The Amazing Power of the Viral Community

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MP3.com's Beam-It technology has accelerated the most important revolution in the music industry since The Beatles: the ability to upload a personal music collection to the Internet where it is accessible anytime, anywhere with a login and password. This controversial function has already inflamed a legal battle and stirred proud users to a state of righteous indignation.


When the Recording Industry Association of America accused MP3.com of copyright violations in an attempt to eliminate Beam-It technology, it inspired one of the most effective grass-roots awareness drives ever loosed on the Internet in the form of a "tell 10 friends" campaign to build enough critical mass to impress the power of the people upon the kill-joy RIAA.


The campaign resulted in thousands of songs being uploaded to the site. Also, messages on the site's boards and user registrations have overwhelmed MP3.com with support.


Framing the debate as a consumer rights issue, MP3.com sent a "special announcement" to registered users of My.MP3, outlining the lawsuit against it and encouraging them to join the "good fight" by forwarding the e-mail to friends and family, inviting them to join and upload music, get information and post responses on MP3's message boards.


The campaign gave me a nostalgic flashback to those utopian days when it seemed all things were possible online. It reminded me of the exponential participation in 1997's "lights out" protest against government censorship of online freedom of speech. For a day, nearly every major Web site and portal turned its front page black in protest of the censors. Viral marketing may be the key to keeping the Internet free.


So if the very freedom of the Internet is the big-picture prize, what's in it for other types of online businesses? I know that judicious use of the tool can help enhance a business model, grow a loyal user base or take the pulse of an audience


It's certainly key to the outrageous growth of online community. HotMail and ICQ set Web-based e-mail and instant messaging, respectively, on exponentially successful paths by their very nature: free, easy to use and with a clear benefit to sharing them with friends.


These examples of online wildfire, fueled by a sense of shared community, are good studies for us creative types who hope to use the viral nature of the Web to market, inform or entertain.


Every time we make creative choices that are clearly relevant to consumers' online needs and wants, we get closer to that ideal. What are the types of things people will talk about online? The same things that get them arguing around the water cooler: presidential primaries, "Ally McBeal," bad drivers and Tonya Harding's latest faux pas.


The proliferation of viral e-mails with some sort of communal format - take a quiz, pass the results on to seven friends; play a game, share your results, etc. - goes to the heart of online community: We share what is relevant, entertaining, hilarious or unique.


The ultimate beauty and frustration of this approach is that you can't plan for it. Word of mouth, the finest form of advertising, travels by its own rules. When it happens, it's nothing money can buy, and that is perhaps its best strength: Viral marketing, like the Internet, has no master.
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