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The Myth About Viral Marketing

The idea that messages go "viral" and diffuse through social networks is now a given in corporate marketing and the culture. But recent research suggests that the term "viral" marketing does not describe what happens most often online.

In fact, true viral diffusion is rare, according to Sharad Goel, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. For marketers, this research suggests that it may be time to abandon the idea that viral marketing will frequently lead to, say, tenfold organic growth.

In a paper called "The Structure of Online Diffusion Networks" that was presented at the 13th ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce, Goel, Duncan J. Watts and Daniel G. Goldstein (all of Yahoo! Research when they wrote the paper, now at Microsoft Research) describe how they studied seven online scenarios to see how a variety of applications and content spread. The researchers studied: 1. Yahoo! Voice, an online phone service started in 2004; 2. Zync, a Yahoo! Instant Messenger video-sharing application; 3. Friend Sense, a Facebook app introduced in 2009; 4. "The Secretary Game," an online hiring game; 5. Yahoo! Kindness, a charitable website launched in 2010; 6. news stories sent via Twitter in November 2011; and 7. YouTube links diffused through Twitter in November 2011.

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