Leveraging the Power of Viral Marketing

Viral marketing is very quickly becoming an effective and low-cost method of getting a message out to consumers. Like many marketing concepts in use on the Internet today, viral marketing leverages the collaborative nature of the Internet.

On a conceptual level, the term “viral marketing” can be used to describe any marketing technique that positions a group of consumers as advocates for a brand or product. Typically, though, viral marketing is executed as a message that is disseminated through email and forwarded indefinitely by the folks who receive it.

Hotmail is a classic example of a successful viral marketing campaign. Hotmail’s free email service spread like wildfire in the early days because each message that went out via Hotmail contained an offer for the recipient to receive a free email account with the service. In this way, Hotmail positioned itself such that its users were advocates of its service. Since Hotmail is free, its users didn’t mind the commercial message so much, and those direct-response email messages became a driving factor in expanding its user base.

Another great example of viral marketing is Scope’s “Send a Kiss” promotion. Procter & Gamble provided a mechanism by which users could send a branded animated greeting to others on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and other touchy-feely holidays. The result was a wildly successful campaign that serves as one of the great examples of the power of viral marketing.

What can we learn from these two examples? Clearly they have quite a lot in common.

  • The “virus” must present clear value to the customer. Hotmail’s offer was a free email account, something that has broad appeal to almost anyone who would receive a Hotmail message. Scope offered a free customizable greeting card. Needless to say, if the focal point of your viral campaign doesn’t offer significant value, your campaign will fall flat.

  • It must be easy to send to a friend. The easier that you make it for participants to be your advocate, the better your response. Hotmail made it easy, as its text messages were easily forwardable. Scope provided an in-ad vehicle for sending its greeting card out to others.
  • It should be easy to track. Hotmail knows how many email messages it processes, so this gives it a rough idea of how many messages are affecting the market. (I say “rough idea” because email forwarding probably was not tracked but could have represented a significant portion of the results.) The Scope promotion was a little bit more sophisticated — since the messages were being sent from its server, it knew exactly how successful this campaign was.

With regard to the value that consumers derive from these viral messages, keep in mind that humor is valued quite highly on the Internet. Although it’s not a commercial message, how many of you received the “When jack-o’-lanterns drink too much” email in your boxes this week? Witness the power of humor…

Viral marketing seems like a great idea. But everyone should be aware of its limitations. You wouldn’t necessarily want to use a viral campaign to promote a limited-time or limited-supply offer. With many email viral campaigns, it is tough to turn things off once a campaign is set in motion. If you start a viral campaign with a supply of 30,000 giveaways and 120,000 people eventually receive the message, it’s possible that 90,000 people could have a bad experience.

However, if your brand wants some viral exposure without a limited offer, you might consider sponsoring some relevant content that can be leveraged virally. Atom Films is one of several sites that can provide short movies that have that viral je ne sais quoi. The short films that reside on its site are also spread around the Net quite a bit by email, and Atom Films has made it easy for marketers to sponsor short films both on the site and off. Many of these films present great entertainment value to consumers.

Many successful viral campaigns leverage entertainment value, but there’s no reason to limit it to that. I’d love to see future viral campaigns that provided utilitarian value. Palm applications are pretty small — maybe it’s time to start attaching small applications to emails to see how far they might go. It could represent a terrific distribution model for shareware developers.

Yes, viral marketing is a great bang for the buck for many products and services. However, it’s important to leverage the three principles above if you want to get the most out of a viral effort.

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