Happy 25th Smiley Face :-) An Example In Viral Marketing

A slice of birthday cake

25 years ago tomorrow the text based smiley face was born. It’s unlikely Carnegie Mellon professor Scott E. Fahlman knew the ideavirus he was unleashing when he posted the simple combination of colon, dash, open parenthesis, to form :-) giving birth to the digital horizontal smiley face, but that’s exactly what he did. Professor Fahlman launched an example of viral marketing that’s still spreading to this very day.

Think about it. When was the last time you spent any time communicating online without running into at least one emoticon, whether graphic or digital? How often have you used one in an email or instant messaging session? Nearly 31,000,000 results for a search of ’emoticons’ at Google and close to 97,000 searches for the word as reported by Keyword Discovery. Where would we be without them?

You can see how it all got started by reading the AP story at Physorg.com and if you do notice all the AdSense ads promoting emoticons and realize that in 25 years three characters of punctuation have turned into big business.

Why did the smiley face become an ideavirus? It’s not too hard to understand. It’s an obvious conversation starter. The first time you saw one you either asked what it was or, upon recognizing its intent, made a comment to the person who sent it to you.

It targets sneezers. Who are the people most likely to adopt the digital smiley in their communication? The very people you might send it to. The virus is smooth. It’s easy to turn around and spread it once received and because of that ease it spreads fast. The virus is persistent. It’s never stopped being a useful way to communicate an emotion and it leaves a permanent trail on bulletin boards, forums, and blogs. It’s close to being a perfect virus.

An Example Of Marketing In The New Economy

I recently finished reading Seth Godin’s Free Prize Inside and Seth closes the book with the following quote.

Make something remarkable. Create a Purple Cow with a free prize inside. Create a fashion. Get sneezers excited about your product, help it become an ideavirus within a hive. Get permission from the early adopters with otaku, so you can keep in touch with them and let them know about your next fashionable soft innovation. Milk the cow, make a profit. Use edgecraft to make your next free prize. Alert the permission base of sneezers. Repeat.

The quote above is meant to show you how to make something happen in the new economy and it will make more sense if you’ve read Seth’s books. When I read the news of smiley’s birthday my mind raced to this passage.

The horizontal smiley face was remarkable. It was original and sparked conversation. It became a purple cow and the free prize was the ability to express an emotion not easy for many of us to communicate in writing. As it spread it became a fashion. It spread to anyone who spent time writing in a digital format, the very people who would understand its value and in turn spread the virus further. It didn’t take long for the smiley to gain soft innovations in the wink ;-) and the frown :-( to express even more emotions. The smiley was milked and milked and milked until many people became tired of seeing it. Yet it continued to evolve by going to the edge and turning into a graphic icon. And it’s still widely used today in its original form

The smiley face is an example of viral marketing, perhaps not directed by a single individual or company, yet still an indeavirus unleashed into the wild and allowed to evolve and spread.

While you’re wishing it a happy birthday tomorrow think about the smiley face and understand why it was adopted so quickly and readily and understand how and why it spread. Do you see the connection with your own products and services?

Happy Birthday smiley face. 25 years and several generations later and you’re still alive and well in original form. You’ve spread far and wide and continue to market yourself virally to this very day. Here’s to another 25 years. :-)

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. Funny, searching on :-) doesn’t even show SERPs.

    What’s this talk of viruses and hives? Seems to be a metaphore of how the smiley spread?

    The funny thing is that until I clicked this blog headline, I had never heard of Carnegie Mellon professor Scott E. Fahlman or questioned where the emoticons came from. Maybe it’s easist to succeed when success isn’t your goal? A bit of zen wisdom in your post?

  2. This is funny because I don’t ever think of this :-) as having an inventor. Yet, someone must have created the first one and started using it. I guess it just goes to show that small things can have big consequences. The trick is to have the right idea at the right time I guess. Kind of makes you wonder what the next thing will be.

  3. John I guess all the talk of virus and hives makes more sense if you’ve read Seth Godin’s books. Check the link at the top of the post for ideavirus. It’s a free ebook that talks all about viral marketing.

    The viral in viral marketing is all an analogy for the spread of an idea as a virus. So sneezers are the people who spread the virus. I’m not quite sure how hive fits in the analogy, but a hive would be the group of people you want to infect with your virus. Think of it as your target market.

    Zen wisdom? Sure I’ll go for that.

    Kristine I didn’t know either. I just happened upon the AP article. Speaking of small things having big consequences have you ever read the Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell. Forrest and I were talking about it in the comments here a week or two ago. It’s another book along similar lines as Unleashing the Ideavirus. In fact Seth took the ideas in the Tipping Point to expand them into Ideavirus. The Tipping Point is all about how seemingly small things can actually have a very big impact and make an idea tip so it becomes the norm.

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