It’s been about 18 months, if not longer, since viral marketing was the flavor of the day in online marketing. My, oh my, what a flavor it was. It consumed nearly everyone in the industry. Clients wanted this tactic to be part of what was planned and executed, and they often wanted it to be the initiative’s focus. Traditional and interactive agencies alike scrambled to do the impossible: come up with ideas that adhered to a brand’s positioning and creative guidelines; not facilitate consumer criticism and backlash due to questionable content; pass five or six approval hurdles involving people who thought the word “viral” was used only in medical circles; and, finally, thrilling the unwitting masses to such a degree they would send the creative along to every friend, family member, and colleague they had with comments like, “You’ve just go to see this!”
Few of these executions actually succeeded.
All the hype and hope eventually settled a bit. The episode resulted in some specialty shops focusing on viral marketing alone (most of which faded away). Naturally, a more subdued set of best practices emerged, such as the ever-present refer-a-friend functionality on most registration interfaces.
Does this mean viral marketing has come and gone? That it’s little more than a blip on the radar screen charting the first hours of the first days of the Internet’s evolution? I don’t think so. Take a look at what’s happening now with the flash mob trend.
For those not familiar with the term, a flash mob was recently defined in a CNN.com article as “where jokers gather en masse at a moment’s notice, perform an inane activity and then disperse quickly.” The idea was developed by a person referred to only as “Bill” (who’s said to be in the “culture business”).
He began by emailing 50 people and attempting to coordinate one of these random activities at a location in New York City. The first effort was thwarted, but numerous flash mobs have occurred since. Examples include people showing up outside of a newspaper’s building and slowly chanting the word “news” for one minute, then dispersing. Another had a group of about 200 appear at Grand Central Station, applaud for 15 seconds, then leave. There are at least a dozen additional documented examples.
The beauty of the recent craze is viral distribution. Flash mobs are showing up across the country, from San Francisco to Nashville, TN, to my very own Minneapolis. Their growth has not been limited to the U.S., either. Europe’s first reported flash mob congregated in Rome on July 24. Since then, there have been appearances or attempts to organize flash mobs in Berlin, London, Australia, the Pacific Rim, and elsewhere. All this as a result of 50 email messages sent by a guy named Bill.
Clearly, the viral power and influence of the Web are alive and well. Actually, they’ve never been missing. Marketers have been trying to make something overtly contrived into something viral. A viral approach’s premise is word of mouth is the most influential driver of the product or service trial.
Don’t give up on being viral. It can be a great way to efficiently extend communications, as well as a way to leverage your client’s satisfied customer base. Just don’t expect to have every effort sent to every inbox. Here are a few ways you can increase the viral aspect of your next campaigns:
- Make the initial offer/service/interaction worth doing. If what you’re asking for is like pulling teeth, you can forget anyone becoming an advocate, let alone an evangelist. Too many companies worry about the presence of branded elements. Instead, they should concern themselves with user experience. If you’re offering a working woman an audio file with a 10-minute meditation program to listen to over her lunch hour, make it a good recording. She’s there for the meditation, not to stare at your client’s logo. She’ll notice the brand. So will her friends, after she sends along the link to the site.
- Don’t fear incentives. Be careful here, as fraud can become an issue. But people are inherently self-serving (base as it may sound). If you want someone to do his taxes with you, offer $10 off if one of his relatives does her taxes with you, too. Though unlikely to result in Budweiser Superfriends distribution levels, such a promotion can drive overall revenue and penetration of your client’s tax product while discounting only a portion of the current client base. If the client’s product is good, this year’s loyalists may become next year’s evangelists.
- Use a “velvet rope.” If at all possible, present the viral aspect only to a select group. Make certain they know they’re exclusive. Treating people like VIPs elicits response. Often, a psychological motivation impels them to forward something; they want the recipient to know they are special in some way. They may genuinely appreciate that you recognize their value as customers. Either way, a perception of exclusivity can have a remarkable effect.
These suggestions are not likely to create a commercially branded flash mob, but they may provide the incremental push needed to meet your goals. Give them a try.
Based on a complete lack of any developing news on this front, I shall discontinue this section of the column until further notice. I’m sure you’re all crushed. 😉