Plaxo: The Prototype for Viral Marketing Success


Sean Parker may not quite be a household name, but how many billionaires are? Last month, Forbes published an expansive profile of the tech mogul who has had a hand in every big Internet phenomenon from Napster to Facebook.

Parker’s profile had previously grown after the release of The Social Network, in which his role in the creation of Facebook was immortalized. However, many are quick to tell you he’s nothing like the cruel opportunist portrayed by Justin Timberlake in the film.

In terms of boardroom scheming, he’s nothing like his fictional portrayal in The Social Network. “The movie needed an antagonist, but that’s not what he was,” says former Facebook growth chief Chamath Palihapitiya. “He’s really the exact opposite of his portrayal in the film.”

Long before Facebook, Parker attempted to create a company based on theories of how real viruses spread across populations. The company was called Plaxo, an online address book service. Its mission is to catalogue address books and keep them updated across multiple platforms and devices. While it may be ancient history now, the platform for disseminating Plaxo is one of the first examples of the soaring potential of email marketing software because Plaxo became the world’s first viral marketing strategy.

It sounds boring compared to Napster and Facebook, but Plaxo was an early social networking tool and a pioneer of the types of viral tricks that helped grow LinkedIn, Zynga and Facebook. “Plaxo is like the indie band that the public doesn’t know but was really influential with other musicians,” Parker says.

Once you downloaded Plaxo, the program would mine your address book and email every contact with a message, coaxing them to sign up for the service. When the next person signed up, the software would pirate the new address book and spread further. Within a short time millions of email accounts had been hit with Plaxo pitches.

“In some ways Plaxo is the company I’m most proud of because it was the company that wreaked the most havoc on the world,” says Parker. Those experiences later changed the history of Facebook.

The incredible success of Plaxo’s distribution model not only informed and influenced nearly every single social network that followed, but changed the entire landscape of online social marketing. Amid the many emergent marketing techniques in the world today, email is still a fertile ground on which to catalyze or leverage viral campaigns.

The inherently social concept of email combined with the fact that almost everyone on the Internet uses email makes it a powerful discovery. That’s even more the case now that the adoption rates of smartphones, tablet and other mobile technology gives consumers access to their email more than ever. What Parker viewed as a disruptive way to get the message about a new email organizing program has, over time, become one of the most important tenets of online marketing.

Parker would later be forced out of Plaxo by a vindictive colleague, but not before becoming the president of Facebook, bringing Spotify to American shores and securing himself about $2 billion in the process of all his disruptive innovations.

So the next time you get an email coaxing you into any service in particular, take some time to thank – or curse – Sean Parker.

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