Did you know that when one person has a good online experience, he or she will turn around and tell 12 more people? By the same token, if that person has a bad experience, 12 others will also know about it. Opinion Research Corporation International (ORCI) found that users told an average of 12 other people about an online shopping experience. This is the dynamic that powers viral marketing.
Viral marketing has become the Holy Grail for Internet marketers looking to copy the success of Hotmail or ICQ. Most everyone wants to take his or her product and "make it viral." It's important, though, to stop and think about what underlies viral marketing.
When people talk about viral marketing, they may not realize that they're really talking about several variations of the same theme. These variations of viral marketing operate for different reasons and by different mechanisms, and they have different effects. However, most seem to have the same mechanism at their core -- a focus on providing the user with quality products or experiences. The way I see it, there are five types of viral marketing: four "good" and one "bad." Below is a little primer in viral marketing. Note that in four examples out of five, you can't "make it viral."
What it is: People share quality experiences with others.
How it works: Joe tries product X and finds it to be very good. He then tells Jane to try it.
Product examples: Hotmail, PalmPilots, Harry Potter books
How to "make it viral": You can't. The products alone must be good enough to foster user chatter. "Tell a Friend" technologies do not make a product viral; they merely allow users to tell others about good products.
What it is: People try to "sell" to others in exchange for incentives.
How it works: Joe tries to convince Jane to try product X because Joe may receive a reward if Jane tries it.
Product examples: countless promotions, beenz, Amway, Tupperware
How to "make it viral": You can't. Users must feel that the reward is worth it and that the products are good enough to risk the possible displeasure of others. Simply adding a reward when the products are not of sufficient quality might result in user backlash against being "sold."
What it is: People want to share experiences with others, which requires certain products.
How it works: Joe wants to share experience Y with Jane, and Jane needs product X to do so.
Product examples: ICQ, RealPlayer, Macromedia Flash, Adobe Acrobat
How to "make it viral": You can't. Users must feel that the experience and the product are worth it to make a change for themselves, let alone to convince others to do likewise. Simply creating a user-to-user standard without making it worthwhile and enjoyable might only serve to inhibit adoption.
What it is: People want to share funny, dirty, and/or interesting experiences with others.
How it works: Joe wants to share experience Y with Jane because Joe thinks that Jane will also find it funny, dirty, and/or interesting.
Product examples: numerous jokes, Superfriends video clip, Hampster Dance, Frog Blender
Web site examples: Mahir Cagri's Home Page, JenniCam
How to "make it viral": You can't. Success stories in this category were rarely intended to be "viral," rather, they were intended to be funny, dirty, and/or interesting. (The Superfriends email was originally sent to only seven people.) Also, this category is not well suited to push products.
What it is: People warn others of negative experiences.
How it works: Joe tries product X and finds it very bad. He then tells Jane to avoid it.
Product examples: Many failed dot-coms, Apple Newton, Olestra, "Plan B" book, Crystal Pepsi
Web site examples: Real.com (for the RealJukebox fiasco)
How to "make it viral": You can -- very easily. Simply create products that are of poor quality, are not designed with the user in mind, or are perceived by the user to be marketed in an underhanded manner.
Now, when someone asks you to "Make it viral," you can ask, "Which type?" Then, work to understand the user's wants and needs. Build the product to fulfill those needs and satisfy those wants, and to provide a positive experience. If you've done it right, you'll know -- and so will 12 other people.
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Blake Rohrbacher is a consultant with Keally Consulting. Keally develops marketing and business strategy for clients who want to do better business online. Keally does site evaluation and optimization to help clients connect with their customers and provides market analysis, data modeling, and business planning expertise to help complement clients' in-house expertise.