I’ve been thinking a bit about "viral marketing" lately in the course of my work. There have been some pretty subtle, successful examples of this that could be worth emulating, and there have been some egregious, obnoxious examples.

I’ve mentioned Flixster in the past. If you’ve never used it, think IMDB meets MySpace. I believe the enrollment strategy is for folks to encourage their friends to take a movie compatibility quiz, who in turn will encourage other friends to take the quiz as well. That’s step one. In step two, the users rate movies in order to get the computer to recommend a movie they may like. This seems to be the current model of the Internet: trick users into doing all the work, and make them feel like they’re having fun doing it. After all, what does this company get out of this arrangement besides advertising revenue? Well, they actually get a giant sliceable, diceable demographic database showing exactly what sorts of movies interest exactly what sorts of people. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against demographics when not used for evil. And by "not used for evil," I mean "result in products or services that might actually be of interest to me."

If you couldn’t tell, Flixster was the "good" example. Now, something a bit… less good… is World of Quizzes. They, too, propagate through quizzes (if you couldn’t have guessed.) In one user’s experience, the "fun" began when he submitted his answers for scoring. First, he was instructed to register. That’s something of a fact of life nowadays, and that’s why we have disposable e-mail addresses. After registering, the site displayed an endless parade of "special offers" to be opted out of. It’s not clear how many offers would have been displayed, for this user eventually forgot what quiz he had taken in the first place and wandered off to do something else. A later examination of the disposable e-mail account revealed that it had received about twenty junk messages a day since being used for registration.

Fine, but are there any interesting viral marketing methods that don’t involve quizzes or spam? As it turns out, I’ve just observed what may be a new or old variation on a theme. Remember the old e-mail hoax that beseeched one to mail a chain letter to 25 friends in order to win a free taco, a dinner at Outback, or $100 from Bill Gates himself? Well, now that people have public blogs, this idea has made a comeback for real. For example, by posting a graphical link to the originating site, one can enter a contest to win a bag of maternity goodies. That’s not something I’d need myself, but I do have some expecting friends who’d probably find it useful. I’d much rather win the supposedly invulnerable laptop being offered in this drawing. I’d be tempted to join it with a Laptop Robot Kit and find out just how rugged it was. Is it robot fighting time?

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