Where Did Viral Marketing Start?

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While doing some “ego surfing on Google”:http://www.google.com/search?q=%22ken+schafer%22 I stumbled upon something I wrote seven years ago and completely forgot about.
Back in September 1998 I wrote “Viral Marketing at its Best”:http://www.o-a.com/archive/1998/September/0118.html a post to the (at the time) incredibly influential “Online Advertising Mailing List”:http://www.o-a.com/archives.html run by “Cliff Kurtzman”:http://www.kurtzman.biz/.
This was the first time I wrote publicly about viral marketing although we at Sony Music had been working on viral things back in 96 and 97 even though I don’t think we used the word back then.
My post is a deconstruction of the then new idea of “Wish Lists” with an aside to explain “forward to a friend” links:


bq.. Hi all,
I just finished customizing the new personalization tool at CDnow and it strikes me that it contains one of the nicest pieces of “viral marketing” to come along in a while.
I’m not sure who is taking credit for coining the phrase viral marketing this week, but in essence, it means developing marketing approaches that “spread” from one person to another, like a virus. For a quick overview of the concept check out “Fast Company’s article”:http://www.fastcompany.com/online/06/virus.html .
The best known example is the little sig file added by free email services (Excite’s includes a link and the tag “Free web-based email, Forever, From anywhere!”). Another variation is the ubiquitous link on news pages asking people to “mail this article to a friend” (Like on the bottom of the Fast Company article cited above).
In both cases the marketer gets to drop a little message into a “friends” in-box, and best of all it comes with a free third party endorsement (“Hey Betty, if Bob uses Excite, it must be good – let’s check it out!”).
CDnow offers to build a “Wish List” of CDs I’d like to buy but don’t have the cash for. It then conveniently lets me publish this wish list to my friends as a “Gift Registry”. If they follow my custom link, they can purchase the products from CDnow and they will ship it directly to me, thoughtfully removing the purchased gift from my list to avoid embarrassing duplications. Brilliant. I spent an hour going through the site, putting together my wish list, checking it twice and hoping that some web savvy Santa would fill my stocking (preferably for Halloween instead of Xmas!)
To summarize:
1. I win – people might give me CDs (see my sig file!).
2. Friends win – people say I’m hopeless to buy for.
3. CDnow wins – They get a loyal customer (me), new customers (my gift buying friends), and get brand awareness everywhere (check that sig file again!).
The only things I would have done to improve the service is to make the links in the Gift Registry live, and to give examples of how to include your link in a sig file (for newbies). My guess is that you will see Gift Registry links popping up in everyone’s sig files this fall. I mean, what the heck – someone might actually buy you something!
I’d be interested in hearing other examples of outstanding viral marketing. (And did I mention to check out my sig file?)
p. In the post I reference an article from Fast Company in 1996 called “The Virus of Marketing”:http://www.fastcompany.com/online/06/virus.html. That was the first time I heard the term and I believe it pre-dates “Hotmail’s sig file”:http://www.dfj.com/cgi-bin/artman/publish/steve_tim_may97.shtml and “Steve Jurvetson’s claim to the term”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viral_marketing#History (Steve is “now blogging infrequently”:http://jurvetson.blogspot.com/). It was certainly well ahead of “Seth Godin’s”:http://sethgodin.typepad.com/ influential book “Ideavirus”:http://www.sethgodin.com/ideavirus/ which is probably where most people came to know the term – that was released this century. Of course now it is fashionable to talk about “WOM”:http://ads.womma.org/ rather than viral marketing.
This stroll down memory lane brought up two questions for me:
# Are there any examples of the term “Viral Marketing” being used before December 1996?
# Have you ever stumbled on anything you wrote online a _long_ time ago and found it either particularly prescient or incredibly embarrassing?

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