Why Marketers Should Know the Difference Between Viral and Social

Exploring the differences between viral and social marketing is more than a semantic exercise. Both can be used to build brands and increase sales. Both can irreversibly impact your company's internal culture. The key factor when choosing to market virally, socially or both is whether you are willing to cede control over your brand's message.

Exploring the differences between viral and social marketing is more than a semantic exercise. Both can be used to build brands and increase sales. Both can irreversibly impact your company’s internal culture. The key factor when choosing to market virally, socially or both is whether you are willing to cede control over your brand’s message. Viral marketing should allow you a level of control, while your brand relinquishes that control when you are successfully marketing via social media.

How much control are you willing to gamble for a potentially huge return?

Social (media) marketing

Let’s get started by going back to when there were two donkey carts selling grapes at a fork in the road. Your neighbor tells you that Farmer T was selling sweeter fruit the previous week than Farmer A. This turns “social” when you – having never tasted Farmer T’s grapes, but trusting your neighbor – pass that recommendation along to your cousin.

That means social marketing goes back to when? A few years before Facebook; probably a few years before minted currency.

Your neighbor is a social influencer. Not because s/he told you about the sweeter grapes, but because s/he activated you to pass the message along – your connection with him/her is sufficiently strong for you to make the recommendation without actually tasting the grapes yourself. You become a social influencer when your cousin passes along the advice.

Passively, Farmer T has turned over to his “brand advocates” control of “the messages” about his grapes and the way in which those messages are spread.

Today we have social media networks that bust these conversations out of the break rooms and kitchens. Now conducted more publicly, we have developed the tools to scope out the participants and content of these interactive, multipath conversations. Brand advocates still do not need to be customers in order to be essential to social marketers.

Because of their transparency and because of the tools available, social media is ideal for our social marketing. We can do our best to facilitate the conversations, as long as we are not perceived as manipulating them and are careful not to interfere with their primary strength – peer influence.

One of the most certain ways to break the “chain letter” of social media peer influence and impede the conversation is to attempt to put words in the mouths of advocates. Once we win them over, we must allow them to speak in their own voices, to those with whom they feel comfortable speaking, in places they where they want to be.

That’s a big loss of control; can your company culture handle it?

Viral marketing

Easily reproduced and distributed media was put into the service of (or, perhaps, invented for) advertising and marketing. Mass media begat viral marketing. Think advertising slogans, radio jingles and every kid in housing projects in Brooklyn wearing cowboy hats while watching cowboys on TV.

A convenient list of viral marketing examples can be found on Wikipedia. Whether you agree that all these can be labeled “viral,” they do share one important element. No matter how the messages were delivered, they were delivered essentially intact. When a YouTube video is said to “go viral,” comments may be added, deleted or modified, but the video itself is unchanged.

The best viral marketing, as with successful social media marketing, will cross platforms – often using that much maligned social medium, email. As with social, you can’t control where your brand advocates take your viral marketing. Some can be places you never thought to market.

Viral activity is generally more easily tracked, with success usually measured by frequency of relay. Though viral is more ephemeral, viral marketing campaigns can have lasting benefits. But viral lacks the depth for continuous social evolution. Spontaneous virality is an amazing thing. The “mini” mass media of blogs covering social media tends to amplify these events – the right bloggers are never “wrong” about which YouTube videos are viral because they contribute to the virality.

So what’s a marketer to do?

In viral marketing, the brand loses control of message distribution, yet messages remain intact. Participants are rewarded by the act of participating. Brands get sudden impact and short-term engagement. As part of a long-term marketing mix, a viral marketing is a potentially beneficial branding tactic that requires additional initiatives that consist of more than just add-on viral volleys.

Going social is an attempt to get those who choose your brand to become advocates in their physical and virtual societies. Equipped with easy to remember and easy to relate brand messages, you enter into a covenant knowing they won’t deliver your messages quite the way you hope, but they’ll make up for it in loyalty and evangelism. Your commission to your new, distributed sales/marketing team is give them real reasons to fall in love with your brand all over again.