Viral Marketing: Pitfall or Windfall?

In viral marketing, there's a fine line between spreading your brand name like wildfire and spreading it too thin. Even "viral marketing" itself sounds a little scary. Walk into your client's office, and it sounds like you're pitching something illegal, or at least counterrevolutionary. In truth, viral marketing is nothing new. It's simply a form of motivated word-of-mouth that works offline as well as online. Kim highlights the pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Viral marketing often means walking a fine line between spreading your brand name like wildfire and spreading it too thin. Even “viral marketing” itself sounds a little scary. You walk into your client’s office, or the boss’s office, and it sounds like you’re pitching something illegal, or at least counterrevolutionary.

In truth, viral marketing is nothing new. Its simply a form of motivated word of mouth that works offline as well as online. You encourage your customers to do the legwork for you by motivating them with:

  • Really valuable service or content (natural word of mouth)
  • Bribery (in the form of contests or kickback schemes)
  • The prestige of being associated with your brand
  • Entertainment (animations, postcards, etc.)

If viral marketing is so natural and ubiquitous, what’s so dangerous about viral marketing online? Here’s some of the pitfalls and how can you avoid them.

Problem: Diluting your brand by letting others be your mouthpiece.

Let’s say you host a contest, with an excellent prize that ties nicely to your brand and reinforces your pitch and product. For instance, you are a major appliance manufacturer and you decide to give away a “Dream House” to reinforce a campaign based on motivating dream remodels using your product. Within the web site, you provide a viral mechanism: When visitors register, they have the option of recruiting others to enter, which gives them additional entry points.

But when your evangelists-in-training go forth, how will they represent the promotion? Most likely, they will tell their friends, “Go here to win a house! And tell them I sent you, so Ill get points!” The brand identity and carefully wrought message are completely lost.

Solution: Create a brand strong enough to endure interpretation, or invent a brandless approach.

If you are a household name, it probably doesn’t matter. Your brand identity is firmly established, and probably reinforced by ongoing print, web and TV campaigns. So when I say, “Go see Coca-Colas web site,” the message doesnt matter because the brand is already there.

If you are not a household name, you have two options. You can carefully construct the scheme to reinforce your brand, by keeping the message, prize, design, and verbiage concentrated on you. Instead of asking visitors to pass on the word, have them enter addresses at your site and you contact the list with your own message. But note that the more you try to control a viral campaign, the smaller that campaign will be.

The second solution: Dont worry about it. Use the virus to pull people to the site in large numbers, whether or not they understand the message. Then use the site to educate, brand and target after the fact.

Problem: Associations with negative sites or people.

You are an online book retailer. You invent a clever affiliate program. You get the referred sales, the affiliates get a reward. Then let’s say a neo-Nazi site signs up as an affiliate and begins featuring your books. Do you want your logo on their site? An assortment of your survivalist books featured there? And a link from the site?

If the answer is no, you have to work out the logistics of approving every affiliate, creating content guidelines, monitoring affiliate content, and dealing with affiliate complaints about all these policies.

If you choose a hands-off approach, you have to consider how it will affect your brand to have your logo and products featured on sites with objectionable content, strange audiences, poor design, misspellings, broken links, competitors, diverse products, and who-knows-what.

Solution: Choose who is worthy of the virus, limiting relationships.

U.S. News & World Report had a program where schools that placed highly in their annual college rankings could place a “Top Ten” or “Top 25” badge on their web sites with a link to the relevant ranking table.

Our original approach was to place the badges and link information on a publicly available site. But we discovered that too many people were using the designations students creating amateur sites, sites that had nothing to do with colleges – and some were altering the graphics to a lower quality.

Instead, for future efforts, we directly sent colleges the information on how to link and what graphics to use, as we announced their rankings. This gave us better control of the graphics and more direct communication with those who would use the program wisely.

Problem: Breaking netiquette (spamming)., a free long-distance-by-web company, recently got involved in a lawsuit over a netiquette fiasco. The viral campaign involved getting people to register for the service, then downloading their address books, and contacting everyone in there with the message “Register for free long distance with us, and you can talk to so-and-so who just signed up!”

In this extreme case, not only were they spamming all the people on the lists they lifted (by contacting them without permission), they were violating the privacy of the voluntarily registered user, too. Not only did they incur the wrath of anti-spam factions, they also were sued.

Solution: Know the rules, and educate your minions.




      Remember the basic premise of viral marketing: You are motivating your users to evangelize for you by offering something positive. “Motivation” does not mean force, threats, dishonesty or stealth.


Remember the basic rule of business: Build a customer base through good service, good products and trust. Whatever tactics you try, dont violate the trust of customers youve already won.


When you evaluate a viral campaign, ask yourself if it violates these basic tenets, or if it asks the participants to violate them. Is the prize so large that it motivates false entries and spamming? Is the tactic so aggressive that you will saturate the message? Is it gaining new customers in such a way or at such a rate that you will alienate your previous customers?

Problem: Too much of a good thing.

Viral tactics are designed to grow exponentially. You tell two friends, then they tell two friends, then they tell two friends, and so on and so on. On the web, the growth is instant, as well as the reaction. A good joke can spread to thousands of people in one day because it’s so easy to click “Forward,” add ten addresses, and hit “Send.” Behold, the power of viral marketing.

When you are dealing with web promotion, the action might involve the respondents hitting your web site, registering, downloading a large file, requesting a freebie, or buying something.

If the promotion is big enough and response strong enough, you might see a ten- or 100-fold increase in traffic within a day. Is your web server ready? Is your response staff ready? Is your budget ready?

Case in point: A large watch retailer tried the Spamway model, encouraging visitors to tell friends in exchange for a watch. The prize was just too good, and the point system was undervalued. They had thousands of registrants the first day, even before starting to promote the event. They gave away all the watches allocated for the month-long promotion within three days. Needless to say, the event had to be suspended while they reformulated.

Solution: Keep the spread of the virus properly valued, paced and targeted.

Target, target, target. Again, viral marketing works best as a community-based event. Visitors should be spreading the word to friends that will be interested in the topic, not to everyone in the world.

How can you make sure your visitors properly target their word-of-mouth, when they may not even know what targeting means? The reward should be relevant to your market. The reward shouldn’t be so large that it motivates cheating or over-spread. The reward should have your message or brand all over it, so that everybody knows this is about you.

Some examples: CNET’s concept of giving away content lets users put tech news on their web sites, in exchange for a link to CNET. People who participate in the program will naturally place the stories in front of their visitors who care about industry news. It’s automatically targeted by the relevancy of the giveaway (free content).

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