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Viral — It's Not Just about the Common Cold Anymore

Posted At: December 10, 2008 4:10 PM
by Martha Griffith

Viral, a history
Merriam-Webster still defines “viral” the same way it has since the word appeared in its dictionary in 1937. It is an adjective meaning “of, relating to, or caused by a virus as in a viral infection.” Even the Oxford English Dictionary (the world of definitions and usage histories that word lovers think of when they think of heaven) has only a draft addition from September 2006, for the adjective “viral” describing it as “Chiefly Marketing. Of, designating, or involving the rapid spread of information (esp. about a product or service) amongst customers by word of mouth, e-mail, etc. to go viral: to propagate in such a manner; to (be) spread widely and rapidly.”

The OED tells us that the earliest recorded use of this new definition of viral was in September 1989, appearing in PC User magazine. It was not until 1998 when the Washington Post used the “viral campaigns” term to refer to tactics in which the consumer becomes the transmitter. Since then it has exploded. Viral is for many marketing, advertising and public relations strategies the ultimate goal.

A firm’s perspective
To find out more about a firm’s perspective on “going viral,” I asked Edelman Senior Account Executive Jennifer Hudson and Digital Vice President Dave Coustan, both of the Atlanta office, for their thoughts.

“We often describe ‘viral’ as an outcome and not a strategy,” Coustan and Hudson said. It is important to make sure “a piece of media is as easy as possible to share, remix and experience in multiple contexts.” But even with all this, there is no guarantee that information will actually be shared. It is up to each individual receiver to decide if it is “useful, entertaining or enlightening” enough to pass on.

Interdisciplinary medium with an opportunity for PR
Because of its rapid development and power to encompass several disciplines, viral is not just a marketing term, an advertising term or even a public relations term. Viral refers to them all, serving to further confuse those who cannot separate the fields in the first place. But for practitioners of all, it can give a unique opportunity for collaboration on a larger goal that can be set up through a holistic PR campaign.

Coustan and Hudson emphasized the importance of looking at communications as a whole, making sure each element works together with the others and fits within the larger strategy saying, “Public engagement is by nature interdisciplinary.”

In his blog, Richard Edelman shared advice from Jeff Levick, vice president of industry development and marketing, Americas for Google. Number one on the list was that “Nowadays companies could care less about which firm (PR versus advertising versus direct) provides what function — whichever has the idea and ability to execute can get the order. This is a real opportunity for PR firms.”

Showing that all ideas, including viral, are anyone’s game should motivate public relations practitioners to utilize it more when appropriate, educators to incorporate it into their curriculum and students to take the initiative to learn more about it in order to make themselves more marketable upon graduation.

Public relations is about two-way communication, and viral campaign elements are just another way to engage audiences, Coustan and Hudson say.

Viral knowledge and personal marketability

Becoming familiar with social media tools that can be utilized in viral campaign elements is beneficial when interviewing with companies, Coustan and Hudson noted. You don’t have to utilize all of them, however; just be sure to know about them.


Dave Coustan ([email protected]), Digital Vice-President, Edelman Atlanta

Jennifer Hudson ([email protected]), Senior Account Executive, Edelman Atlanta

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