The foundation for viral marketing was laid when Cro-Magnon recommended a bear femur as a club to his neighbor. In the intervening millennia, the practice has taken many successful forms - MCI Friends and Family, for example, or Mary Kay cosmetics. The popularity of many a nightspot, designer apparel or, for that matter, designer beer with an artificially inseminated buzz can be attributed to the recommendation network.
But the Internet has taken the strategy to heights never before imagined. The Net is so potent, in fact, it might just enable viral marketing to kill the very engine that powers itself.
Via Web page and e-mail, users are begged, cajoled, tempted and pleaded with to submit contact information for their associates. They are also offered bribes to recommend the product or service being marketed. Not bribes - I mean incentives or special thank-you gifts.
There is a strong rationale for this. Personal recommendations carry a lot of clout with consumers. Even now that almost limitless information is available online about so many goods and services - maybe especially now in some cases - we remain highly dependent on the opinions of relatives and acquaintances.
We trust the judgment of people who know us and what we want and like. We can even learn to put a high degree of reliability on the recommendations of strangers who don't know us at all, and whose views and tastes are nothing like ours. Think of all the people who say they know what movie or restaurant to choose because a certain critic likes it.
The Internet helps automate the process and make it more systematic and transparent. The Net offers unprecedented means first for congealing niche groups, then for soliciting their feedback and collecting it for redistribution to other users, all very economically.
On the Web, even the opinions of strangers - on sites such as BizRate.com, ConsumerReview, Deja.com and Epinions - vie formidably for our attention and adherence, against reviews and ratings by experts and professionals on the likes of Consumer Reports Online, Forrester Research, Gomez Advisors and Productopia.
Collaborative filtering technology, used by Amazon.com and others, further mechanizes the recommendation process - sometimes helpfully, sometimes ludicrously. They offer up books or bands you are statistically likely to like, based on your purchases or stated preferences and how they correlate with the likes and dislikes of a large consumer base.
There's one more huge way the Net promotes viral marketing. Many online merchants have found customer acquisition to be an excruciatingly difficult and expensive proposition. If contacts and customers can be leveraged by getting them to supply leads for new customers or, better yet, recommend the merchant, it's worth giving them something for their trouble, especially if the deal can be sealed with a few e-mails.
Ideally, enthusiastic users recommend your product or pass around your foot-in-the-door tool for free. But let's face it, there's only so much time in the day, enthusiasm in users' hearts and great stuff in the world to command free recommendations.
Here's the rub. Say incentives-for-recommendation really take off. Then, instead of being the trusted word of a friend, a recommendation will come under the suspicion that it is actually a paid endorsement.
A few problems with that. The person making the recommendation is probably no Michael Jordan or Claudia Schiffer. And there are names for friends who sell you out for their own material gain. Like snitch. Or real-estate broker. Or brother-in-law. Ultimately, the credibility cloud will blanket even sincere recommendations, made without compensation.
Viral marketing might just be the bug that kills word-of-mouth.