[Air-l] The Guardian: Online: Second Sight -- Melissa is a marketing tool

Ken Friedman ken.friedman at bi.no
Sun May 20 02:42:31 PDT 2001

           Guardian Unlimited (C) Guardian Newspapers Limited 1999

   Thursday April 8, 1999

      Online: Second Sight

      Melissa is a marketing tool

         By Esther Dyson
         Guardian Unlimited

  Most right-thinking people hear about Melissa the virus and shudder. But
  a few politically incorrect marketers are marvelling at her ability to
  reach the masses overnight. Imagine attaching your marketing message to
  such a virus.

  In fact, that's what marketers are already trying to do. When this works
  so well that it clogs e-mail systems, it's called a virus, but when it
  happens with the active involvement of the human carriers, it's called
  viral marketing.

  The best viral marketing is not just word-of-mouth, as some people
  carelessly assume. Nor is it multi-level marketing, where Juan sells to
  Alice and then gets a cut of whatever Alice sells to Fred. It is when
  users actively recruit other users, not for pay, but because they
  benefit from a larger user pool, just as virus DNA benefits from the
  spread of a virus.

  As with any new concept, anyone can define the term. Steve Jurvetson and
  Tim Draper of Silicon Valley venture capitalists Draper, Fisher,
  Jurvetson, are the foremost proponents of the technique. They have even
  posted an essay about it on their website, mostly describing their
  success with Hotmail, one of their best investments, sold to Microsoft
  last year for upwards of $300 million. Each Hotmail user, who signs up
  for free, markets the service to others because of the sig file attached
  to each Hotmail message: "Get Your Private, Free Email at

  Each time the user uses the product/service, he's promoting it to
  others. You could almost say that any campaign that gets the customers
  to flaunt a brand name is viral marketing.

  But getting people to wear your T-shirt is not viral marketing. Viral
  marketing, as I define it, is where the original user gets a benefit
  from the spread of whatever is being marketed. That is, it concerns
  products or services that benefit from so-called "network effects" -
  those same disproportional returns to early entrants that are the
  subject of so much discussion concerning Microsoft.

  That is why Hotmail can be viral in some cases, but not in others. In
  the wired world, where everyone has e-mail, Hotmail user Alice doesn't
  particularly benefit from Juan's using Hotmail, because she can reach
  him as easily at Demon or on AOL. In the less wired world, where most
  people don't have e-mail accounts of any kind, Hotmail can spread, well,
  like a virus.

  As Jurvetson and Draper say: "The Hotmail adoption pattern is that of a
  virus - with spatial and network locality. People typically send e-mails
  to their associates and friends; many of them are geographically close,
  and others are scattered around with clusters in areas of high Internet
  connectivity. We would notice the first user from a university town or
  from India, and then the number of subscribers from that region would
  rapidly proliferate. The beauty of it is that none of this required any
  marketing dollars. Customers do the selling."

  There's a delicate balance between ownership and reach: the ideal viral
  marketing product is semi-proprietary. That is, it needs to be generic
  enough for its use to spread quickly, but people shouldn't be able to
  interact with imitations. At first, Internet telephony didn't spread,
  because the proprietary systems meant you could talk only with a small
  group of people using the same provider. When Internet telephony meant
  you could talk with anyone who had a phone, it became much more useful,
  but the few who had it had less incentive to push a particular brand
  onto others. The current rage in viral marketing is relationship or
  networking tools - Six Degrees or PeopleLink. A couple of times a week I
  get e-mails from someone wanting me to join one so that I can make new
  friends. Do I need new friends and contacts? Maybe, maybe not, but
  enough people do that these services are spreading rapidly.

  The business model here is advertising. Of course, sometimes the
  marketer forgets about the business model: the goal is simply to sign up
  users, and then let someone else figure out what to do with them. That's
  what Mirabilis did with its ICQ instant messaging service. It acquired
  12 million users before it sold out to AOL for $300 million.

  The best current example of viral marketing is the new range of Gizmoz
  from Zapa Digital Arts. Gizmoz enable you to build your own identity and
  then have other people link to it. Instead of static business cards such
  as Versit's (which simply sit in someone's "card" file and are sent to
  other people), Gizmoz work as live links. You send someone a link to
  your Gizmo; then, each time they look at it, they link back to the
  original (either at your site or at Zapa's) and get the current version.
  What's the benefit to Zapa? Well, in order to update your Gizmo - which
  could be kinds of biscuits you're offering for sale or of your need for
  a lift from Cambridge to London next Friday - you will want to go back
  to Zapa for new and improved graphics.

  This isn't viral marketing just for Zapa: it's viral marketing for
  Zapa's users, because it lets them spread their messages to others. In
  principle, you can "own" your own gizmo, but you can also share it. That
  keeps you and other users coming back to each other - and to Zapa for
  new shareable Gizmo components. So what's to keep everyone from using
  viral marketing? The backlash is already in sight as some vendors start
  moving towards multi-level marketing for products where there's no
  benefit to the redistributor other than a commission. But just as the
  difference between e-mail and spam is a delicate social matter, so is
  the difference between gifts that delight both giver and receiver, and
  using friends in a marketing scheme.

  So what is the value that Zapa is giving to its customers? In exchange
  for their attention, it is selling them the ability to get attention
  from other people. Marketers want attention so they can sell ads to
  people who sell products. People want attention because, well, they're
  human. They don't want marketers' attention, which they know is
  conditioned upon their eventually purchasing something. They want the
  attention of other human beings. Good on them! But I have to add: in the
  past, getting attention required nice clothes. Now, it requires nice
  Gizmos. Is that progress? Or is it just human nature, reinvented? Or am
  I just too cynical, and are Gizmos actually a tool for creative users to
  express themselves with?

           Guardian Unlimited (C) Guardian Newspapers Limited 1999

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