Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Some claim the free e-mail provider Hotmail, which promoted itself to new customers with every use, is the stellar example of “viral marketing.”

Others might pick the Palm Pilot or Polaroid’s iZone camera. But for my money, the best demonstration that ideas and products spread like viruses is the notion of viral marketing itself. Two new books, Unleashing the Ideavirus, from idea entrepreneur and bête noire of traditional advertising Seth Godin, and The Anatomy of Buzz, by former software marketer Emanuel Rosen, suggest the Virus virus has hit epidemic proportions.

One can see why the marketing world is so susceptible to the language of epidemics and the notion that customers are hosts for viruses created by marketers.

First, viral marketing offers the intoxicating prospect of growing sales suddenly, explosively, exponentially, the way flu outbreaks spread. Then there’s the appeal of getting your customers to do the marketing for you—through word-of-mouth, the most trusted form of communication. Best of all, unlike NBC or People, those customers will usually do it for free.

It is no coincidence that both Godin and Rosen come to their task from similar backgrounds. Both made enough money in the digital world to retire from the front lines of business and write. The rise of digital connectivity is the very thing that has given word-of-mouth—the original communications medium—a new glamour. Nor is it surprising they offer many of the same ideas and examples.

There, however, the similarities end. Unleashing the Ideavirus, which its author calls a “manifesto,” confirms what the writer’s fans already know: The idea virus Seth Godin is intent on spreading is Seth Godin. To use one of Godin’s own coinages, Ideavirus is “smooth.”

Its big ideas—often borrowed from other writers—are condensed into catchy metaphors and numbered checklists that are easy to grasp and remember. The problem is that creating viruses is not a smooth process. Launching one is complicated, and success is hard to achieve.

Face it: If creating word-of-mouth were so straightforward, advertising would never have been invented. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (the Typhoid Mary of viral marketing) demonstrates that the smallest adjustment can tip an obscure phenomenon into mass recognition and acceptance. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the smallest misstep can keep an otherwise worthy product or service from spreading.

The less Web-centric Anatomy of Buzz is a better, more honest book. It makes clear how challenging it is to generate word-of-mouth. Alas, its sober tone does not bode well for viral bestsellerdom. For example, Godin calls the carriers of trends-to-be “sneezers.” Rosen more prosaically labels them “network hubs.”

It’s much easier to sell six surefire steps than two dozen hedged ones. That’s the funny thing about idea viruses. Those that actually are ideas—as opposed to vegetable peelers or cars—are the exception to the rule that only a good product will catch on. Facile ideas are just as virulent as rigorous ones.

Thus, Buzz is peppered with many un-manifesto-like cautions and caveats. “Six degrees of separation,” the “small-world” phenomenon uncovered by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, makes it sound like we’re all connected. But, Rosen points out, Milgram insisted those six degrees add up to huge psychological distances, with plenty of discontinuity in between. Most of the time, buzz does not “spread like wildfire.” He even admits there are businesses for which generating buzz is not that crucial for success.

As for the book’s positive advice, it is detailed and sound. But for the most part, it’s also pretty obvious. Want people to talk about your product? Make it beautiful, compelling and useful. Want your ad to set audiences abuzz? Create a great ad. Trying to give your product credibility? Target well-connected influencers. Surely the basic principles of marketing cannot be repeated enough, and if biological metaphors provide a new way to do so, why not? But a revolution in marketing this ain’t.

It’s all very well to call the “Whassup?” ads a virus. But does the label tell you anything you didn’t already know from “Where’s the beef?”—an ad virus before viruses were cool? Plus, the word reveals nothing about how to replicate the feat.

On the other hand, using words like “virus” does make for a hip-sounding presentation to a client—at least for the next six months. And for all but the few marketers who actually do come up with great, compelling ideas, that’s probably enough.