The Evolution of Viral Marketing

By now you are used to seeing the word “viral” thrown around a lot and not because of flu season. Virality is what everyone strives for on the Internet. Whether it’s a viral video, a meme, a story, an ad campaign or some combination of all of these things, people want their content to spread, and to spread fast, like a virus.

But the word “viral” wasn’t always associated with online marketing or the Web experience. Check out our latest Buzzword Tracker to see just how “viral marketing” reached its buzzword status.

  • Late 14th century:  According to the Online Etymolgy Dictionary, “virus” was first used to mean a “venomous
    substance,” originating from the Latin word virus, meaning “poison, sap of plants, slimy liquid.”
  • 1728: modern meaning of virus as “agent that causes infectious disease” is first recorded.
  • 1892: Russian biologist Dmitry Ivanovsky uses a special bacteria filter invented by French microbiologist Charles Chamberland to study what is now known as the tobacco mosaic virus. Ivanovsky uses the filters to show that sap from a diseased tobacco plant is still infectious even filtration. He suggested that this was perhaps a result of toxins produced by the bacteria, but he did not continue to study his theory.
  • 1898: Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck repeats Ivanovsky’s experiments and 
    becomes convinced that the filtered solution contained a new infectious agent other than bacteria. He observes that the agent multiplied only in cells that were dividing. Beijerinck doesn’t observe particles and believes the new infectious agent to be in liquid form. He calls it a contagium vivum fluidum (soluble living germ), and thus the term “virus” is introduced.
  • Early 20th century: The science of virology, the study of viruses and the diseases they cause, takes off and establishes the use of “virus” in the biological and medical sense that it is most commonly associated with.
  • 1972: First use of virus in terms of computers, according to Online Etymolgy Dictionary.
  • 1996: Jeffrey Rayport, then a Harvard Business School professor, writes an article for Fast Company entitled “The Virus of Marketing,” in which he uses the term “viral marketing” and “v-marketing.”
  • 1997: Despite Rayport’s article, VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which has funded such tech companies as Hotmail, Skype and Baidu, claims to have coined the term in a Netscape newsletter, using viral marketing to mean “network-enhanced word of mouth.” According to DFJ, the inspiration for the term came from Tim Draper who persuaded Hotmail “to include a promotional pitch for its Web-based email with a clickable URL in every outbound message sent by a Hotmail user. Therein lay one of the critical elements of viral marketing: Every customer becomes an involuntary salesperson simply by using the product.”
  • 2000: Fast Company publishes an article called “Unleash your Ideavirus” by Seth Godin about the idea economy and how “ideas that spread fastest win.”
  • 2004: Facebook launches.
  • 2005: YouTube launches. Viral videos become more and more popular.
  • Early 2000s: With social networks and sharing becoming dominant parts of the online experience, viral marketing reaches buzzword status.
  • 2006: Viral content site and platform BuzzFeed is founded.
  • 2008: According to Google Trends, search volume for “viral marketing” between 2004 and 2012 reached its peak in 2008.
  • 2012: BuzzFeed cofounder Jonah Peretti shares his list of tips “13 Ways to Make Something Go Viral” on Facebook Stories.

More in Media

YouTube is under fire again, this time over child protection

Adalytics Research asks, ‘Are YouTube advertisers inadvertently harvesting data from millions of children?’

Illustration of a puzzle that spells out the word 'media.'

Media Briefing: Publishers pump up per-subscriber revenue amid ad revenue declines

Publishers’ Q2 earnings reveal digital advertising is still in a tight spot, but digital subscriptions are picking up steam.

Lessons for AI from the ad-tech era: ‘We’re living in a memory-less world’

Experts reflect how the failures of social media and online advertising can help the industry improve the next era of innovation.