Corporate Eye

The Psychology Behind Viral Marketing: Why People Share

Did you know that a virus doesn’t even have to mate? It just grows exponentially; hitching a ride on its host, taking over the host’s functions in order to replicate itself inside every cell it comes into contact with.[1]

The term ‘virus’ has anything but a good connotation. The term ‘viral marketing’ brings about a very different response, however; one of intrigue, excitement, and curiosity.

But what is it?

According to Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, E-Commerce Consultant for Web Marketing Today Viral Marketing is “…any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence.”

He compares this type of marketing to viruses, stating that “Like viruses, such strategies take advantage of rapid multiplication to explode the message to thousands, to millions.”[2]

While modern medical science knows the reasons why viruses insert their DNA into other cells, isn’t it an interesting question as to why people pass on marketing messages to others?

What is it that makes one press the ‘forward‘ button or the ‘share‘ icon? This is an important question, because without someone making a conscious decision to pass on a marketing message, Viral Marketing simply wouldn’t be possible.

It is important for corporations to know the answer to this question for several reasons. Viral Marketing has several benefits[3]

  1. Increases Visibility
  2. Establishes Consumer Credibility and Trust
  3. Enhances Customer Interaction
  4. Reduces Marketing Costs

The Psychology of Sharing

Schutz (1966) developed a fundamental motivation theory which outlined three reasons why people engage in interpersonal communication[4].

  • Inclusion – The need to be part of a group and attract personal attention
  • Affection – Showing appreciation or concern for others
  • Control – The need to feel in control of one’s social environment

In a study, researchers Jason Ho and Melanie Dempsey applied these concepts to Viral Marketing[5]. They found that Schutz’s theory offered explanation for why people decide to share online content. More specifically, they found the following:

  • Inclusion and affection, (uniqueness in particular), are the leading reasons people share online content.
  • Control was found to not be a reason that people forward online content. They explained that this is because there is no consistent feedback in sharing online material, and feedback is what drives sense of control.

So, how can this information help your corporation as you develop your Viral Marketing campaign? The following are some tips on how to create marketing messages that will go viral:

  • Create a marketing message that a user would want to share in order to make them feel unique. Creating marketing messages that reflect a target audience’s self image has been found to be effective.
  • Create a marketing message that will enable the user to show affection to another user.
  • Design marketing content that creates cohesiveness among social groups. Find an element shared by your target audience, and present it in a way that encourages bonding and sharing

Viral Marketing is an essential component of promoting your brand on the Internet. Many corporations think it is more complex than it really is. When it comes down to it, it really just follows the tenants of basic social rules.




2 Dr. Ralph F. Wilson: The six simple principles of viral marketing


4 Schutz (1966) A three dimensional theory of interpersonal behavior

5 Ho & Dempsey (2010): Viral Marketing: Motivations to forward online content


I’ve heard that as the relationships develop within a team people go through stages of what is important to them in terms of inclusion (forming), then control (storming). and then affection (norming and performing).

Could it be the same with a companies relationship with thier customers? Essentially, first create the cohension of belonging to a group, then enable the customers to directly influence the design of the products or services, then build loyalty through long term trusting relationships.

Hi Erica,
Thanks for the article. Fascinating stuff. Yes, social media follows, as you say, the tenets of social rules, more or less, and I find it interesting that online marketing involves and needs to include the fact that a lot of the people spreading messages have their own multiple strategies 1. to enhance reputation capital 2. product branding 3. SEO related activity 4. genuine communication 5. self promotion
Tara Gould

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