The Basics Of Viral Marketing

After my article on Breaking Down The ROI Model, several people wrote, asking me specifically about the “Viral Value” concept I mentioned. After all, online marketers would do well to discover the secret of HotMail, eGroups and ICQ, each of which has enjoyed stable, double-digit-per-month growth with little or no marketing dollars.

So what is it that drives users to become evangelists for your service or product, and how can we encourage and facilitate the process? The right viral app, providing great service, helping users help you, and maybe even a few incentives are all great ways to get users to spread the gospel.

First of all, it’s important to note that certain applications are inherently viral. For example, when a moderator establishes an email discussion list for his yoga class, it’s of no value unless he drags his peers in with him. And what do you know, once users get used to a system, they tend to start using it for other purposes, whether it be work, social, academic, or whatever.

On the other end of the spectrum lies Amazon.com. It sells product, period. First books, and now more, but the bottom line is that these guys get Relationship Marketing. They have developed or purchased the resources necessary to get inside their users’ heads, and use the profiles they create to better serve the customer (don’t worry, we’ll save Permission Marketing for another day).

On top of consistently providing an enjoyable buying experience, Amazon understands the importance of going that extra mile to make the user feel special. Whether it’s that box of chocolates after your fifth order, or keeping you abreast of when the next book from your favorite author hits their cybershelves, Amazon has created the feeling that they are your store. Once this is instilled, users will naturally tell their friends, especially when online consumers are prompted by their less savvy counterparts.

Now we get to the tricky part, which is where HotMail resides. Free, web-based email isn’t inherently viral, but when you’ve got millions of people sporting your tag line at the end of every message they send their friends and relatives, word sure does get around quickly. This is a perfect example of facilitating viral marketing.

OK, so viral app, great service, and helping your users help you, that’s it, right? Nope, we haven’t even touched on incentives yet. Putting our stereotypes of MLM and free IPO shares aside, if you know what buttons to push, you can really motivate your customers to work for you. But how do you determine what they want? Well, the easiest way is to ask them through online surveys. Focus groups and other market research may also be appropriate.

Note that the key here is really meeting the users’ needs, and not necessarily offering them a simple kickback. There’s tons of companies bribing users with cash, cars, trips, etc., and most of the time these incentives won’t be nearly as effective as offering something directly relevant to your audience.

Sony had a college promotion where it was giving away several thousand dollars, and when it shifted gears and offered a dorm room full of dream electronics, worth far less than the cash prize, response rates more than doubled. Give your audience room to be creative, and they’re always going to get more excited.

How about the next time you want to target a busy executive like me, you offer free groceries, dry cleaning, and film developing, all delivered to my door, for a year? The cost would probably be minimal, but you better believe time and convenience will get me to jump through a hoop any day of the week.

So, are you going to tell all your friends about this article? You’ll note that although ClickZ may not be inherently viral, it does establish a sense of trust in its audience via consistently providing quality content, and it also facilitates the process of your forwarding this article by having a simple link next to all the article clips. Now, if only it offered you all the groceries…

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