Limits to Viral Marketing

Natasha Robinson points to a very interesting study from the Information Dynamics Lab at Hewlett-Packard Labs. The research paper, led by, can be found here: “Dynamics of Viral Marketing PDF”.

Eric Kintz of HP blogged about the paper and below I comment on his take on the paper:
#1 – Viral marketing does not spread well. In epidemics, high connectors are very critical nodes of the network and allow the virus to spread. In recommendations networks, a few very large cascades exist but most recommendation chains terminate after just a few steps.

Comment: In other words, while there are many “nodes” for connections there are few influencers (or “mavens” in Tipping Point speak”).

#2 – The probability of viral infection decreases with repeated interaction. Providing excessive incentives for customers to recommend actually weakens the credibility of those links. The probability of purchasing a product increases with the number of recommendations received, but quickly saturates to a constant and relatively low probability.

Comment: This touches on two points – social media saturation and diminishing return. I think the effect of social media saturation will be an underestimated factor limiting social media marketing, but effecting the WoM space in as whole rather than say a specific marketing campaign.
#3 – Viral effectiveness varies depending on price and category. Social context has a high influence on the potency of viral infection. Technical or religious books for example had more successful recommendations than general interest topics. Smaller and more tightly knit groups tend to be more conducive to viral marketing.

Comment: This one is obvious. Aiming to the lowest common denominator (“general interests”) is an area more difficult to incite interests than close-knit communities (“long tail of communities”. Or to use a personal-dynamic analogy, general knock-knock jokes (“as general as you can get”) aren’t as funny as the inside jokes among your friends (“close-knit community”).

The fascinating aspect of this paper is that its a academic and methodical approach to understanding viral networks as it applies to the online marketing community. Viral networks, network effects, complex systems and the phenomenon of emergence (where this blog draws its name from) has been a hot topic in many fields, including in war studies.


I also recommend reading his blog posting “Blogging Viral Network Effects – Case Study






3 responses to “Limits to Viral Marketing”

  1. […] A trade-off between communicative control and potential social effects is an important aspect of social networking. Commentary on the recommendation analysis has largely neglected this issue (for relevant discussion, see here, here, and here, for starters). Being personally responsibility for an online retailer sending a specific purchase offer to a social connection has some social meaning that a potential sender might prefer not to evaluate, and in any case the user cannot change the message sent. The social diffusion of given names, and business successes that arose through social networking, such as Hotmail, Google, MySpace, Youtube, and others, depended on more loosely structured forms of communication. […]

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