of a network increases in proportion to the square of the number of nodes on the network.

In other words, if you have four nodes, or computers, on a network, say, an office intranet, its “value” would be four-squared (4^2), or 16.

If you added on addition node, or PC, then the value would increase to 25 (5^2).

Above is an example of a four-node network. The math actually works out to
value = node^2 – node. Or 4^2 – 4 (12).
This can also be expressed as node * (node – 1). Or 4 * (4-1).

Marc Andreesen, one of the founders of the web, said:

A network in general behaves in such a way that the more nodes that are added to it, the whole thing gets more valuable for everyone on it because all of a sudden there’s all this new stuff that wasn’t there before. You saw it with the phone system. The more phones that are on the network, the more valuable it is to everyone because then you can call these people. Federal Express, in order to grow its business, would add a node in Topeka and business in New York would spike. You see it on the Internet all the time. Every new node, every new server, every new user expands the possibilities for everyone else who’s already there.

(Quoted from the Smithsonian Institution Oral and Video Histories.)

Now look again at the Rockwell print…and imagine the conversation…but more importantly imagine all the people now involved that you don’t see as each one of the “nodes” pictured moves on to attach themselves to other nodes and on and on…think about the definition…

One more jump.


The kind you and I send all day. The kind that has a “To” box; a “CC” box and “BCC” box.

E-mail is our viral contribution to the digital world every day; every few minutes I imagine — and like all that is viral it multiplies and multiplies and the exponent grows with the cc and bcc…

And like all that is viral it can do good and it can do bad. In fact, the exponential effect (Old Robert’s Law) makes the “good“ really good and the “bad” really bad.

The good effect is clear; the bad should be clear.

Think about the consequences of any e-mail you send, and the Metcalf effect of the cc or bcc list.

Think about what happens when you ask about; or simply just pass on information that is inaccurate or worse – just plain wrong.

Think about what happens when you accuse based on information you receive this way and add more names to the list.

Now think about the scurrying around and the wasted time and the waste opportunities that multiply as angst increases; as more e-mails get sent; as more people get involved…Metcalf got it right.

Bottom line

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
~ John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was of the Rockwell generation. He didn’t know about viral and probably never thought about the Metcalf effect. But he understood the issue.

Think on it. The danger is the opinion without thought. The Viral effect…

Looking for a viral program to be successful – really successful with a positive ROI – look no further than your own-mail…

What’s your view?

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