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J Med Internet Res. 2008 Nov 26;10(4):e47. doi: 10.2196/jmir.1127.

Use of an internet "viral" marketing software platform in health promotion.

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  • 1Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec, Québec City, Québec, Canada.



Health-related websites have become a common tool for public health authorities to inform the general public of their health promotion information and programs. However, building traffic in the cluttered health Internet universe is becoming increasingly complex, costly, and challenging for governmental health promotion websites. In 2006, the Canadian Health Network (CHN), a cooperative program made up of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and some 20 health non-governmental organizations (NGOs), was looking for an affordable marketing tool for the promotion of its website and contents to specific populations.


To test new and innovative marketing tools for a health promotion website in Canada.


Within the context and constraints of a governmental health promotion website, an adaptation of a commercial Internet viral marketing software platform was developed and implemented under the name "The Crazy Race". This process was done interactively between seven NGOs and the CHN staff. The communication objectives were (a) to provide a meaningful visit that could communicate important public health messages, and (b) to increase subscriptions to its e-newsletter. A nine-step standardized Web-user experience (Internet path) was thus defined and experimented with under a pre-determined operating budget of less then Can$50,000, mainly paid for by participating organizations on a pay-per-performance basis.


An initial group of 215 people were sent an invitation to participate in the campaign. Over its 15-day duration, the campaign generated by itself and without any media support a total of 110,200 Web user participants who registered and sent a total of 439,275 invitations (2% of the Canadian Web-user population of 21.8 million in 2006). The epidemic self-dissemination of the campaign occurred in both French and English populations and spread across all age groups. Two-thirds of the participants were women.


The use of an Internet viral marketing platform proved to be effective in bringing thousands of Web users to discover and explore a governmental health promotion website. The exponential growth of the person-to-person dissemination generated by the campaign indicates that public health messages have high viral propagation potential on the Internet ("virulence") when they are presented in the context of an enjoyable online game. This could constitute a promising method to create affordable mass audience public health campaigns, both in Canada and internationally.

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