Presenter: Now, one of the latest buzzwords in e-commerce is 'viral marketing' – using the power of the internet to advertise a product or service. I'm joined in the studio today by Michael MacAulay of the buzz.com website which monitors internet trends. Michael, what exactly is 'viral marketing'?
Michael: Hi, Tony. The idea of viral marketing is basically that the internet does your advertising for you. A good example is internet email providers like Hotmail or Yahoo. Every time someone sends you an email using a Yahoo address you get that little 'Do you Yahoo?' message at the end – basically advertising what Yahoo does while still providing you with the service, the message you've received.
Presenter: But it's not limited to internet email providers, is it?
Michael: Not at all. Hotmail is perhaps the most famous example but there's lots and lots of stuff on the web that can be seen as viral marketing. You might get sent, for example, a little game to play on your PC or a funny animation, something like that. More often than not, they're advertising a product or an event. The initial idea of viral marketing was that it cost next to nothing – great for ventures without a huge start-up budget – but I suspect there's quite a lot of money spent on this sort of thing now.
Presenter: And presumably the idea is that people like the game or animation or whatever and send it on to their friends.
Michael: Exactly - it spreads like a virus.
Presenter: So far so good, but the word 'virus' is quite a negative one. I know from the emails we receive on the programme that a lot of our listeners are very concerned about the amount of unwanted emails – 'spam' as it's known – they already receive. Isn't viral marketing just another form of spam?
Michael: It's a good point, Tony. The vital difference between viral marketing and spam is that one is providing a service and the other isn't. Viral marketing relies on people sending things on to their friends and family. Spam is sent to thousands of people at random. So they're very different. Having said that, the line does begin to get a bit blurred in places. There's the example of the company in the US that paid people – 50 cents an hour, I think – to let the company's view bar display advertisements on their screens. However, the company also paid people 10 cents an hour if they sent the 'view bar' to another person who allowed the ads onto their screen. Now that can be seen as encouraging people to send unwanted emails.