The folks from tech support have returned to their offices. After much intense effort, they have revived overburdened e-mail servers and rescued millions of users from last Thursday’s swift, silent attack of the Love Bug virus. For the past few days, newspaper pages and television screens have been filled with accounts from Manila, as the hunt continues for the hacker—codenamed spyder—who unleashed the pandemic that crippled corporations and governments around the world. A suspect has been identified, detained, and released. In corporate boardrooms and government offices, security measures to prevent future virus attacks are being debated.

All this is as it should be. After all, the Love Bug is the most devastating computer virus ever, whose toll is likely to exceed $10 billion. And yet, one of its most fascinating aspects was the speed of its global proliferation. According to experts, the Love Bug flashed around the world in just two hours, emerging in Hong Kong and then moving West, knocking out nearly 70% of the e-mail services in countries like Sweden and Germany on its way to the U.S. Melissa, a similar virus that attacked computers last year, took six hours to do its damage.

This prompts a question: Can companies learn any positive lessons from the Love Bug’s global odyssey? After all, CEOs and marketing directors are constantly plotting strategies to gain first-mover advantage by rapidly entering global markets with their products and services. Wouldn’t they love to know, even as they fret over the damage the virus has caused, how their products could blanket the world in a few hours?

Three Wharton professors – Eric T. Bradlow, assistant professor of marketing and statistics, Stephen J. Hoch, chair of the marketing department, and Yoram (Jerry) Wind, director of the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management – believe that is indeed the case. Despite spyder’s clearly anti-social motives and the negative impact of her (or his) actions, the Love Bug offers at least three positive lessons about speed, trust and context.

1. Speed: The hacker who wrote the Love Bug was diabolically clever. The virus replicated itself by attacking the address books of those who clicked open the attachment, and mailed copies of itself to everyone listed there. While this massive flood of messages choked e-mail arteries, it did show one thing. If speed of communication is the goal, e-mail is hard to beat as a means of distribution. Says Wind: "The Love Bug showed that it is possible to go instantly from launch to peak market penetration."

Of course, no one in their right mind would advocate that companies try this approach, or even attempt to spam e-mail recipients. Still, several companies have begun to use a benign method called viral marketing—an unfortunate term in the Love Bug’s aftermath.

The poster boy for viral marketing is Hotmail, a free web-based e-mail service that Microsoft now owns. When Hotmail was launched four years ago, each e-mail message sent by a user contained a promotional message with a URL that the receiver could click to sign up for the service. Result: Each message from every Hotmail user became an advertisement for the service. In 18 months Hotmail had some 12 million users, according to Steve Jurvetson, a managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a venture capital firm that invested in Hotmail. (Jurvetson cites the Hotmail example in a recent article about viral marketing in Red Herring magazine. He says Draper Fisher Jurvetson coined the term viral marketing in 1997.)

Other companies have rapidly caught on, and now practically every web-based company uses some variant of the viral marketing approach as part of its overall marketing strategy. (Knowledge at Wharton, too, employs this method. Every copy of its e-mail newsletter contains a request asking readers to forward the e-mail to others who may be interested.)

2. Trust: The reason why viral marketing works is that the message comes from a trusted source. The hacker who wrote the Love Bug’s code knew this only too well. An e-mail message from a friend is more likely to be opened than one from a stranger, even if it contains a dangerous attachment. "The reason the virus spread so quickly was that it arrived as an e-mail from known people. It played off people’s level of trust," says Bradlow.

Marketers have long known about the power of friendly endorsements. Mary Kay Cosmetics and Tupperware, for example, favor the home party as a sales technique, where a sales person teams up with a hostess to throw a party where cosmetics or kitchenware can be sold. Comcast offers free air time to those who sign up friends for its cellular phone service. America Online provides hours of free access to its online Internet service to customers who urge their friends to sign up.

Such methods allow marketers to tap into social networks, explains Hoch. "E-mail networks are much larger than most social networks," he says, "so the marketing message is more effective. E-mail networks are not as deep as social networks, but they are larger, so there is a tradeoff. People sometimes talk about six degrees of separation—where everyone is separated from everyone else on the planet by just six people. On the Internet, maybe there are just five degrees of separation."

Distributing marketing messages through social networks does have a downside, according to Bradlow. "From the individual’s point of view, it places a burden on the customer when a company asks him or her to become a marketer," he says. "I don’t like getting such messages, and I don’t like to bother my friends with such messages either. My friends know I’m getting a reward, and people don’t like to be used in this way."

3. Context: Another factor that made the Love Bug effective in worming its way across the world was that its message was innocuous as well as seductive. It masqueraded as a love note from someone you knew, and few could resist its siren-like appeal. Many people who saw the message before they heard security warnings opened it out of curiousity. Later mutations of the virus were also clever in what geekspeak describes as "social engineering"—in other words, playing upon people’s emotions. One version appeared as an announcement about a Mother’s Day gift. Still others appeared as jokes. At least one version pretended to offer an electronic nostrum to cure damage caused by the Love Bug.

The lesson for executives here is to present marketing messages in terms that tap into their customers’ needs and desires. The danger, however, is that unless this is done in a straightforward, upfront manner, customers can potentially feel manipulated. Says Hoch: "If a marketing message comes to you in the guise of a note from an acquaintance, it might annoy you. It could backfire." Done correctly, however, such messages can have tremendous impact. "If there were a way to do this around a product, it would be an amazing strategy," says Bradlow.

If the professors are right, the Love Bug, for all its devastating effects, also contained the seeds of positive learning. We hope you will find these concepts useful, and we are glad we could share them. Why? Simple—we love you.