More often than not, I find that business plans that are presented to me are woefully inadequate when it comes to the Go To Market section. I’ll explore Go To Market planning and needs in more detail in a future post. Today I want to address the “strategy” that many entrepreneurs expound when I draw my concern to their attention.

Quite frequently, I hear “We have a viral marketing strategy…” or some variation of those words. I have to restrain a physical wince when I hear that phrase or any of its cousins.

It’s tempting (and understandable) to believe that your product or service offering will be so compelling that it will be adopted by influencers who rapidly spread usage via word-of-mouth. The explosion and ubiquity of social media and enterprises such as BuzzFeed has made this approach seem even more achievable to entrepreneurs.

Before further analyzing this, let’s distinguish between a viral marketing “strategy” and word-of-mouth.

The fact is that word-of-mouth in of itself is not controllable. Word-of-mouth is unsolicited and (to a large degree) unmanaged action on the part of consumers. This activity can be positive (what you are hoping for) or negative (BP anyone?). In cases where this word-of-mouth has had a particularly widespread effect, we often term it as viral. To my mind, Hotmail was one of the first examples of this “viral effect,” but interestingly the founders did not, by all accounts, build a business model based on a viral strategy.

A viral marketing strategy, on the other hand, is a specifically coordinated set of activities that are designed to take advantage of potential word-of-mouth accelerators. Viral marketing consists of a set of tactics designed to grow attention and increase usage at exponential rates. A successful viral marketing program should have a massive result in regards to awareness and adoption.

In today’s environment, deliberately setting forth to achieve such a result is quite an endeavor. To purposely foster the “buzz-worthiness” of a product so that it “goes viral” requires significant resources. By no means should this simply be viewed as an afterthought to your Go To Market answer to a questioner.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that a viral marketing strategy is inappropriate – simply that it is part of a marketing plan. Thus, like any other marketing campaign, it must be created, costed and executed.

If you are considering a viral strategy as a key component of your marketing plan, it’s critical that you recognize the core elements and substantive costs involved. Here a three foundation elements of most viral marketing strategies:

Content. In order to achieve virality, you must have a message that resonates due to strong entertainment or informational value. This message must, of course, be resident in digital – and mobile – form so that it can be passed along in an exponential fashion via social networks (or email). It’s not so easy to activate people’s desire to share humorous, entertaining or useful information. Developing this content is often a resource heavy (and expensive) endeavor.

Proselytizers.. If you’re planning on virality as a core strategy, it cannot simply be left to chance. You’ll need a team of people that promote your offering online. Essentially, you need to secure a group of evangelists to blog about your product, get other key bloggers involved, post links, tweet and use social networks to full advantage. By the way, don’t neglect offline venues (cocktail parties, little league games, rotary clubs, parent-teacher meetings, etc.) in your planning process. Without a team of zealots to promote your offering, you’re simply hoping that the message itself will rise above all the noise and achieve it’s own virality – not a great strategy. Effective brand evangelist teams don’t come cheap.

Seedbeds. Even your proselytizing team is unlikely to be enough. You need to take steps to make your offering appear present throughout the marketplace – particularly online in search results, video sites, blogs, etc. In order to do this, you’ll have to spend some cash on search engine marketing and optimization, as well as designing a campaign to get placement online (review incentives, special offers, competitions, etc.). This process can become incredibly expensive. Long gone are the days when you could “seed” your offering into a few relevant communities and expect to achieve popularity. Entry costs for the seedbed component have risen dramatically. You should be expecting a high 5 figure cost at the least when building out this element of your viral marketing strategy.

Of course, there is actual ‘math’ involved in a viral strategy (vs. Word of Mouth). Virality can actually be expressed by evaluating the equation: K = i * c

i = # of ‘shares’ (or invites) each engaged user initiates

c = % of shares that ‘convert’

Anytime K > 1, you have (by definition) a viral product. So long as K remains > 1, you will see an ever increasing growth in users. The moment that K drops below 1, your strategy is no longer viral and will require external inputs in order to continue growth or it will (at some point) achieve equilibrium and eventually cease growth.

There is no question that viral marketing can be hugely successful – and when it is certainly the return on investment is well worth it compared to many other marketing strategies. Nonetheless, that investment must be made – and it’s not cheap. Plan accordingly, and try to avoid a flip answer of “We have a viral marketing strategy,” when speaking to prospective investors.