Latest updates about word-of-mouth and viral marketing

Summary: #alexfromtarget with Ellen DeGeneres, Psy with Gangnam Style, and Baumgartner with Red Bull – word of mouth (WOM) marketing at its best.
What is the recipe for electronic WOM (eWOM)?
We show you what it takes (besides a bit of luck).

1. When word of mouth happens

Is your blog content going viral? Everybody wants a marketing message to go viral, but few do, as we all know. So how does it happen?

When did you last tell a friend a story or about a product by email or text? I probably did a week ago… but some marketers claim we do it each day. If that is the case, that is news to me :-)

For most of us, talking about a product is not the usual thing to do when we have a conversation. Maybe over a meal, we might exchange a few sentences about a product with a friend, for instance, explaining our morning troubles with the coffee maker. The friend may share what they use to get their first cup of the day, and we may take this into consideration when shopping for a replacement.

Buzz or Viral Marketing is nice but the desirable outcome we achieve is key - better service and / or more sales?

Buzz or Viral Marketing is nice but the desirable outcome we achieve is key – better service and / or more sales?

Bottom line: Marketing means we want a specific outcome such as higher sales, donations, buyers of our service or volunteers for our cause. Unless it results in such bottom line outcomes, it is just a flash in the pan (or 15 minutes of fame).

2. Why word of mouth alone is not enough

Online sharing often results in something similar to a tempest in a teapot. #alexfromtarget was a purely local story that was first shared by a few via Twitter, Instagram and so forth.

It really went viral when CNET wrote an online story about it. In turn, Buzzfeed spread it further online. It did a sloppy job of investigating and had to correct its original story a day later. Then DailyEdge went back to Buzzfeed to check. It wanted to know if the marketing firm claiming it had started the picture going viral, was in fact the originator of this avalanche. Apparently, no one from Buzzfeed answered.

Even all that online coverage was not enough to make the story go national in the US. Traditional media was required for that, which did oblige. Mail Online and others covered the story, and he rest is history, since Alex went on TV (see below).

Once TV and mainstream news picked up the story... Alex became a celebrity, at least in the US and Canada, as well as UK.

Once TV and mainstream news picked up the story… #alexfromtarget became a viral sensation over a few nights for packing bags at the local Target store. Target had nothing to do with it. Therefore, there was no marketing pitch to the story. Remember when Target’s IT systems got hacked and they lost their customers‘ credit card numbers? At least this story about #alexfromtarget was a positive one!

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Bottom line: Unless WOM results in an outcome such as higher sales, donations, buyers of our service, it has limited commercial value for the organization.

3. eWOM or Buzz versus Spam Marketing

The above illustrates nicely that having a WOM story go viral on the Internet is usually a result of luck, chance or misfortune. The online spread of a story is further helped if traditional media picks it up.

#alexfromTarget is a cute kid and appealed to many people, so with a nice spin a story evolved leading TV personalities invite him to their shows.

A story like this I might have appreciated receiving via the Twitter account of a friend. However, there is a fine line betwee spam and nuisance versus added value (e.g., it is news, facts, interesting, entertaining, etc.). For instance, me tweeting that I am having my first cup of tea this morning is unlikely to be of any interest to my Twitter followers. Posting this with a picture on my Facebook feed will not impress many of my ‚friends‘. Nor will my LinkedIn contacts be amused – or will they?

The x-axis in the graphic below shows the continuum for value of content. The y-axis shows if the story will enjoy a high level of word-of-mouth sharing (online or offline). If the content solves a problem it might be shared, but only with a group of interested people. If it has great benefits (free cup of Coffee at Tchibo or Starbucks), people might share it with their friends. It might even spread like wildfire.

Content must have perceived value to have a chance to benefit from Word-of-Mouth

Content must have perceived value to have a chance to benefit from Word-of-Mouth

Bottom line: There is a fine line between true spam and the mis-perception of a message sent to a potential client as spam.

4. Fun versus useful product

What goes viral is of course the question. Research by Jansen, Zhang, Sobel and Chowdury (2009) shows that while brands are mentioned on Twitter, only two out of 100 users may send out a positive tweet about a brand, and 1 percent of their 2,000 followers click on the tweeted link. Hence, resonance for such eWOM seems limited.

Schulze, Schӧler and Skiera (2014) reported about data on Facebook regarding promotion of fun versus useful (utilitarian) products. Their research reveals that fun products like games such as FarmVille can be used to spread a message (e.g., get an invite from friends with a bonus or credit).

Such an approach relies on the Like principle. In other words, the recipient tries it out to let the friend, whom they presumably like, earn game or monetary credit. The question is whether one likes getting such messages. I, for one, have gotten so many that they have become a nuisance. However, according to the study’s findings, that does not damage the friend’s reputation.

Nevertheless, for a utilitarian product (e.g., tools, machines, etc.), Schulze, Schöler and Skiera (2014) found recipients do neither like promoted messages nor messages promoting a product.

The above illustrates that we may tolerate promotional emails, tweets or Facebook posts for fun products, but take out the fun aspect and our tolerance plumets.

Selfie - on the plane - landing in LA - going onto the show

Selfie – on the plane – landing in LA – going onto the show – Alex gets 15 minutes of fame.

Bottom line: Marketers increasingly use messages that depend on the Like principle, but recipients‘ patience is wearing thin. Using this method for usable products can backfire, and its effectiveness continues to decrease for fun products.


Buzz, viral and word of mouth marketing are important tools. However, whether a word of mouth campaign will eventually go viral is difficult to predict, and there are no scientifically confirmed approaches to ensure success.

Moreover, users are increasingly losing patience with such messages. This could be due to increasing data overload as we all receive more messages with limited value. This will make it ever more difficult for brands to reach out to their target audience.


Jansen, Bernard J., Zhang, Mimi, Sobel, Kate, and Chowdury, Abdur (2009). Twitter power: Tweets as electronic word of mouth. Journal of the American Society for Infomraiton Science and Technology, 60(1), 2169-2188. Retrieved November 27, 2014 from

Schulze, Christian, Schӧler, Lisa, and Skiera, Bernd. (January, 2014). Not all fun and games: Viral marketing for utilitarian products. Journal of Marketing 78(1), p. 1-19. Retrieved, November 17, 2014 from

Schulze, Christian, Schӧler, Lisa, and Skiera, Bernd (November 2014). Customizing social media marketing. MIT Sloan Management Review. Retrieved, November 14 from or from here

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More Information
Download PDF file with additonal graphics and slides 20 (317KB) – Word of Mouth Marketing, Viral Marketing and Buzz Marketing

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What is your opinion?

So you have read Making word-of-mouth marketing work, now I would like to ask you a question or two.

– Do you have a great example of viral, buzz or word-of-mouth marketing ? Please share.
– What you think, will any of these – buzz, viral or word-of-mouth marketing – work for an SME (i.e. company with fewer than 250 full-time staff)?
– What type of marketing works best for your business?

This post is also available in: Englisch

5 Kommentare
  1. Gail Hale
    Gail Hale sagte:

    Dear Urs
    Interesting blog entry.
    The method you describe does explain nicely about how difficult it is to have content go viral with the help of Viral Marketing.

    Nevertheless, Email marketing has assisted me a lot also, while doing Viral Marketing.

    • Urs E. Gattiker
      Urs E. Gattiker sagte:

      Dear Gail
      Thanks so much for coming back to us with a comment. Incidentally, we have an update on this post right here:

      5 steps for creating viral content ==>

      It outlines some of the factors in more detail.

      But specifally may question to you Gail is:

      How exactly has e-mail-marketing assisted with viral marketing? Can you explain this in more detail please.

      Thanks so much

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  1. […] Very interesting read: Making Word-of-Mouth Marketing work […]

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