Viral Marketing Gets Structured

The problem with viral marketing is it’s nebulous. It isn’t difficult to come up with an example of a successful viral campaign that put the company behind it on the map. But try to define exactly what made that campaign work — or trickier still, to replicate it — and you’ll likely find yourself at a loss.

That viral marketing’s definition has changed over the years contributes to this dilemma. Today, it’s more commonly associated with funny videos that make the rounds of the Internet (homemade or, more rarely, corporate-funded) than the send-to-a-friend e-mail feature that started it all online. How does this form of media benefit a client whose objectives includes generating e-mail, subscriptions, leads, or e-commerce sales? And how, pray tell, can viral — the Wild West of online media — be judiciously integrated into an online marketing campaign?

PopularMedia has been addressing these questions since 2003 and has formulated a solution that seems to mark a return to the viral marketing of old, when it was a balancing act between “virality” and monetization.

“Viral marketing is like catching lightning in a bottle. It’s great, it’s viral. But it’s very difficult to recreate when everything is weighted to the creative,” says PopularMedia CEO Jim Calhoun. “Through proprietary methodology and analyzing how consumers share information, we can get people to repeat the process.”

The private-label viral marketing solutions company first works with a client to determine objectives, then devises several variations on a theme. It runs simultaneous trials to determine which offer is most interesting to the client’s target customer. The offer that resonates is built into a microsite that incorporates a viral component, such as a tell-a-friend prompt.

Interaction with the site is measured and optimized to ensure it results in monetary success. Clients pays a flat fee for the creative process, build, implementation, reporting, and analytics, as well as a CPA (define) fee for each completed consumer transaction.

Calhoun admits the procedure isn’t magic. “We’re not the funny video guys; what we do is very math- and science-focused,” he says. What PopularMedia offers interactive marketers is far more practical and germane than a funny-video approach. It’s analytical and measurable, like traditional online media. That makes it easy to view as part of a traditional online campaign, as well as easy to justify to clients.

Now, PopularMedia, which works with such companies as Entertainment Publications and Time Life, is taking the concept of providing viral marketing with some recognizable structure to another level. It’s launched an ad network designed to help clients reach beyond the existing customer databases they’d normally use to promote viral microsites to new customer acquisition efforts.

The PopularMedia Network, which officially launched on August 1, includes a select group of third-party social networks and content-rich portals, some of which are its own viral marketing clients. Offer-specific display ads (which PopularMedia works with its clients to create) can be purchased on a CPM (define), CPC (define), or CPA basis, depending on the publishers’ pricing policies, and linked to the client’s viral microsite.

The idea is to secure additional distribution of the viral piece through media buying. Unlike a typical viral marketing effort that puts distribution entirely in the consumers’ hands, nothing is left to chance.

This overall approach might appear to take some of the glamour and excitement out of viral marketing as we know it. It all but eliminates the rush of checking your daily site logs to find millions of new visitors unexpectedly dropped by. But as with any hot medium, there inevitably comes a time when the focus shifts from mayhem to monetization. For all you marketers who would rather produce tangible results than gain fleeting notoriety and brand buzz from a clever viral campaign, this is a shift that’s long overdue.

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