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Unleashing the Ideavirus Paperback – January 2, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

Treat a product or service like a human or computer virus, contends online promotion specialist Seth Godin, and it just might become one. In Unleashing the Ideavirus, Godin describes ways to set any viable commercial concept loose among those who are most likely to catch it--and then stand aside as these recipients become infected and pass it on to others who might do the same. "The future belongs to marketers who establish a foundation and process where interested people can market to each other," he writes. "Ignite consumer networks and then get out of the way and let them talk."

Godin believes that a solid idea is the best route to success in the new century, but one "that just sits there is worthless." Through the magic of "word of mouse," however, the Internet offers a unique opportunity for interested individuals to transmit ideas quickly and easily to others of like mind. Taking up where his previous book Permission Marketing left off, Godin explains in great detail how ideaviruses have been launched by companies such as Napster, Blue Mountain Arts, GeoCities, and Hotmail. He also describes "sneezers" (influential people who spread them), "hives" (populations most willing to receive them), and "smoothness" (the ease with which sneezers can transmit them throughout a hive). In all, an infectious and highly recommended read. --Howard Rothman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Take Leo Burnett, David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Mark Twain. Combine their brains and shave their heads. What's left? Seth Godin." -- Jay Levinson, author of Guerrilla Marketing

The Internet industry has been enamored of buzz-based marketing ever since venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson coined the phrase "viral marketing" in 1997 to describe Hotmail's strategy of tagging every e-mail message with a promotion for its service. The self-replicating promotion helped the company achieve an epidemic growth rate of zero to 12 million users in a mere 18 months. Since then, viral marketing has propelled everything from Napster to The Blair Witch Project to legendary success.

Even with all the buzz about buzz, though, many Internet companies still pour the bulk of their marketing budgets into ill-conceived TV advertising (who could forget January's orgy of dot-com expenditures on Super Bowl ads?) and other ineffective channels, like banner ads. Depending on whose numbers you use, last year online and offline companies spent $3.5 billion to $4.6 billion on Net ads. Yet, according to Nielsen NetRatings, average click-through rates for banner ads have fallen to a pitiful half a percent.

There has to be a better way. With investors increasingly focusing on profits, the time is right to do more than just talk about viral marketing. And here to lead the rally are two new primers on the subject - Seth Godin's flashy Unleashing the Ideavirus and Emanuel Rosen's more pedantic but meatier The Anatomy of Buzz.

Both agree on the basic tenets. Instead of blindly (and expensively) advertising to mass audiences, companies should focus on creating buzz among key potential customers - early adopters - and let them market to everybody else.

Godin, who fills his book with infectious analogies, calls these folks "sneezers," whereas Rosen dubs them "network hubs." They could be celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, influential members of a particular industry or ordinary people involved in their neighborhoods, schools, church groups or companies who consciously and consistently spread the word about new things they encounter.

The trick is to reward such efforts. Give away samples or discounts. Create affiliate programs a la Amazon or run promotions that reward early customers for signing up new users. Post testimonials from happy customers on your Web site. All simple stuff, but according to Godin, "too much work for most sites."

Both authors warn that none of these efforts will work with a lousy product. Hotmail, Polaroid's iZone camera, the new Volkswagen Beetle and the Palm are all top-notch products - they're simple to understand and use, they work and look great - that benefited from good buzz. Godin, who founded an online promotions company he sold to Yahoo and authored last year's Permission Marketing [see "Permission Marketing"], calls these killer products "ideaviruses" because they're easy to launch and spread quickly from person to person until they're ubiquitous, like Napster or The Sopranos.

If you have a great product, give buzz a boost by first giving it away or selling it dirt cheap, a lesson many Net companies already apply. As Rosen relates, the publisher of Cold Mountain gave away 4,000 galley copies to bookstore owners and others to help make the Civil War novel an unexpected hit that eventually sold 1.6 million hardcover copies. Microsoft gave away 450,000 copies of Windows 95 before the software was commercially available.

Of course, you can't give away everything. So how to make money? Aim low. Pick a small market with no established leader and use buzz to dominate it before anybody else does. "If you can fill a vacuum aggressively and permanently, it is far easier to extract money," Godin writes. The jury is still out, however, on whether that theory will fly with standalone online retailers and companies such as Napster that don't charge for their services.

Because the Net speeds up communication exponentially, dot-com companies have come to rely solely on online means for creating buzz. Big mistake, Rosen says. For buzz to work, companies need a multichannel strategy. Cisco, he points out, prides itself on connecting with customers online, but also arranges 1,000 offline seminars a year for potential customers, holds even more events for current customers and attends dozens of trade shows.

Likewise, don't rest on your laurels. Once you've successfully used buzz to launch a product or service, leverage it to launch your next big thing.

There may be no such thing as bad publicity, Rosen cautions, but negative buzz can be lethal. Apple was vilified for the Newton, as was long-dead company Momenta for its early '90s pen computer - the device was so buggy that people who got free demo units ditched them, something even a $40 million marketing budget couldn't rectify. For that reason, both authors suggest that companies actively track what people are saying about their products through all media, including on consumer feedback Web sites such as or

Both Godin and Rosen also pay homage to Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary theorist who first came up with the concept of the meme, an idea that replicates itself like a living organism, growing and evolving as it passes from one person to another.

But while they cover much of the same intellectual territory, they diverge radically in execution. Godin, an unabashed self-promoter and online marketing industry fixture, offers, hands down, the faster, sexier read, with pictures, to-do lists and up-to-the-minute examples. But he fails to provide much historical perspective. He calls his slim, 197-page book a "manifesto," penned a cover story about it for Fast Company's August issue and made it available on the Web a month before its September publication date. In notices posted between pages of the online version, he encourages readers to "Steal This Idea" by downloading the text file and circulating it to friends. As of mid-August, Godin claimed more than 400,000 copies had been downloaded.

If Godin's Ideavirus is fast food, Rosen's tome is an eight-course meal. Rosen stuffs his 303-page book, due in October, with examples of good and bad buzz taken from 40 years of innovations inside and outside the technology industry, and offers copious scientific research to back up his assumptions and conclusions. He includes extensive interview footnotes for each chapter and a lengthy bibliography.

Such an approach is not surprising coming from the former marketing VP who helped launch EndNote, a program that helps academics compile the bibliographic material found at the end of scholarly papers. (It eventually sold 200,000 copies - mainly by word of mouth.) Though Rosen's is the better researched and structured of the two books, it's a drier read that would have benefited from a dash of Godin's peppy prose style.

Together, both books make a convincing case for viral marketing - just keep in mind that no amount of buzz-building will turn a dog into a winner. And tell a friend.

Michelle V. Rafter is a contributing writer in Los Angeles. -- From The Industry Standard --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (January 2, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074322065X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743220651
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 8.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,464,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Seth Godin is the author of eighteen international bestsellers that have been translated into over 35 languages, and have changed the way people think about marketing and work. For a long time, Unleashing the Ideavirus was the most popular ebook ever published, and Purple Cow is the bestselling marketing book of the decade.

His book, Tribes, was a nationwide bestseller, appearing on the Amazon, New York Times, BusinessWeek and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. It's about the most powerful form of marketing--leadership--and how anyone can now become a leader, creating movements that matter.

His book Linchpin came out in 2008 and was the fastest selling book of his career. Linchpin challenges you to stand up, do work that matters and race to the top instead of the bottom. More than that, though, the book outlines a massive change in our economy, a fundamental shift in what it means to have a job.

Since Linchpin, Godin has published two more books, Poke the Box and We Are All Weird, through his Domino Project. He followed these with The Icarus Deception via Kickstarter, which reached its goal in less than three hours. Joined by Watcha Gonna Do With That Duck and V is for Vulnerable, those books are now widely available. In late 2014, he announced his latest, What To Do When It's Your Turn, sold directly from his website.

In addition to his writing and speaking, Seth was founder and CEO of,. His blog (find it by typing "seth" into Google) is the most popular marketing blog in the world. Before his work as a writer and blogger, Godin was Vice President of Direct Marketing at Yahoo!, a job he got after selling them his pioneering 1990s online startup, Yoyodyne.

You can find every single possible detail that anyone could ever want to know at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

186 of 200 people found the following review helpful By William Davenport on October 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
First I like Seth Godin. He's now gotten my money for three books. The first two were money fairly well spent, the thrid one, Unleashing the Ideavirus, well . . .
I found the book to be full of ideas that had a virus.
For example, on page 29, under the heading "Seven Ways An Ideavirus Can Help You" #6 says, When the demo recording you made becomes a best seller on and you get a call from Sony, who wants to give you a recording contract.
Poor sentence construction aside, how hard did Seth have to work was that to think up that idea?
Back up to page 27 and you'll find six "key steps for Internet companies looking to build a virus". #2 says, Have the idea behind your online experience go viral, bring you a large chunk of the group you're targeting without haveing to spend a fortune advertising the new service.
Now that's a revelation. It's kind of like the joke, "Do you want to know the easiest way to become a millionaire? First, get a million dollars."
On page 141 we're counseled, "One of the best ways to facilitate adoption of your ideavirus is to find a bestseller list that makes sense and then dominate it."
Further down we're given insight into some not so novel ways of how to stuff the ballot box. How do you artificially boost the bestseller status of files for download on the Web? Download the file over and over again, increasing the counter of how often it has been downloaded.
Want to launch a new liquor? Pay the bar to post a bestselling drinks list. "Now, bribe enough folks to go in and buy themselves a drink."
While this may not be the most ethical advice it's certainly not new. Ask the folks at Heineken how they got to be the number one beer import way back in the 50's.
The book of course has some high points and it is a fun read at times but don't look for any breakthrough ideas here or else you just might get sick.
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54 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Dale A. Brill on October 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Hats off to the author for practicing what he preaches. "Free" was exactly what I needed to engage in this virtual buy-in. I regret that I just couldn't buy the concepts.
I'll limit my criticism to three issues. First, I can only conclude from the author's logic that every successful product/service is an ideavirus. On page 36 he introduces the OXO brand vegetable peeler as an ideavirus. Others include Polaroid brand instant cameras, Carmine's Restaurant, Beanie Babies, Moser Furniture and Tommy Hilfiger. If it's popular and a lot of people want it-which of course makes folks talk about it-you've got yourself an ideavirus. According to the author, the difference between this and word-of-mouth promotion is (1) the transmission medium and (2) the duration. He says, "...word of mouth tends to spread slower, be more analog....word of mouth dies off" (p. 31). These differences seem arbitrary--at least underdeveloped--however true to the pervasive obsession with things digital. The entire book would be easier to handle if the author didn't try to apply the concepts to every ostensibly successful venture.
Second, wholesale advertising bashing, which can be found in "Permission Marketing," appears again. The lockstep mantra equating marketing with advertising is unfortunate. The author's exuberance served as an early-and unnecessary-inoculation to the ideavirus.
Third, while the author never pretends that the foundational concepts upon which he draws are his original ideas, my academic training makes it difficult to quietly accept the lack of attention to the original authors and works from which this "manifesto" is really created. Godin defines a manifesto as "a powerful, logical `essay' that assembles a bunch of existing ideas and creates a new one" (page 13).
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 26, 2004
Format: Paperback
I am not sure what book others read, but this book was aweful. It is unfortunate because the concept is interesting. The execution, however, is best described as a literary train wreck.
Afer reviewing this book and looking at these reviews, I think that the author/publisher, applied some of the concepts in the book to mis-lead people looking for real reviews.
One of the concepts discussed in the book is to pay people to spead your idea/virus, so that others will become interested, purchase your product. There is clearly a disconnect between many of these reviews and the actual execution of the book itself. In fact, I have never seen such a huge disconnect. I find it difficult to believe that it is only a matter of a difference of opinion based on my experiences with other reviews.
Not only is it poorly organized, but the information presented as fact is sometimes clearly wrong (referencing the Prius example used in the book) and recommendations are taken out of context. Proposing solutions without framing them in real-world business context (that is factually accurate) is worthless. Answers work ONLY in the context in which they are applied.
I would strongly recommend that you don't buy this book or waste the time to read it. Far better books are on the market dealing with marketing solutions.
(This is my first review. I decided to write it to counter some of the oddly positive reviews written by others. If you read these reviews, you will have a better understanding of what the author is trying to say. Some of the reviewers have completed a better, more efficient explanation of the concept in less than 1000 words than the author could do in an entire book.)
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