Tips for Optimizing Viral Marketing Campaigns

Viral marketing, or “refer-a-friend,” email campaigns have received a lot of attention in the media recently. These campaigns, which encourage recipients of promotional emails to forward the messages to their friends, have garnered both positive and negative reviews from consumers, privacy advocates, and industry pundits.

At the heart of the issue are concerns over sending unsolicited email, but by using viral marketing tactics carefully, marketers may avoid negative reactions and gain an excellent return on investment (ROI) as they increase the reach of a marketing message to a targeted group far beyond their original audience.

Listed below are five insights on how to execute a viral marketing campaign most effectively.

  1. Offer an incentive. Viral marketing works best when a valuable and tangible incentive is offered, encouraging individuals to forward an email message to their friends. However, marketers should cap the incentive to a specific quantity to avoid spam-like distribution of the message — for example, offering an incentive of 20 percent off referrers’ next purchase if they forward the message to five friends. Open-ended incentives, such as offering a $5 credit for every five friends referred, can end up causing a marketer customer service, financial, and privacy-related problems.

    A women’s athletic clothing multichannel retailer recently offered a creative and socially aware incentive when it launched a viral marketing campaign that rewarded message recipients with a free T-shirt and a $1 donation to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation when an individual sent the special email message to five friends and three of those friends opted in to the retailer’s catalog or email list. The campaign was tremendously successful, driving a click-through rate three times higher than normal, an email newsletter sign-up rate of over 30 percent, and a catalog subscription rate of nearly 70 percent. Meanwhile, cost per sale decreased by 89 percent.

  2. Don’t consider the referral an opt-in. When a customer refers a friend, the referral should not be considered an opt-in. A name and email address volunteered by a person’s friend does not constitute an opt-in by the individual, so the data should be deleted immediately after the referral email is sent. Verbiage should be included in the referral email asking if the individual would like to receive future mailings, allowing her to opt in if she wishes.

  3. Personalize the referral email. Response rates increase dramatically when users can see that a message is coming from a friend, so it is best to personalize the email message to show that it’s coming from a recognizable source. The subject line is the key component in a viral marketing email, because it can immediately identify the email as friendly. A good subject line may read: “ADV: John Doe Thought You’d Like 20% Off at XYZ.com,” thereby identifying that it is an advertisement, there’s a special offer, and the message was sent from a friend.

  4. Track and analyze the results. As with any marketing campaign, tracking the results and optimizing performance over time is absolutely necessary. Thankfully, sophisticated email marketers can track insightful and actionable data that can be used to evaluate performance. Important metrics to analyze are pass-along, click-through, and conversion rates. Marketers should separate the click-through and conversion rates by original customers from referrals and evaluate their respective performances. These metrics will alert a marketer to which offers and customers drive the highest ROI.

  5. Continually promote friendly referrals. Marketers who want to have their messages frequently forwarded should place a viral marketing offer in every relevant outgoing email message. Viral marketing makes for a great one-time campaign, but it can also be a very effective tool for continuing to broaden the reach of your marketing messages over time.

Though no sure-fire way exists to prevent negative customer reactions, by following these five concepts marketers should find their viral marketing campaigns to be most effective.

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