The Convergence Newsletter out of the Newsplex at the University of South Carolina almost always has some interesting food for thought about some aspect of convergence in newsrooms, participatory journalism, or a shifting media landscape. The most current issue, which just came out a few days ago, focuses on a variety of presentations from the 2007 Broadcast Education Association Convention in Las Vegas, which took place in mid-April.
In particular, I was interested in the work of three gentlemen from Florida State University, Steven McClung, Patrick O'Donnell, and Mike Tomaszeski, who were looking at the rise of the blogosphere and the importance of viral marketing and niche target audiences on the Web. They are looking particularly at how blogs promote themselves and various types of content in a sphere of literally millions of online sites, many of which receive very small readership and are aimed for a small circle of friends...or, in some cases, just written so someone can read their own writing. (Sometimes, we all feel that way...)
I haven't read a particular history of the term viral marketing, but my understanding is that viral marketing refers to word-of-mouth campaigns and the spreading of media among users or consumers closely akin to the proselytizing behaviors we so often write about here in the Convergence Culture Consortium.
In the past few years, companies have explicitly used the term to explain campaigns in which users become the advocates for a show or brand themselves. The term viral marketing has often been attributed to Douglas Rushkoff from his book Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture in 1994. The way the term is used now refers to much broader marketing behaviors than Rushkoff was referring to.
The term has also been traced back to Richard Brodie's work in Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Mind from 1995. Brodie originally wrote about the term profit virus, referring to the idea of businesses that replicate themselves.
These three gentlemen write about the importance of promoting the blog itself, which they say involves trying to get the attention of the traditional media and grassroots marketing that involves the cross-promotion of one blog to another. Their piece in the newsletter looks at how the idea of logs which link to one another can be traced back to Web rings which grouped sites which all linked to the communal Web ring based on a particular subject.
Further, they claim that the blog must deliver some type of particular product and that the product must have value to someone. They conclude that blogs are not the most efficient vehicle for attracting large audiences but they are great for targeting specific interests. They write, "In the evolving media landscape of 100 cable channels, 2000 satellite radio channels and magazines that are highly targeted toward composite audiences, it could be said that not many media vehicle audiences are getting larger. And, as marketers are increasingly becoming aware, bigger is not always better."
I think there are two keys in this respect. First of all, in most cases, the popularity of blogs truly are viral marketing, in that most blogs that aren't tied to a traditional media property, can only slowly build up credibility through links and word of mouth. Second, the types of niche audiences developed by blogs are not necessarily explained by age/gender demographics, and the authors are correct to point out that the target of the audience is interest in a particular opinion, belief, property, or brand.
For more on this type of promotion, see my post on Web 2.0 from last October.
You can look at The Convergence Newsletter here.