Marketers are a lot like germs.

They try to transfer ideas into living organisms (customers) in a way that enables them to survive, grow, and spread. But just as many bacteria are good for our bodies (like those that help us digest food), not all marketing is bad.

Healthy marketing helps prospects find products that fulfill their needs and wants. Unhealthy marketing fools customers into buying products that don't deliver the promised benefits, or co-opts others' resources and abuses them to deliver it's own marketing message.

Ironically, the term "viral marketing" is usually used to describe healthy marketing: creating something of value (whether monetary, entertainment, etc.) and attaching a marketing message to it (eg. a link to one's website). We'll call the thing of value the "carrier", and the marketing message the "payload".

When consumers share the carrier, the payload tags along for the ride. Some of the recipients of the carrier will be in the target market for the payload, and will become customers.

Why is the name "viral marketing" ironic? Because unlike bacteria, a biological virus can only spread by invading and damaging host cells. Biological viruses are always unhealthy.

"Bacterial marketing" would be a better name for healthy, self-replicating marketing. And to be more explicit about the damage done by unhealthy techniques, we could call them "parasitic marketing" instead of "viral".

Bacterial Marketing

Bacterial marketing messages are passed around like biological bacteria, and like many bacteria, benefit their hosts. A few of the ways you can get people to spread your marketing message ethically include:

  • Give away an eBook that teaches something valuable and introduces a related product which you either sell or promote as an affiliate.
  • Post an entertaining video to YouTube, and overlay your website URL on the video, or include it in the video description.
  • Write a post about a popular or trending topic on your blog, and include social buttons on the page to make it easy for people to share it with their Twitter, Facebook and other friends.

You can easily find more techniques by searching for "viral marketing". Let's talk about how viral marketing can be unhealthy.

Parasitic Marketing

A biological virus is basically a piece of DNA hiding in protein armor. The armor is like a Trojan Horse, with shapes on its surface that look to your cells like some useful molecule. The cell allows it to attach itself to its surface and absorbs its contents, which then turn out to be something entirely different.

Some parasitic marketing techniques follow this same pattern -- using something that looks healthy to sneak in something unhealthy. What makes marketing parasitic is when it hurts either the customer or the creator of the carrier. A few examples include:

  • Writing low-quality content targeted at popular or trending keywords simply to monetize it using AdSense or other methods. I've heard "gurus" actually recommend writing bad content so that visitors will want to leave, and hopefully click an ad on their way out. Yuck!
  • Modifying someone else's viral eBook without their authorization, replacing their affiliate links with yours, or adding material that detracts from the eBook's quality or dilutes the benefit to the original publisher.
  • Scraping or framing someone else's webpage, either replacing their ads, or diluting them by adding your own, or presenting their content in a context that reflects poorly on them.
  • Offering benefits to people in exchange for advertising your products to their friends, when they haven't yet had the chance to verify whether the product is worth advertising.

You may have recognized that the distinction between "bacterial" and "parasitic" isn't always black and white. For example, when you frame someone else's webpage, you do help it spread.

Some people may not mind having their content spread this way, even if they're not entirely thrilled by the content of the framing page. Others do mind. Either way, the technique is more or less parasitic -- taking a ride on value created by someone else.

And in the last example, the freebie that's being given away may very well be valuable and worth sharing. But you're still asking people to spam their friends with your offer before they're in a position to decide for themselves whether they want to share it. Plus, some will enter the email addresses of people they know will be only marginally, if at all interested in the offer.

With many bacterial marketing methods at your disposal, why go parasitic? When you see someone using parasitic marketing techniques, it's usually a sign that they're unwilling to make the effort required to create value.

If you're using parasitic techniques to promote something of real value, consider how that may be reflecting on you. Prospects who recognize the parasitic nature of your marketing methods are going to arrive at your offer with a lower opinion of you, making it an uphill battle to establish the credibility you need to close the sale.