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Journal of Internet Commerce, 10:208226, 2011

Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

ISSN: 1533-2861 print=1533-287X online
DOI: 10.1080/15332861.2011.596007

Viral Advertising: Definitional Review

and Synthesis
Marketing Department, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida, USA

Marketing Department, Florida Atlantic University, Davie, Florida, USA

The objectives of this article are threefold. First, it provides an

overview of the past published social media research focusing on
different aspects of the viral communication, variously termed
electronic word-of-mouth, word-of-mouse, viral marketing,
and buzz. Second, it clarifies and analyzes the concept of viral
advertising in social media. Third, it provides a definition to
reduce the prevailing ambiguities in the past definitions. All the
forms of new electronic marketing methods differ in terms of the
five key aspects: (1) the platforms used, (2) traditional communication or Internet, (3) their objectives, (4) type of message transmitted, and (5) orientation of the communication. The study
analyzes these differences in order to clarify the numerous
concepts related to viral marketing. As the social media communication technology continues to grow in the U.S. economy, the
academic explanations defining, as well as capturing, the phenomenon also grow, creating a litany of terms.
KEYWORDS buzz marketing, social media, viral advertising,
viral marketing, word-of-mouse, word-of-mouth

In 1994, Rust and Oliver were predicting the death of traditional, outbound
advertising stating that by the year 2010, new media and the new marketing
[. . .] will be the dominant paradigm (p. 75). While in 2010 traditional advertising is still up and running, the second part of the prophecy is not far from
Address correspondence to Maria Petrescu, Marketing Department, Florida Atlantic
University, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton, FL 33431, USA. E-mail:

Viral Advertising


the truth. Online marketing and advertising represent the business trend
of the contemporary times (Datta, Chowdhury, and Chakraborty 2005;
Ferguson 2008; Porter and Golan 2006; Steyer, Garcia-Bardidia, and Quester
2007). The Internet has affected different aspects of business, with marketing representing a significant part of the online business activities
(Krishnamurthy and Singh 2005).
Internet-based advertising is continually growing while the traditional
advertising media, such as TV, radio, magazines, and newspapers, may be
losing ground to the Web. Technology and other factors have significantly
evolved and positively affect the way consumers use communications, favoring rapid and efficient information exchange and interactivity (Johnson,
Bruner, and Kumar 2006; Keller 2009). The wide use of the Internet has
helped managers realize the potential of a new technology able to complement the traditional word-of-mouth communication, transforming it into
an online viral way of communication with and among consumers (Datta
et al. 2005).
Included in the many benefits of the Internet for marketing, the viral
potential is one of the most influential. As Rust and Oliver (1994) predicted,
the main benefits of online marketing are its high capacity of reach and interactivity leading to marketing efficiencies. Another aspect is important in this
context: the evolution of advertising from involuntary to voluntary. The
consumer is increasingly in control regarding not only the media, but also
the delivery process of advertising (Keller 2009; Rust and Oliver). The
Internet allows significantly more interaction, targeted communication,
increased reach, and better evaluation of the results, all at a low cost (Derbaix
and Vanhamme 2003; Kozinets et al. 2010).
Researchers and practitioners have noted that consumers seem increasingly comfortable with online viral advertising campaigns that encourage
individuals to pass along a marketing message to others through Internet
or e-mail. World-renowned companies, such as Nike or Budweiser, have
successfully used viral advertising in social media, YouTube, Facebook,
and blogs (Borroff 2000; Morrissey 2008; Steenburgh, Avery, and Dahod
2009). From traditional platforms to Internet media, consumers value the
non-commercial, non-imposed, personal sources of advertising information
and peer-to-peer communication much better than the paid ads (Gilly et al.
1998; Kirby and Marsden 2006; Steyer et al. 2007).
This seems to be only the beginning. The eMarketer estimates that
online video advertising in the United States will increase from $1.1 billion
in 2009 to $4.1 billion in 2013, with online advertising spending rising from
4.3% to 11.0% of the overall advertising expenditures (Tsai 2009). Nevertheless, even today, the online marketing potential, especially in social media
and Web sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, is unbelievable.
For example, in March 2010, YouTube publicized on its blog that it reached
a record number of hours of video uploaded per minute: 24, the worth of a


M. Petrescu and P. Korgaonkar

whole day of YouTube watching uploaded in just a minute. In addition, at

the beginning of 2011, Facebook was counting 500 million active users, of
which 50% login everyday on the Web site.
Despite this growing potential, academic research regarding viral marketing and social media has been sparse, especially compared with other
areas of Web 2.0 research (Allsop, Bassett, and Hoskins 2007; Borroff 2000;
Steyer et al. 2007). There is still a limited understanding of the viral technique
(Borroff; Graham and Havlena 2007). Advertising and marketing research
studies related to the Internet have mentioned aspects such as electronic
word-of-mouth, word-of-mouse, viral marketing, buzz, and viral
advertising (Dobele, Toleman, and Beverland 2005; Jurvetson and Draper
1997; Porter and Golan 2006). However, the studies on the viral concept in
advertising have not yet clarified the multitude of concepts and definitions,
or the effects of the viral concept on the advertising process and outcome.
Previous research has noted the necessity to study viral advertising, as
one of the most efficient ways of communication among consumers, with
potential to multiply a brands popularity (Chiu et al. 2007; Steyer et al.
2007). It is beneficial to analyze how viral advertising works, the contexts
in which it performs best and how it influences the formation of brand
and ad attitude (Cruz and Fill 2008; Kozinets et al. 2010).
The study attempts to clarify and analyze the concept of viral advertising
in social media and assess the potential differences that can appear between
the traditional advertising medium and the new social media. The article will
also provide a definition to reduce the prevailing ambiguities in the past definitions. Table 1 presents the key differences between the diverse forms of
new online viral communications.
As table 1 shows, these concepts differ in terms of five key criteria:
(1) platforms used, (2) traditional communication or the Internet, (3) their
objectives, (4) type of message transmitted, and (5) orientation of the
communication. The following sections of this study further discuss these
The first part of the study focuses on reviewing the key information
about social media and theories that have applicability in this context. The
following part reviews the five key viral concepts and their definitions:
word-of-mouth, viral marketing, buzz marketing, word-of-mouse, and viral
advertising. The last part focuses on the viral advertising context and ideas
for future research that resulted from this overview.
This article will significantly contribute to both academic research as
well as the practice of viral advertising. On the one hand, the clarification
of these modern advertising terms will benefit marketing research and
encourage academics to perform in-depth empirical research regarding the
functioning of different viral techniques. On the other hand, practitioners will
be able to see a clear picture of the viral tools at their disposal and make
informed decisions regarding their use in the advertising strategy.


Electronic consumer-to-consumer
communication regarding a brand or
Unpaid electronic (e-mail, Web, or social
media) distribution of business or user
generated advertisements from consumer to
consumer, based on ad content likeability,
entertainment, and controversial

Online media oriented toward social

interaction, networking and information
Verbal consumer-to-consumer
communication, unpaid, regarding a brand
or product
Online and offline marketing activities
performed to influence consumers to pass
along commercial messages to other
Peer-to-peer communications as a
consequence of viral marketing


Internet and



Forward of

Forward of



Social interaction


Note. WOM word-of-mouth. eWOM electronic word-of-mouth, or word-of-mouse.








TABLE 1 Viral Concepts and Definitions


Business- and
Business- or










M. Petrescu and P. Korgaonkar


Social media include a broad range of online platforms, such as social networking sites, brand-sponsored virtual worlds, open virtual worlds, video
and photo communities, and social news. These have become the powerful
word-of-mouth communication media and changed the way people communicate and keep in touch with their social groups (Anderson 2008; Hung
and Li 2007). Social media favor communication, information sharing, keeping in touch with friends, and finding new friends.
From a theoretical point of view, research can apply Metcalfes Law
to social media in order to underline its benefits for marketers. Metcalfes
Law states that the value of a network to the entities attached to it is
proportional to the square of the number of connected entities (Spence
2002). Due to this law, the value and the speed of connecting accelerates
as the number of members increases, leading to a network effect. In this context, social media is a strong platform in the creation and distribution of viral
Research on the diffusion of innovation is another theoretical aspect that
intervenes in the social media context (Arndt 1967; Phelps et al. 2004; Rogers
1983). Diffusion of innovation studies can provide information regarding the
contribution of social media in the viral marketing processes. Research on the
diffusion of innovation has shown that diffusion occurs when the innovation
is communicated through different channels among members of a social
system (Phelps et al.; Rogers), in this case, the social media. When the innovators of a network find new products or information, they transmit the
message in their social network (Thomas 2004). Thanks to social media,
the reach of message distribution and diffusion of innovation is much wider
and with high viral potential.
Social network theory also applies to social media, because it seeks to
explain how networks work and analyze the complex set of relationships
within a network of individuals or organizations (Scott 2000; Wasserman
and Faust 1994).
Another theoretical aspect mentioned in research refers to social
synchrony in online social media (Choudhury et al. 2009). An underresearched topic, synchrony refers to the tendency of a group of people to
perform similar actions in response to a trigger. From this point of view,
social media represent a significant opportunity for synchrony and, in
marketing context, viral actions.
Moreover, interactivity is a key characteristics of social media, as
shown by previous research (Stewart and Pavlou 2002). In this case, the
effectiveness of marketing communications may be studied, not only
from the perspective of the marketer, but also from the consumers point
of view.

Viral Advertising


The highly successful YouTube allows video sharing while Facebook

and MySpace provide a platform for social networking. Twitter promotes
information and news sharing, while other more specialized Web sites, such
as LinkedIn, focus on networking with specific purposes (Anderson 2008;
Tuten, 2008). Some of them center on established networks of friends, while
others allow sharing with anyone interested including strangers. Tuten
divides social networks into (1) egocentric (Facebooksocial networking)
and (2) object centric (such as YouTubevideo sharing). The egocentric networks target individuals, such as networks of friends, and are focused on
individuals networking with each other based on social needs and preferences, in the purpose of socialization. The object-centered networks deal
with a specific objective of sharing objects, such as pictures or video, and
not necessarily socializing like on Facebook (Tuten).
In this context, social-media advertising uses social communities,
such as social networks and virtual worlds as an advertising medium, just
as traditional advertising focuses on the television platform. Social media
have become the new advertising channels. However, the rules of the
game have totally changed in the new channels, since the consumer is
now in control. This has created advantages in using social media, including
interaction among consumers and brands and viral communication diffusion
in a short time and for a very low cost (Barefoot and Szabo 2010; Riegner
Social media also increase the impact of word-of-mouth within a persons social circle. The interactivity potential and the consumer being in
control also leads to an increasing quantity of consumer-generated media
(Niederhoffer et al. 2007). Brands can receive a significant jump-start from
the viral communication of brand messages, given the diffusion range of
advertising messages within social media. A friend tells a friend who tells
his=her friends and the diffusion rate increases as the information travels
the social channel. As the message circulates from person to person, its distribution potential increases exponentially within the social networks (Tuten
2008). Interactivity, voluntary participation, and easy transformation from
spectator into actor promote communication, sharing, and cooperation.
This article analyzes two of the main players in the market, Facebook
and YouTube. Each of them represents a different type of social network,
egocentric versus object centric, as described above (Tuten 2008).
Facebooks popularity has increased dramatically lately. For marketers,
it offers numerous tools, from targeted display ads, to personal company
profiles where companies can share information and attract fans or
friends. Facebook Beacon provides a channel to distribute viral information about user brand-related activity (Barefoot and Szabo 2010; Tuten
2008). Since it includes networks of friends, Facebook presents a huge potential to increase exponentially the distribution of a message. It also allows the
marketer to build a relationship with the targeted audience.


M. Petrescu and P. Korgaonkar

Unlike Facebook, YouTube is an object-centered media, including

user-generated content, generally video. YouTube is the place where videos
have the highest potential to go viral. It has the option of creating social
networks and sharing information. At the same time, it is accessible to people
from outside the network, without registration or creating a personal profile.
Advertisers can post a video on YouTube and then allow consumers to
participate in the creation of the viral process, by forwarding the information.
Marketers can even let posts occur organically, from fans capturing and posting personal videos online (Riegner 2007; Tuten 2008). In both cases, the
level of exposure and media coverage potential is significant. Using YouTube
as an advertising medium is much less expensive than using TV commercials.
Moreover, less costly consumer-generated ads also have the potential to
become viral. On the other hand, companies also post their own ads with
hopes that they become viral. The rules of the game change in this context.
The customers need to like the ads in order to send them further. The ads
also need to have certain characteristics, such as humorous or shocking scenes, to become viral, which may be different from the TV ads requirements.
Nevertheless, besides its significant benefits for the marketing world,
research has also criticized social media for privacy-related reasons and the
degree of user information revealed by some Web sites (Tuten 2008). How
much information should be public and what personal information may be
used for marketing purposes is still an open subject in the business world.
We conclude, as presented in table 1, that social media is a form of
online media oriented toward social interaction, networking, and information exchange. Its main purpose is social interaction on the Internet, from
consumer to consumer, including user-generated content.

Though not extensive, the advertising research studies related to the Internet
analyze numerous concepts, such as electronic word-of-mouth, word-ofmouse, viral marketing, buzz, and viral advertising (Bampo et al.
2008; Dobele et al. 2005; Jurvetson and Draper 1997; Kozinets et al. 2010;
Porter and Golan 2006). Researchers use some of them interchangeably, even
though they do not represent the same technique. Just as the terms advertising and marketing are different, so are the terms viral marketing
and viral advertising, for example. Given the continually developing
Internet and its benefits for marketing and advertising, the following discussion attempts to clarify these concepts. This analysis will prove beneficial
for future research and, at the same time, is essential for the study of viral
advertising. The following section revises the key concepts related to viral
and Internet marketing and advertising: word-of-mouth, viral marketing,
buzz, word-of-mouse, and viral advertising.

Viral Advertising


Word-of-Mouth (WOM)
Arndt (1967) defined word-of-mouth as oral, person-to-person communication between a receiver and a communicator whom the receiver
perceives as non-commercial, regarding a brand, product, or service.
Word-of-mouth is a conversation about products or brands. However, its
importance comes nothing short of significant, as Arndt notes, it is one of
the most important, if not the most important source of information for the
Distinct from other types of communication, traditional word-of-mouth
uses verbal communication dispersed from one person to another through
different media, willingly and as a personal initiative (Datta et al. 2005; Gelb
and Sundaram 2002; Henricks 1998). Unlike other paid communications, it
represents an informal form of communication among family, friends, and
consumers. It is based on individuals personal experiences with a firm or
a product.
The influence of word-of-mouth is efficient especially for undifferentiated products, with similar brand and advertising evaluations. It helps
customers evaluate and adopt the product thanks to information acquired
through word-of-mouth (Larceneux 2007). Word-of-mouth has a higher
impact than advertising or personal selling on information dissemination,
on consumer buying behavior, and a significant influence in the diffusion
of new products (Bayus 1985; Cruz and Fill 2008; Datta et al. 2005; Derbaix
and Vanhamme 2003; Hung and Li 2007; Money, Gilly, and Graham 1998;
Rogers 1983).
Credibility and perceived source reliability (Breazeale 2009) are important advantages of word-of-mouth. The opinion leaders formulate and transmit their comments voluntarily, speak from personal experience, and, at least
theoretically, do not receive compensation for it. In addition, the message is
interactive, bidirectional between consumers, not unidirectional as in traditional advertising. Especially for credence and experience goods, word-ofmouth can help consumers alleviate the risk of trying a new product
(Derbaix and Vanhamme 2003; Hogan, Lemon, and Libai 2004). There is
no attempt to control the opinion or behavior of the consumer, as it happens
with paid advertising (Arndt 1967). The consumer also feels closer to the peer
that communicates a personal experience, because of the people like me
perception (Allsop et al. 2007).
Another essential aspect is that word-of-mouth can be either positive or
negative (Arndt 1967; Derbaix and Vanhamme 2003). Negative WOM is one
of the forms of customer complaining behavior and has been found to negatively affect the probability of purchase (Arndt 1967). Negative word-ofmouth has been found to spread further and faster than positive WOM (Helm
2000). WOM literature does not lack controversies, especially regarding its
effects and the differences between negative and positive word-of-mouth.


M. Petrescu and P. Korgaonkar

Datta and colleagues (2005) underline the fact that most research focuses on
consequences and on negative WOM.
While WOM occurs naturally among consumers, researchers found marketing activities implemented in order to influence the peer-to-peer communications (Kozinets et al. 2010). At the same time, word-of-mouth is an
important aspect in the modern electronic media, such as e-mail, blogs,
and social media (Steyer et al. 2007; Smith et al. 2007).
Given this review, this study defines WOM as unpaid verbal consumerto-consumer communication, regarding a brand or product. As presented in
table 1, it includes interpersonal, traditional verbal communication between
consumers representing opinions on brands, products, and purchase

Viral Marketing
The writings on the origin of the term viral marketing are as varied as its definitions. Most published articles attribute the formulation of the term to Jurvetson and Draper (1997). They used the term to describe the free e-mail service
that Hotmail was providing, with a message attached to each sent e-mail from
Hotmail. The message was simply stating that the Hotmail e-mail account is
free, which led to a viral attraction of new users. Jurvetson and Drapers definition is one of the most cited in the literature on viral marketing (Bampo
et al. 2008; Cruz and Fill 2008; Datta et al. 2005; Fattah 2000; Swanepoel,
Lye, and Rugimbana 2009). A few studies cite Harvard professor Rayport
as mentioning the term in 1996 (Kirby and Marsden 2006; Shukla, 2010)
and an even earlier use of the term in 1989, in a PC user magazine article
about Macintosh (Kirby and Marsden 2006). Its definition also needs clarification. Research-equated viral marketing with so many other concepts and
the differences between them are no longer clear. The terms include
word-of-mouth, electronic word-of-mouth, word-of-mouse, buzz, and viral
advertising, leading to terminology controversies in the literature (Bampo
et al. 2008; Cruz and Fill 2008).
Jurvetson and Draper (1997) consider viral marketing as online word-ofmouth, enhanced by the use of networks. Viral marketing has also been
defined as e-mail use for word-of-mouth referral endorsement from one
client to other prospective clients, and the process of encouraging individuals
to pass along favorable marketing information received online (Dobele et al.
2005). It is also seen as marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness (Datta et al.
2005) or electronic, online form of WOM (Anderson 2008; Cruz and Fill
2008). Viral marketing can use different forms and tools, including blogging,
social networks, and user-generated content that can help spread the word
(Akar and Topc u 2011).

Viral Advertising


Other authors even use the term viral marketing and viral advertising
interchangeably (Anderson 2008). Bampo et al. (2008) consider viral marketing to be a strategy that encourages individuals to propagate a message,
creating the potential for exponential growth in its dispersion. Welker
(2002) defines the term viral communication as strategies that allow an
easier, accelerated, and cost-reduced transmission of messages by creating
environments for a self-replicating, exponentially increasing diffusion, spiritualization, and impact of the message (p. 4).
Viral marketing is a marketing strategy that encourages consumers to
pass along messages to others in order to generate added exposure (Plummer et al. 2007, p. 263). Helm (2000) defines it as a companys activities to
make use of customers communication networks to promote and distribute
products (p. 158). It relies on customers to pass forward the message using
digital platforms (Helm).
Other authors, such as Klopper (2001), even state that viral marketing is
just another buzzword for an old concept, such as word-of-mouth. This
comes to attest the confusion and definitional debate present in the literature
on this topic.
However, although some researchers use the terms interchangeably,
this study finds differences between WOM, electronic WOM, and viral marketing, making viral marketing a distinctive term on its own. First, WOM is
usually local and slow, while viral marketing can be global and, in the instantaneous online platform, has an exponential growth potential (Datta et al.
2005). Second, according to Fergusons (2008) position, the difference
between viral marketing and WOM is one of cause and effect. Viral marketing, as influencer marketing programs, builds awareness and buzz. Viral marketing generates word-of-mouth. Positive WOM, on the other hand, leads to
trial and acquisition, and is the effect of viral marketing (Ferguson).
Viral marketing includes the online or offline activities performed by
managers and marketers in order to make the message viral and obtain electronic WOM as effect. It no longer represents only a marketing-to-consumer
communication, but also a consumer-to-consumer communication, encouraged by marketers (Chiu et al. 2007). The control moves from the marketer
to the consumer, but the marketer still maintains a role in trying to encourage
consumers to communicate (Dobele et al. 2005).
A successful viral marketing campaign encourages individual consumers
to forward marketing messages to others. Due to its diffusion potential, the
Internet creates the capacity to transmit the message to thousands of people
(Chiu et al. 2007; Dobele et al. 2007; Shukla 2010). Viral marketing assumes
this epidemic message diffusion potential and it mobilizes the community
(Stanbouli 2003), given the wide access to information and communication
However, some studies also warn that viral marketing should not be
considered the best thing possible, with maximum results at a low cost.


M. Petrescu and P. Korgaonkar

Managers can utilize viral marketing as a function of the consumer and product characteristics (Stanbouli 2003). While viral marketing is not the answer
to all promotional problems, it is certainly one of the key tools of modern
The study concludes that viral marketing represents online and offline
marketing activities performed to influence consumers to pass along commercial messages to other consumers. As shown in table 1, its purpose
includes the forwarding of business-generated commercial messages,
through the Internet, from businesses to consumers and then to other

Buzz Marketing
Buzz marketing is the amplification of initial marketing efforts by third parties through their passive or active influence (Thomas 2004, p. 64). It
includes spreading the message about new products or brand experiences.
Buzz marketing is under consumer control and is auto-generated, transmitted
from peer-to-peer. While research sometimes uses it as a synonym for viral
marketing, there are a few differences noted in studies. Viral marketing
applies to the electronic media, while buzz marketing can use different
mediums, including traditional word-of-mouth and physical interaction
(Swanepoel et al. 2009).
However, the most significant differences between viral marketing
and buzz relate to process and output, as seen in the difference between
word-of-mouth and viral marketing. Buzz, just like word-of-mouth, often
times is an output or consequence of viral marketing (Bampo et al. 2008;
Dobele et al. 2005).
Larceneux (2007) underlines two types of buzz, a commercial and a
non-commercial type. Commercial buzz relies on marketing strategies that
contribute to its creation and growth. Marketers can support the communication exchange among consumers, and especially encouraging opinion
leaders to speak out. On the other hand, non-commercial buzz is a priori,
based on consumers willingness to spread the message and the information
about their experiences. Both of them are present on the Internet; however, the first type includes rather professional expert opinions, while the
second assumes content generated by consumers (Larceneux 2007). As the
discussion on viral marketing notes, consumer-to-consumer communication
has a higher impact and diffusion potential. However, future research
needs to focus on the efficiency and characteristics of commercial vs. noncommercial buzz.
As shown in table 1, the conclusion is that buzz marketing, including
peer-to-peer communications as a consequence of viral marketing, is the
result of marketing strategies meant to encourage consumer-to-consumer

Viral Advertising


Word-of-Mouse or eWOM
Electronic WOM, or word-of-mouse (Breazeale 2009), is any positive or
negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a
product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people
and institutions via the Internet (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2004, p. 39). It is similar to word-of-mouth, except for the diffusion benefits offered by the
Internet, and the viral potential. It can use different communication platforms, such as reviews, blogs, e-mail, social media, and chat rooms. Word-ofmouse is user generated, transmitted from consumer to consumer, and has
unlimited consumer reach potential (Helm 2000).
Unlike traditional WOM, when the marketer has no control, the eWOM
presents some control opportunities, such as transparency, access to reviews,
and customer evaluations. This is important, considering that with about
25% of the comments critical or negative, word of mouth cuts both ways,
and marketers must be prepared for both positive and negative (Plummer
et al. 2007).
A significant difference between WOM and eWOM refers to the party
who selects the authority to provide comments (Gelb and Sundaram
2002). eWOM presents the opportunity to access not only the opinions of
friends, family, and personal social circle, but also those of experts and complete strangers. Unlike in personal WOM, in the online environment, the only
thing people might know about a message sender is a user name.
Unlike word-of-mouth, eWOM usually comes from people with strong
opinions, provides confidentiality to the consumers. It has the advantage
of written vs. spoken word and some authority that derives from it (Gelb
and Sundaram 2002).
Plummer et al. (2007) also distinguish between organic and amplified
word-of-mouth. Organic eWOM is based on consumers experiences and
desire to share them, while the amplified type refers to outcomes of marketing campaigns meant to raise brand awareness. These include all kinds of
tool marketers used to promote eWOM, such as the creation of online forums. How to better differentiate between organic and amplified eWOM,
which form to use and when are topics still open for debate, and opportunities for future research.
Previous research found that consumers perceive eWOM communication
as a reliable source of information, which affects the perceived overall value of
a firms offering (Gruen, Osmonbekov, and Czaplewski 2006). eWOM is
especially appreciated and used by consumers when a personal experience
with the respective brand is not available (Jones, Aiken, and Boush 2009).
Thus, eWOM is defined as electronic consumer-to-consumer
communication regarding a brand or product. It is a form of interpersonal
communication and includes consumer-generated opinions, transmitted
from consumers to consumers.


M. Petrescu and P. Korgaonkar

Viral Advertising
While some studies use the term viral marketing and viral advertising
interchangeably, this study attempts to clarify the concept of viral advertising.
Porter and Golan (2006) define viral advertising as unpaid peer-to-peer
communication of provocative content originating from an identified sponsor using the Internet to persuade or influence an audience to pass along
the content to others (p. 29). Kirby and Marsden (2006) write that viral
advertising assumes creating contagious advertising messages transmitted
from peer to peer in order to increase brand awareness.
The Internet offers a significantly increased potential of an ad becoming
viral and having an exponentially growing diffusion rate. Viral ads are online
ads that become viral because of consumer action. Companies might pay for
the creation of the ads or they can be user generated, however, their distribution from consumer to consumer is not paid.
Transmitting an ad online, either video, audio, or print (picture) format,
through social media, social networks, e-mail, and other platforms is much
faster and has a much wider reach. Viral advertising includes different forms,
such as the link of a video ad from, for example, YouTube, transmitted to
peers through e-mail or social media.
Classical viral advertising examples are the Whassup? viral ad from
Budweiser or the Trojan condoms 2004 Sex Olympics, downloaded more
than 40 million times (Reid 2005). Viral advertising relies on consumers transmitting the message to other consumers within their social circle (which does
not mean only friends or family). Viral advertising is controlled by consumers. If consumers do not like the ad, it not only affects the attitude toward
the ad or brand, but also their intention to transmit the message. The consumer needs to like the ad enough not only for him=her to buy the product,
but to also pass the message forward.
The not very extensive research on this topic shows that most viral ads
have distinct characteristics when compared to traditional advertising, such
as a catchy message, controversy, entertainment, and higher engagement
levels, usually associated with humorous appeals (Cruz and Fill 2008; Porter
and Golan 2006; Swanepoel et al. 2009).
Viral advertising is personal and even though it comes from an identified sponsor, it does not mean the companies pay for its distribution. Most
of the classical viral ads circulating online are ads financed by the sponsor
brand, launched either on their own platform (company Web page or social
media profile) or on social media Web sites, such as YouTube. Consumers
get the page link from there or copy the entire ad and pass if forward through
e-mail or post it on a blog, Web page, and social media profile.
Researchers and practitioners discuss different antecedents and strategies that make an ad viral. For example, Cruz and Fill (2008) notes two viral
forms, random and placed, differing with regards to place mode (paid or

Viral Advertising


nonpaid) and whether they include a call-to-action or not. Stanbouli (2003)

also writes that the key point is for marketers to take advantage of these
propagation opportunities and be able to respond to the expectations of
Internet surfers.
In this context, as seen in table 1, viral advertising is unpaid electronic
(e-mail, Web, or social media) distribution of business or user generated
advertisements from consumer to consumer, based on ad content likeability,
entertainment, and controversial characteristics.
While the use of viral techniques, and especially viral advertising, shows
huge benefits, its potential is significantly enhanced in specific contexts for
certain types of products and objectives, as briefly discussed in the following


Previous research has shown that word-of-mouth fits best in the context of
similar products and brands, because it can help consumers make a decision
and differentiate between goods and services based on other peoples
experiences (Derbaix and Vanhamme 2003; Larceneux 2007). Word-ofmouth functions well especially for credence and experience goods, and
in the diffusion of innovations (Bayus 1985; Cruz and Fill 2008; Datta et al.
2005; Derbaix and Vanhamme 2003; Hogan et al. 2004; Hung and Li 2007;
Money et al. 1998; Rogers 1983).
The above principles can be applied in the viral advertising context,
given its potential benefits for the promotion of new products. In the Internet
era, viral advertising is a huge opportunity, especially for companies
who want to take advantage of a low cost advertising solution. However,
there are certain rules that one must respect (Stanbouli 2003, p. 97). Viral
ads can benefit products that do not have the wow factor, in order to generate buzz on the topic. The key point is for marketers to create an ad with a
viral potential (Kirby and Marsden 2006). Besides being unique, they need to
contain higher utilitarian or hedonic values in order to be liked (Chiu et al.
Viral advertising is an unconventional marketing technique that also
favors small businesses and low budget campaigns, as long as the advertisers
are able to create unique and compelling messages and content (Porter and
Golan 2006; Swanepoel et al. 2009). Viral ads fit in the context of a pulling
marketing strategy, when the advertiser wants consumers to associate the
good feeling experienced from the provocative content of the ad with the
brand (Porter and Golan; Shukla 2010). This type of ads has the highest
impact when the ads are commercial-free, meaning they are focused on
entertaining and engaging the customer, rather than presenting a call to
action (Cruzz and Fill 2008). Viral advertising focuses on generating product


M. Petrescu and P. Korgaonkar

or brand awareness, not on transmitting traditional advertising messages or a

list of information about the product.
Following the clarification of the viral concepts, the future steps in
research on this topic need to consider an in-depth analysis of viral advertisings context and antecedents, including source characteristics, ad appeals,
and message. Important topics for future research include what makes an
ad viral, the efficiency of different ad appeals, and audience characteristics
(Porter and Golan 2006). Practitioners are already debating a few points on
this topic including ad appeals and whether viral ads should be commercial
freenot including a call to action (Cruz and Fill 2008).
Research on the controllability of viral advertising is another topic to
consider, since studies so far entered in a debate on whether viral campaigns
are controllable, at least in a small scale (Cruz and Fill 2008; Fattah 2000;
Welker 2002). As Keller (2009) notes, customers define the rules of engagement and marketers can lose some control over what consumers post online.
Nevertheless, another controversial aspect of the viral concepts includes
stealth marketing or stealth advertising (Swanepoel et al. 2009). Viral stealth
marketing is considered to be undercover viral marketing, because the
people spreading the message do not disclose the compensation received
from the business. While the stealth aspects represent a part of the viral
strategies, they also require more research regarding their efficiency and difference compared with traditional viral advertising.
While this study clarifies the differences between the Internet marketing
and viral concepts used in research, a key point in the future research on viral
advertising is finding the right methods and theories to be applied. Researchers state that using the same methods from the word-of-mouth or advertising
literature might not necessarily be appropriate (Cruz and Fill 2008). Theories,
such as the diffusion of innovation, socialization and social network theory,
and more focus on interactivity and synchronicity, are only some of the
theoretical frameworks that viral research can consider and adapt.

Internet-based advertising is continually growing, while technology and
other factors have significantly evolved and positively affect the way consumers use communications. This favors rapid and efficient information
exchange and interactivity (Johnson et al. 2006; Keller 2009). In the Internet
context, advertising and marketing research studies have mentioned aspects,
such as electronic word-of-mouth, word-of-mouse, viral marketing,
buzz, and viral advertising (Dobele et al. 2005; Jurvetson and Draper
1997; Porter and Golan 2006).
This study provides an overview of the past social media research
focusing on different aspects of the viral communication. It also presents

Viral Advertising


clarifications of the definitions and differences between the various terms

used in relation to marketing on the Internet: electronic word-of-mouth,
word-of-mouse, viral marketing, and buzz in order to clarify the
concept of viral advertising.
Finally, as stated earlier, the study defines the key concept of the study,
viral advertising, as unpaid electronic (e-mail, Web, or social media) distribution of business, or user generated advertisements from consumer to consumer, based on ad content likeability, entertainment, and controversial
characteristics. The definition captures the key ingredients of viral advertising
and separates it from other forms of advertising.
The article shows that the key differences between these concepts could
be summarized in terms of the platforms used, traditional communication or
Internet, their objective, type of message being transmitted, actors, and orientation of the communication. The differentiation of this multitude of terms
represents a key contribution for marketing research and practice. This study
helps practitioners have a clear image about viral tools available to them and
facilitates the decisional process regarding their integration in the marketing
strategy. It also makes it easier for marketers to decide which techniques to
use in specific contexts. For marketing researchers, the article presents a clear
distinction and classification of the modern viral concepts and presents the
bases for more in-depth analysis of their functionality and benefits. The study
also brings in discussion a few debates still open on the topic of different
viral concepts, as well as ideas for future research. Marketing research will
significantly benefit from further conceptual and empirical analysis of each
of these concepts, their antecedents, and influences on consumer purchasing

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