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Let's Kill "Viral": It's Time For a New Word

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Avoiding the Cargo Cult And Getting The Trans-Atlantic Startup Model Right

This guest post is by Adam L. Penenberg, author of Viral Loop.

Four months before my latest book hit store shelves, my publisher wanted to change the title. Viral Loop might be catchy, and reflect what the book is about—and isn’t that what a title is supposed to do?—but Hyperion worried that some readers would be put off by the word “viral.” Would they shrink away for fear it was about “swine flu”?

The book looks at entrepreneurs who built multimillion- and in some case billion-dollar businesses from scratch by incorporating virality into their products and businesses.

Many iconic companies of our time, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, eBay, PayPal, Flickr and rising stars like Twitter are prime examples of a “viral loop”—to use the product, you have a strong incentive to spread it. At some point, as the number of users doubles, then triples, the company achieves what’s known as a “viral loop,” when the product spreads even if the company does nothing to promote it. The trick is that they all created something people really want, so much so that their customers happily spread the word about their product for them. The result: Never before has there been the potential to create wealth this fast, on this scale, and starting with so little.

Fears of swine flu as a reason to change a book’s title may sound inane to TechCrunch’s audience, but from Hyperion’s perspective you are anything but representative of a mass audience (sorry). Every publisher wants to maximize its chances of sparking a bestseller. The challenge is to create a title that would not only appeal to those in the know but also induce a regular human being (read: non-geek) browsing the stacks in Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy, sample text and carry it to the checkout aisle. (Insider’s tip: That’s why editors place such great emphasis on the first 50 pages of a book.)

Hyperion suggested we call the book “Share,” because that’s what Web-based viral dissemination is, when you get down to it: Users sharing links, memes, observations and ideas with one another. Since I would be following Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson’s Free in its publishing lineup—and his first book, The Long Tail, was a bestseller—Hyperion believed a title like Share would be more likely to succeed. I refused since I had invested tens of thousands of dollars into a social marketing campaign with Viral Loop as its centerpiece. More to the point, I believed Viral Loop perfectly encapsulates what the book is about. (I didn’t invent the term; I first heard it from Marc Andreessen, who I interviewed for a Fast Company cover story.)

Now that Viral Loop is out, and I’m in full book pimping mode, doing radio and TV interviews with interviewers who don’t have a clue what social media is, I wonder if Hyperion might have been right. On ABC News Now, the anchor referred to Digg as “Dij”—apparently he’d never heard of it. A septuagenarian radio host cracked a string of borscht belt jokes about diseases and the flu after introducing my book. (Him: What’s that word that means you’re doing a lot of things at the same time? Me: Multitask? Him: Multicask?) While I want to talk about viral coefficients, viral business plans and success stories, and the entrepreneurs who founded these businesses, mainstream interviewers want to know how to sign up for Twitter. Clearly there are the social media “haves” and the social media “have nots.” How do you reach the latter without alienating the former?

The problem, I think, is the word “viral,” which comes from biology and was retrofitted to cover the phenomenon of word-of-mouth—or on the Web, so-called “word-of-mouse”—dissemination of ideas. I propose we kill it and replace it with something better. (Where’s Don Draper when you need him?) If I had my druthers I’d also change the word “blog,” which sounds like the noise someone makes after scarfing down a plate of nachos after tipping back a few too many tequila shots. But one thing at a time.

With that in mind I’ve created a Change the Term Viral contest. If you have a better term for “viral” a.) post your suggestion to the comments thread of this post, and b.) email it to viralloopbook@gmail.com.

The winner will get props for his or her genius in the forward of the next edition of the book and win $250. The runner up gets $100. Third prize is $50.

Each participant must post to the comments thread because that way the community can weigh in. The reason for the email is so I can contact the winners and arrange payment. Winners will be announced on viralloop.com next week.

Learn more about Viral Loop on Amazon.

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