Germ Warfare: How to Spawn a Marketing Virus

The best marketing is marketing you don’t have to do yourself. Call it word-of-mouth, spawning, self-propagation, organic or viral marketing.

The basic idea? To be so cool that you don’t even have to market yourself. To be so popular that everyone does the marketing for you. And to be so sneaky about it that it looks totally effortless.

Viral marketing has been around forever — word-of-mouth is really the world’s first form of marketing, and it’s completely viral. The internet has taken organic marketing to a new level of artistry and effectiveness. Remember: The best thing about the web is its ease of communication — it makes communities tighter, and word-of-mouth even more effective.

Viral marketing makes the best use of the ‘net’s fast, close-knit communication. It’s the web’s biggest advantage over traditional media. But too often, it’s the least used.

Look at Netscape: The small “Designed for NETSCAPE” logo has become ubiquitous. Way back when, it was used as a status symbol of cool design, and a way to get surfers using the latest and greatest. Designers and webmasters began using the symbol all on their own: Netscape didn’t have to do any of the work. Many other sites starting using the same link-logo approach — remember those “top 5 percent of the web” badges of honor?

Beyond The Link

Technology and creative marketers were soon able to move viral marketing beyond a simple link. went beyond the link when it started rewarding “partners” for resulting sales.

Now promoters are working hard to spread the word via their existing customer network. How can you motivate your customers and visitors to do the marketing for you? Here are a few strategies:

  • Reward them for talking. We designed a promotion for Real Music that rewarded fans for bringing new visitors to the site. Register for the program, then tell people about Real Music. When they register and mention your email address as the referrer, you get a point. Earn 10 points, get a free CD.
  • Be cool enough to create a buzz. Okay, it’s admittedly hard to manage this one. But it certainly worked for Suck, and more recently, the particularly viral “dancing baby” animation. Is your site cool — in design, product, content or spirit? Point it out to your users, get some awards and press. Then let your coolness spread.
  • Put your URL everywhere. Take a page from Hotmail and Yahoo Mail: every email sent out by every user automatically includes their URL. Can you say the same about your company’s emails? Get your MIS to include a system-wide signature file with your URL.
  • Make it easy for people to pass it on. Ever notice those buttons, “Click here to email this to someone”? Recipes at and articles at the New York both have this option — and it works.

    We are developing a Win-A-Gift promotion for another client: You enter your email address, plus the email address of a friend. We send a brief “Surprise! You were entered by …” message to your friend; you don’t have to do anything. If your name is picked, you both get a prize. Don’t just give people the idea, give them the means to pass it on.

  • Flatter them into talking. The “Top 5 percent” award eventually became a cliche. But while it worked, it really worked. If your site reviews something, features guest writers, or has articles about other companies, tell the objects of flattery to link back to you. Formalize the offer with a “As Seen On TV!”-type program.

    We designed a program for U.S. News & World Report that took advantage of its annual college rankings: Top schools received a “Top 10” or “Top 25” graphic for their web sites, to link to their school’s information on the U.S. News Online site. The number of schools that chose to use the logo was amazing.

  • Give away your site. That’s right, give away your best assets. Send out summaries of your articles by email and ask people to forward it on (with copyright and URL attached, of course).

    I don’t know how many times I’ve passed on Michael Tchong’s ICONOCAST email newsletter: He didn’t get to count those impressions, but he probably gained a few subscriptions in the long run. The same thing goes on the web. Spread out your goods so that you have more ports of entry, more points of presence.

  • Sponsor giveaways on other people’s sites. Donate the prizes in exchange for links and email addresses of entrants. Even if they don’t visit your site now, your product is visible, and you’ve got their email addresses.
  • Let people “reprint” your content on their site, with appropriate credits and links.
  • Find partners who can offer more places to download your free software demos.

Viral Marketing can be tricky. You need to let others take over your PR work, give away parts of your site, and openly share your products, information and brand. Yet you still need to somehow control your brand and bring all that marketing back to your site.

It’s a fine line between spreading the word and diluting your brand. But when you master that balance, your site can spread as quickly and effortlessly as the common cold.

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