The History of Viral Marketing


While viral marketing seems to be all the rage in the new millennium, it’s actually nothing new. There’s nothing better than studying the past in order to determine where we need to go. Starting with traditional word of mouth marketing, moving to PR stunts and making way for what we know today as viral marketing. How different is it from its old analogue version? I would argue, not that much.

Word of Mouth

“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks right in there somewhere.” [Emphasis mine] – Cobb, Inception

We can’t trace what the first mass spread of information was but it is probably safe to say that it goes back to the beginning of time. Stories were likely the first method of mass proliferation of concepts – viva voce. Humans would travel across lands to different communities and tell the tales of their experiences to transfer information. People acted as advocates and that inherently instilled trust and motivation to try something.

Humans are prosocial creatures and we will often take the word of someone we know and like to be good advice. It is not in our nature to be sceptical of others in our kin group because that could have led to ostracism from a clan and you definitely didn’t want to be an outsider during the Stone Age.

What was the first information to have been mass spread? I would say it was making fire, but that’s just an opinion.

War & Conflict, Trade & Imperialism

Conflict has contributed to the increased speed of the spread of information. During times of war, migration and movement wasn’t just for a privileged few. Whether they were invading, colonising, or defending countries, millions of people had the opportunity to cross borders and experience new cultures.

Early in the 15th century, Italy was undergoing the Renaissance period – the adoption of Ancient Greek and Roman ideals to bring about a rebirth of prominence in Italy. This didn’t catch on in the rest of Western Europe until later in the 15th and 16th centuries, but when it did it happened fast. An invasion of the Italian Peninsula as well as trade throughout Europe allowed merchant classes to exchange ideas and commission artwork from Italy. This resulted in the spread of humanism to France and Germany.

In the same vein, explorers travelled around the world to bring back spice, sugar, and even people who looked different than anyone Europeans had seen before.

This method of ideas exchange continued well into the 20th century, where we come to the next step in the development.

Publicity Stunts

Information was already being spread on a regular basis with the invention of the printing press and the telegraph. Humans could share faster and in greater detail, with photography adding the robustness of the content.

People who owned businesses and wanted their information to spread faster took advantage of these technologies and knew that the fastest way to get people talking about their product or service was to do something big and newsworthy. It was guaranteed that if something was on the front page of the newspaper, then people heard about it.

In what is considered the first publicity stunt – an event planned specifically to grab the public’s attention, William Crush planned to stage a crash between two full-size trains in 1896. In order to publicise his company, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, he invited people to watch the event. People were fascinated by railway crashes and deaths, and Crush felt he could make a fortune doing this and selling tickets to it.

Forty thousand spectators showed up to watch the crash and surely this made headlines when unfortunately, three people were killed by exploding boilers after the collision. Companies continued staging these types of crashes at state fairs and like, thanks for the publicity.

Viral Marketing

This brings us to the 21st century. Virality happened via email in the early days of the internet – remember the Dancing Baby video? Friends and family emailed you chain letters and hilarious short videos – lest your inbox get too full. Then came YouTube and people watched the ‘Charlie bit my finger!’ video dozens of times on the recommendation of friends.

Now companies can create viral and newsworthy events in order to generate buzz and get their name out. For example, Fiji Airways worked with Guinness World Records to create a major publicity stunt for their rebrand in 2013. They spread the word that they were trying to set the record for the Highest Altitude Wedding. They received hundreds of applications and once the video was live, Fiji Airways received 16 million media impressions, over 26,000 YouTube views and a Twitter reach of more than 72,000 – and they didn’t even have to blow up a train.

So what is different now? Speed. We no longer have to wait for prophets, messengers, letters or boats to arrive. We can share in a second with a single click or Tweet to billions of people around the world. It’s viral like we’ve never seen before.


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