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There is debate on the origination and the popularization of the term Viral Marketing, though some of the earliest uses of the current term are attributed to Harvard Business School graduate Tim Draper and Harvard Business School faculty member Jeffrey Rayport. The term was later popularized by Jeffrey Rayport in his 1996 Fast Company article 'The Virus of Marketing' , and Tim Draper and Steve Jurvetson of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson in 1997 to describe Hotmail's e-mail practice of appending advertising for itself in outgoing mail from their users.
Among the first to write about viral marketing on the Internet was media critic Douglas Rushkoff in his 1994 book Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. The assumption is that if such an advertisement reaches a "susceptible" user, that user will become "infected" (i.e., accept the idea) and will then go on to share the idea with others "infecting them," in the viral analogy's terms. As long as each infected user shares the idea with more than one susceptible user on average (i.e., the basic reproductive rate is greater than one - the standard in epidemiology for qualifying something as an epidemic), the number of infected users will grow according to a logarithmic curve, whose initial segment appears exponential. Of course, the marketing campaign may be wildly successful even if the rate at which things are spread isn't of epidemic proportions, if this user-to-user sharing is sustained by other forms of marketing communications, such as public relations or advertising.
Among the first to write about algorithms designed to identify people with high Social Networking Potential is Bob Gerstley in Advertising Research is Changing. Gerstley uses SNP algorithms in quantitative marketing research to help marketers maximize the effectiveness of viral marketing campaigns. In 2004 the concept of Alpha User was released to indicate that it had become now possible to technically isolate the focal point members of any viral campaign, the "hubs" who are most influential. Alpha Users can today be isolated and identified, and even targeted for viral advertising purposes most accurately in mobile phone networks, as mobile phones are so personal.
In response to its use, many sites have started up trying to describe what viral marketing is and to offer viral marketing services as an outsourced extension of a business.  Notable examples
* The Ponzi scheme and related investment Pyramid schemes, are early examples of viral marketing. In each round, investors are paid interest from the principal deposits of later investors. Early investors are so enthusiastic that they recruit their friends resulting in exponential growth until the pool of available investors is tapped out and the scheme collapses. * Multi-level marketing popularized in the 1960s and '70s (not to be confused with Ponzi schemes) is essentially a form of viral marketing in which representatives gain income through marketing products through their circle of influence and give their friends a chance to market products similarly. Multi-level marketing is rarely as successful as the promises given at sign up, with many in the lower levels spending much more than they can earn on the products. Examples include Amway and Mary Kay Cosmetics among many others. * Early in its existence (perhaps between 1988 and 1992), the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 had limited distribution. The producers encouraged viewers to make copies of the show on video tapes and give them to friends in order to expand viewership and increase demand for the fledgling Comedy Central network. During this period the closing credits included the words "Keep circulating the...
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