Spreadable marketing – a perspective on generating “word of mouth”

Marketing in a nutshell“Spreadable marketing” is more than another term for “word of mouth”, requiring a strategic focus on the sweet spot where your audience needs meet your business objectives and achieving this in a way that is engaging to the audience and encourages them to share and circulate your media. Unlike “viral marketing” it understands the agency of the audience in this choice. It requires you to understand what you want your audience to think, feel, do or know and to create content accordingly.


When I first came across the term “spreadable marketing” I wondered whether it was just another buzz phrase invented by someone on the internet to attract a bit of attention to the inventor to describe nothing very new – there are plenty of those about, after all. Fortunately, it’s a term that captures something more precise and valuable in considering how you communicate your proposition to your audience.

Spreadable marketing vs viral marketing

On first reading they sound as though they might be describing the same thing. “Viral marketing” is certainly a term that is now used in a way that stretches its original definition beyond a point where it is meaningful.

Rather than just referring to a video (or possibly other medium) that an awful lot of people have seen, it originally meant that the use of the product itself spread the marketing message – the classic case being Hotmail back in the day when having your own free email account was still a novel idea. Each outgoing email contained a message urging the recipient to get their own Hotmail account and thus the use of the product actively reproduced that message in a way described as viral.

These days, that precise meaning has been lost by the use of the term to mean something popular that gets talked about a lot, a looser definition that is closer to the more traditional “word of mouth”.

To consider this is more than just nit-picking, though. Whilst the current use of the term “viral marketing” masks its original, very useful concept of a product that promotes itself, there is just enough of this idea still clinging to the term to overlook something just as important – the agency of the audience in spreading the message.

So why “spreadable”?

The expression “spreadable media” has been coined by Professor Henry Jenkins to account for the active decision that your audience takes to share and circulate your media, that is, the content of whatever kind you produce with the aim of promoting your business. The audience shares it because they are engaged with it and know others to whom it would be equally entertaining/amusing/informative/etc. And we all know that the options for sharing media are increasing all the time.

This means something important for your content marketing strategy. It just isn’t good enough to respond to imperatives such as a search engine’s increasing preference for greater word count on a page or a move towards more video content by filling your website with any old stuff as a knee jerk reaction to those drivers. Quality counts and you need to consider just what your audience will want to spread – and why.

Your audience will spread your content when it strikes an emotional chord with them so you need to think about what you want your audience to think, feel, do or know and create content accordingly.

The Spreadable Marketing sweet spot

When you are considering what kind of content you should produce you need to look at the challenge from two perspectives.

Your audience – and because you want these people to be engaged and absorbed in your content you should think of them as an audience rather than customers or consumers.

Your business objectives – because, ultimately, all your marketing activity should be intended to achieve these.

Spreadable marketing sweet spot

For example, your objective might be to enter a new market where you have little recognition, where there are established providers, and buyers have little appetite for the risk of switching to a new, unproven business. You need to shake those buyers out of complacency so content that is surprising in a way that highlights your distinctive offering (which you do have, of course) in a way that makes it seem worth taking the chance of changing habits is called for.

Beyond “word of mouth”

We all know that word of mouth recommendations are extremely valuable but they can be hard to track, at least with any precision.

When developing your content ideas and their execution and distribution it is well worth planning in what you want to measure and how you’re going to do that. Don’t forget about how content might be viewed offline as well as on.

For example, you might use a video at an industry exhibition – can you encourage viewers to then find and share it online with, say, a hashtag?

Principles of Spreadable Marketing

Professor Paul Grainge and Dr Cathy Johnson of the University of Nottingham identify six principles of spreadable marketing:

  1. See people as ”audiences” rather than as “consumers”.
  2. Use storytelling rather than blunt marketing messages.
  3. Create content that people want to watch or read and share.
  4. Make that content available when the audience wants it.
  5. Make it available where the audience is and through their preferred channels.
  6. Recognise the power of key influencers.

I would add:

  1. Don’t forget that spreadable marketing sweet spot – as a small business owner you need to be clearly focused on your business objectives.
  2. Consider the message before the medium – just because a medium is fashionable or someone is trying to sell you their service, that doesn’t mean it’s the right one for your purpose.
  3. But be imaginative – this is not an exercise in following the herd.
  4. Build in measurability wherever possible – this is what makes spreadable marketing particularly useful in generating understanding and insight.

If you would like some help with developing your spreadable content marketing strategy, please get in touch.

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Useful links

The Spreadable War on Viral Media – Forbes

Why spreadable doesn’t equal viral: A conversation with Henry Jenkins – NiemanLab