Blake Snow

content advisor, recognized journalist, bodacious writer-for-hire

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You Don’t Know Jack About Viral Marketing

Viral marketing goes by several different names — buzz marketing, disruptive marketing, guerilla marketing, annuity effect, long tail, media leverage and even word-of-mouth marketing. But adding the word “marketing” to viral or any of the aforementioned names is a bit of a misnomer as the act of marketing typically describes a direct and conscious act on the part of companies to pitch their products to consumers. Viral marketing is anything but conscious. It is indirect marketing managed by consumers and consumers alone.

By definition, viral marketing is a phenomenon that facilitates and encourages people to pass along a marketing message, usually — though not exclusively — online. Like a literal virus, the product message gets passed along from one user to the next and is easily shared in rapid fashion. Hotmail’s mandatory “Get your private, free e-mail at” message on every outgoing e-mail is widely accredited as the first viral marketing campaign. Its strategy included:

1) Making a desired product or service available — and a good one at that. In this case, Hotmail’s free online e-mail was one of the first of its kind. Though I have long since moved to Gmail, who didn’t have a Hotmail account in the 90s?

2) Giving away a free product or service, or supporting content in promotion of said product or service. Hotmail gives its product away in exchange for advertising page views, but you have to give something away free.

3) Making the product or service easily shared. In this rare case, Hotmail forced users to pass along the message. Call it the price of “free.”

The ingredients for an effective viral marketing campaign have largely remained the same over the years, with some new channels for distribution of course. And while many companies formally embrace viral marketing campaigns, relatively few “marketing viruses” achieve success on a scale similar to Hotmail. Let’s find out why.

Viral Marketing Misconceptions

Marketing prowess has very little to do with a successful viral marketing campaign. In fact, outside of advertisers, I’d argue very few marketers are needed at all to implement an effective campaign. Key enablers for viral marketing within your company will largely end up being product managers, copy editors and multimedia producers. Fact: The only variables in the viral marketing equation you control as a company are; what is released to whom and at what time. After that, it’s the consumers’ ball game. No, you can’t even control the message from that point. For example, you may produce what you think to be a very informative, professional TV advertisement. It gets released and you can’t wait to see how it affects your business. Suddenly “Internet wolves,” whom you didn’t intend to receive the message, catch wind of your ad and turn it into a “how not to produce a TV ad” discussion. The negative effect on your brand begins. Viral marketing doesn’t always work the way you intend because again, consumers control the message and its reach. That should serve as a wake up call to the uninitiated.

You may be thinking, “So if consumers ultimately control the successfulness of my viral marketing campaign, why don’t I just feign being a consumer? That would work, right? I could get a group of marketers together and surely we could pull off what would appear to be an authentic experience for consumers.”

This musing couldn’t be further from the truth. Other than the fact that it’s misleading (read: dishonest) to fake a consumer review, viral campaigns live and breathe on authenticity. Believe it or not, the collective online Internet is much smarter than you. They will tear you apart if you try to pull one on them.

Last December, I blogged about Zipatoni, a Sony viral marketing vendor that got caught trying to run a fake consumer blog (also called “flog”) in support of Sony’s struggling PlayStation Portable. Zipatoni did a horrible job acting as “hip” youth promoting the portable gaming device and its disconnect showed in everything it tried to lie about on the site including copy, tone and terribly fake rap videos aiming to go viral. The lack of authenticity showed, and every major game blog and site on the Internet — not to mention Wired magazine — called out the incident. Just three months later, the following article came up third when searching for “Zipatoni” on Google: Zipatoni and Sony Slammed for Flogging. That’s not good for business. Neither are the negatively updated Wikipedia entries both Sony and Zipatoni now enjoy. If you’re conscience doesn’t already dictate the difference between glamorization and blatant lying in viral marketing, consider what it could do to your bottom line.

Viral Marketing Today

Now that we’ve covered what not to do in viral marketing, let’s discuss some current examples and what you can specifically do to increase the chances of implementing a successful viral marketing campaign within your organization. The most entertaining, and arguably some of the most effective viral marketing campaigns, happen on YouTube, the online clearinghouse of video.

From a business perspective, this is how it works: You conceive an excellent video short on a new or existing product. The promo spot is well executed, and hilarious to boot. Rather than paying for airtime, you publish your video to YouTube. Utilizing the existing communication network of YouTube, a small group of people sees what you’re showing them and like it so much, they share it with friends and post it on their blogs. Those entries get picked up by A-list bloggers and your name is in the lights. As if it couldn’t get any better, a week later the Associated Press catches wind of the “story,” and your video truly reaches critical mass.

All of this results because you designed and executed great free content that was worth seeking out (read: it has value, however small) by a large group of people. That free product was then easily shared, enabling the product to reach virality.

So what specifically can you do to foster viral marketing? Again, you make something worth seeking out first. Create a free online product or service that is in demand, not that you think is in demand. A little market research goes a long way here. You can develop a demo, a limited but fully working product (Note: not a free trial — that’s old school), or even a well thought out or newly angled blog post (white papers are out because they’re not as easily shared or accessible as other forms of published content). Once you have the product, take it to an existing communication network with a lot of traffic. Go where the people are, so to speak; the people who see value in what you’re offering. This could be YouTube, Digg, Delicious, A-List bloggers, MySpace or just a friendly e-mail sent to your friends. Viral marketing happens on the backs of others, i.e. free marketers. Why would someone indirectly pitch your product for free, then? They do it because what’s being shared holds inherent value.

I can’t tell you what kind of product or service you should try to virally market. You’re audience and industry can tell you that. But I can tell you what you can do to help enable sharing. Make it easy for people to find and share your content (e.g. usable Web sites, RSS feeds, “e-mail this” links, permalinks, etc.). Submit your notable content (read: not everything) to Digg, paying special attention to your headline and body copy. The Digg with the best headline and catchiest summary gets dugg.

After creating a desired and free product or service, find online influencers within your industry who may find value in it. The accessible ones will almost always be A-list bloggers. Have a great article on consumer electronics? Post it to your blog, and send it to the editors of Engadget with a link to your article telling them why they might enjoy it (disclosure: I blog for Weblogs Inc., which owns Engadget). If they like it, they’ll post it, and you’ll get picked up by smaller fish that still send a lot of traffic.

“What if your core product really isn’t something that can be virally shared or isn’t that interesting,” you ask? That’s OK. Not all goods and services are “infotainment.” The solution is to create a supporting product, service or content offering that can be widely shared. Sharing a viral message all comes back to encouraging links to your site. Don’t waste your time on reciprocal links. Simply approach others with something of value suggesting it’s something they might like. Never specifically ask for a link. Send along enough value in your free product or content to make them want to send a link.

A short time back, I consulted with some people from a company that erroneously thought they could start a blog with the ulterior motive of directly hard-selling products to their audience. They all but said, “People will want to visit our site just to get pitched to.” They had no clue what they were doing. Remember, there should always be an intrinsic value to what’s being shared. Just last week, a small blog I organize saw a traffic increase of 42,000 daily unique visitors off Digg alone because we published valuable content at the right time, and it was easily shared. It pays to foster viral marketing. Ensure you’re doing it right, never compromising authenticity in the process, and you’ll see the cash results when they’re earned. — Blake Snow

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Connect Magazine.


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