The decline of advertising in the Internet Age has made the marketing community see the need for a radically new, effective strategy of reaching customers. Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus (2000) takes us through the concept of ‘going viral’, and what implications it has in ensuring a successful marketing campaign.

Today, any content on the Internet can become contagious. Ideas, concepts, messages, ads, information, etc. can snowball to fame with everyone not only viewing the content but talking about it too. It spreads like a virus.

Such virulence of content can mean big bucks for those in marketing. Simply imagine the potential of information that is viewed by millions and that spreads organically from customer to customer, without needing to empty out wallets on mainstream advertisements!

The Ideal Conditions For An Ideavirus

The basic concept of an ‘Ideavirus’ has been around for ages. The spread of ideas, information, education, and culture via person-to-person communication has indeed been the way throughout history. Even word-of-mouth marketing has been a well-used concept in the field of marketing for decades.

However, with the advent of the Internet, the buzzword is ‘Ideavirus’. It is a science and an art, and everyone can learn to use it.

While earlier, ideas, concepts, and information would spread via word-of-mouth, its spread was limited to smaller circles, the process was slow and the content would either die-out, or lose its charm before really becoming ‘the big news’.

Today, it takes but one share of information, or an idea to reach hundreds and thousands of people. And each of the hundreds and thousands can share the information further to another hundred and thousands, exponentially expanding the reach of the information or idea. This is the word-of-mouse marketing!

Additionally, culture is undergoing a transformation too. Earlier, people would value the tried, tested, and true, while today, the culture is shifting towards valuing the cutting-edge, and seeking new products and services. People crave to own the newest, latest product on offer, proving that the shift in culture has been a game-changer too.

This new culture of valuing and craving newer products has made people more receptive to new information than it did earlier when people valued tried and tested products. It makes the concept of the ‘Ideavirus’ an ideal strategy in this Internet age.

Unleashing the Ideavirus (2000) by Seth Godin
Unleashing the Ideavirus (2000) by Seth Godin

Increasingly Ineffective Advertising 

Mainstream advertising, which was the star strategy in the latter half of the last century is slowly dying out. Whether it was the brilliance of well-timed TV or radio ad, a catchy jingle that was augmented by a huge strategically placed billboard, or the idea of reaching millions via a newspaper print ad, the underlying strategy was an interruption. It was to capture the attention of customers unaware, with an unwanted message.

However, when customer’s attention is the aim of every marketer, the competition is fierce, especially with the increasing number of mediums in the form of social media platforms, websites, TV channels, or magazines available. Essentially, the same information and message are available everywhere, all at once. Moreover, the number of product options available to the customer has increased exponentially too.

This combination of increased ads, products, and media has forced the customer to learn to tune out. Year-on-year, as this number increases, the value of advertising decreases whereas its inefficiency increases.

Today, marketers need a shift in paradigm, where the focus lies not on getting customers to listen but encouraging talking about the product. That’s where, word-of-mouth and word-of-mouse marketing are needed, with an aim to unleash the Ideavirus.

It’s Really, Actually Marketing An Idea

Even the economy has seen a shift due to the decline of advertising. In this scenario, the concept of an Ideavirus becomes the key to a successful economy as well.

Earlier, when the economy was simply either agrarian or industrial, churning out a good crop or manufacturing machines would rake in the cash. Today, the culture values intellectual property and ideas more than physical products. Ideas such as songs, software, websites, technologies, or even diets, are examples of intellectual property. Even physical products that are revolutionized with new ideas change the way people think. For example, Hotmail popularized the concept of free email. 

Additionally, ideas also add value to physical products. For example, Nike’s Air Jordan’s are priced at a whopping $100 because of what the shoes represent and the way they have been branded, and not just their quality.

There is no sure-fire formula for creating a veritable idea. Yet, it is certain that for an idea to be successful in today’s times, it has to spread, and spread exponentially for people to take notice and get persuaded.

In other words, an idea is like a declaration or a manifesto of a product or a service, which conveys a novel way of doing something – no matter how small the idea could be in the grander scheme of things.

Thus the main of marketing in the Internet Age is to spread a manifesto-like idea, within a sought-after target audience and try to reach as many within that target as possible. Moreover, if the idea spreads throughout the targeted segment, seemingly having a life of its own, it becomes an ‘Ideavirus’.

Spreading The Ideavirus: Resonance

For an idea to become an Ideavirus and spread, it has to be compelling enough to be worth spreading. However, ‘compelling’ is subjective, and which idea works, turns into a fad or a fashion, dies or makes a comeback, etc. requires marketers to have their finger on the pulse, have the understanding of what constitutes the ‘right moment’, have a great sense of timing and of course, an in-depth understanding of their target audience.

The target audience is like a hive. A group of people, interconnected with common interests, ways of communicating, standards, rules, fashion, leaders, traditions, etc. Marketers should ideally, choose a hive and then create a tailored product to cater to that hive. Marketers can even choose to tap into a consumer group by creating a product that brings them together to form a hive.

For example, the magazine Fast Company, first identified an untapped consumer group that wasn’t part of any hive and then launched their magazine. They targeted those who worked in mid to large-sized companies, with an ambition to succeed but limited by the slow pace of workplace bureaucracy. Fast Company achieved viral success by helping them become a hive. The magazine helped them form connections with like-minded people, and soon, a global network of support groups sprang up, which were Fast Company inspired.

Therefore, getting one’s hive to be the pillars of marketing the product can help in unleashing the Ideavirus.

Spreading The Ideavirus: Selecting A Hive

Whether a marketer chooses to select a hive first and then tailors a product for it, or vice versa, selecting and targeting the right hive is vital.

It is natural to want to go ‘guns blazing’ for the largest hive. However, the largest isn’t always the best, as marketing to a bigger hive makes spreading the message harder. The obvious reasons being, the fierce competition to reach the large hive. Getting one’s message through the noise becomes tougher.

For example, trying to market an Ideavirus at a huge trade show such as the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas will be a herculean task as compared to marketing it a smaller trade show like a DEMO conference.

One of the biggest hazards of aiming for a big hive is that while trying to get the product to appeal to everyone, it might end up not attracting anyone. The smaller and more tightly knit the hive is the easier it will be to spread the message within the group. Additionally, it will be easier to tailor an idea to specific desires common to those in the hive. 

To be able to successfully unleash an Ideavirus, one has to be able to reach the nearly whole hive. Thus, if one targets a big hive, even with the advantages of the Internet, it becomes virtually impossible for a company to reach the numbers needed for an Ideavirus. It is thus wiser to target a specific demographic or a specific segment of the population.

Spreading The Ideavirus: Finding The ‘Sneezers’

A virus needs spreaders. Similarly, an Ideavirus needs ‘sneezers’ within the hive. Therefore it is essential to take a closer look at the people who are part of the hive. These ‘sneezers’ are people or organizations that are habituated to telling others about a new idea.

There are two types of sneezers – promiscuous sneezers, and powerful sneezers.

  • Promiscuous Sneezers – They are the people who are talkative and over-eager to share their new idea with anyone and everyone who is there to listen to them.
  • Powerful Sneezers – These are highly influential people who those in the hive hold in high esteem. For example, the publisher Warner Books, while promoting The Bridges of Madison County, reached out to the powerful sneezers of the hive of book readers, the independent bookstores.

To make an idea an Ideavirus, one should have a good mix or promiscuous and powerful sneezers who will spread the Ideavirus in all directions.

Spreading The Ideavirus: Recruiting The ‘Sneezers’

Once the sneezers are identified, they have to be wooed and recruited into believing in the idea. Let’s understand how promiscuous and powerful sneezers work.

  • Promiscuous Sneezers – By comparison, promiscuous sneezers are not as selective about the ideas that they endorse and spread. They can be easily motivated with incentives, and thus are easily persuaded too. 

However, because they are easily persuaded, their ‘sneezes’ can be less infectious. That said, within a hive, if a good number of promiscuous sneezers sneeze on a good number of people, many times, they can be effective in spreading the Ideavirus.

With promiscuous sneezers, getting them to leave a review or signing them up for an affiliate program are the things that work.

  • Powerful Sneezers – Powerful sneezers have a very powerful and infectious sneeze. They are also extremely selective about the ideas they endorse and spread and are very difficult to trigger into spreading an idea. This is because the public perceives them as having integrity and relies on their selectivity, and their power depends on this very fact. If a powerful sneezer can be bribed with incentives, they will lose their integrity and hence, the trust of the public. 

In order to court powerful sneezers, simply telling them about the idea isn’t going to suffice. These are the people who will need to be convinced with testimonials, prototypes, and free samples. They ask questions and will expect a one-on-one session where their questions need to be answered. 

With powerful sneezers, there is no guarantee that they will spread the idea. However, without being infected you can be sure that they won’t spread the idea at all!

Spreading The Ideavirus: Making It Easy To Spread

If we look at an actual virus, its spread depends on how easy it is to spread it from one host to another. An Ideavirus works in the same manner. Its spread is smoother if it is easy to spread.

For example, some services and products are so smooth that they spread when people simply use them. The instant Polaroid camera is a great example. When one takes a photo with it, the value of ‘instant’ is promoted instantly, as one sees the photo develop then and there.

Conversely, some ideas are tough to spread. For example, for a reflexology therapist to promote his services, he will have to first tackle the fact that not many even know what reflexology is, which can be a difficult concept to explain, let alone spread.

There are, however, ways to make a difficult idea easier and make its transmission smoother. The Toyota Prius for example, if marketed in the 1900s would have been difficult to convert into an Ideavirus, especially considering the fact that its technology would have been difficult to explain then. How would its makers have then marketed it?

Firstly, it could have been given another name. Even when it debuted, people were confused whether its pronunciation was ‘Pree-us’ or ‘Pry-us’. Thus to even bring it up in conversation, the name of the product or service should be catchy and easy.

Next, the makers would have needed to work on a design that appealed to the masses then. For example, designing it like the Volkswagon Beetle would have made it a billboard in itself!

Finally, the makers would have needed to work on conveying the car’s ‘manifesto’ – of being a low fuel consumption, money-saving automobile. This could have been done by probably having a digital bumper sticker that would display the car’s mileage.

Therefore, for an Ideavirus to spread, it has to be easy, and expressing its idea should be easy enough to persuade people to spread it.


With mainstream advertising on the decline, marketing now relies on the success of ideas and intellectual content, rather than simply physical products and services. These ideas become successful within an evolving economy when they become Ideaviruses and spread exponentially among the right people. 

An Ideavirus, is essentially marketing an idea the right way, by connecting and creating hives of like-minded people, finding the effective sneezers within that hive, and most importantly making the idea easily spreadable to resonate with those in the hive.