An article from yesterdays Washington Post details an investigation into viral marketing. The basis of the story is “advocacy” groups are not happy with marketers using such methods to portray an unbiased opinion of their products and services.
As the practice has taken hold over the past several years, some advocacy groups have questioned whether marketers are using such tactics to dupe consumers into believing they are getting unbiased information.
What exactly are these advocacy groups advocating for anyway? There are some companies and individuals out there completely misleading the public with claims on what their products can do (get rich quick schemes come to mind first), but these have been and are allowed to continue to run without any outcry from advocacy groups. “As Seen On TV”…??? Yea right, are you kidding me? Companies run these ads because they work, however the laws in this area are so loose they can easily get away with it.
Let’s look at viral marketing compared to traditional marketing. With viral marketing, the majority of the time these ads don’t make any false or misleading assumptions and any individuals promoting it are normally not compensated. Certainly there is a natural pressure to speak positively about a product or company simply for being included (or for the free products), however this doesn’t seem as nearly as bad as some of the false advertising we see on a regular basis. Even with the free products the consumers are free to comment and portray the product however they like. In traditional advertising, the companies marketing department has complete control over the entire campaign, start to finish, and can say whatever they like. After the initial launch in word of mouth marketing the control lies with the consumer. When the consumers catch on, these campaigns can and certainly have backfired (Sony) or they can spread and show outstanding returns (Mentos, Dove). How many times have we heard that the online world is moving toward communities and social interaction with Web 2.0? Word of mouth marketing accomplishes this difficult feat.
Do advocacy groups need to be concentrating on the viral marketing phenomenon? Not yet in my opinion. This type of marketing will certainly proliferate and start to cross the line into a gray area, but it is a wonderful marketing tool that when done properly will be a useful tool in any companies marketing package. Advocacy groups should work on their bigger problems before attempting to tackle such a blurry concept as viral marketing.