Did you hear that United breaks guitars?

Viral Marketing: Also known as Word of Mouth Advertising. Any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, thus creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence. Just like viruses, such strategies take advantage of rapid multiplication to explode the message to thousands, even to millions.

This week’s viral story is a cautionary tale. When Dave Carroll, a Canadian musician, traveled on United Airlines last year he witnessed guitars being mistreated by baggage handlers. His $3500 guitar arrived at his destination broken, and United refused to take responsibility or compensate him. So he wrote a song about it and put it on YouTube.

In the month the video’s been up, it’s picked up well over 4 million views. It’s spawned dozens of response videos and copy cats, all spreading one message: United Airlines sucks. The song is for sale on iTunes, and Mr. Carroll has appeared on talk shows to discuss his experience. The damage is ongoing – the company’s stock is recovering from the initial plunge it took after the video was released, but with two more songs promised by Mr. Carroll there might be a rough ride ahead for United.

YouTube has granted consumers unprecedented empowerment, and damage control doesn’t stem the tide of an indignant audience. When everything ends up on camera, it’s more important than ever to treat consumers with fairness and respect.

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