How to create ideas that spread

It's about creativity.

What is viral marketing?

Content designed to build buzz: you don't have to spend a ton of money to get placement. It can be really cheap. The cost is in the idea, not the promotion. Other people do your promotion/placement for you.

Why does it work?

  1. People distrust ads
  2. People trust friends
  3. People trust strangers (online — they can build credibility via blogging, YouTube, website, etc.)

The cost is in the idea

The challenge is in coming up with an idea worth talking about.

Viral content creates brand evagelists. You give people a reason to talk about your product. They get a sense of importance. Having them talk about your product for you increases your credibility — it's not just advertising.

Driven by passions — people are sharing

  1. 89% share by email
  2. 24% share business or personal finance info (so viral is not just B2C; can be B2B, too)
  3. 63% share content at least once a week
  4. 25% share daily
  5. Only 5% won't share at all


Lack of Brand/Growth Control: Sometimes what takes off isn't what you think will. You have a hard time controlling it once it gets out there “in the wild.” It can go out of control and you need to be prepared and ready to accept that.

Measurement challenges: You need to know what you intend for the viral content to do. Burger King “subservient chicken”. Took some heat from traditional marketers because they didn't see how it was going to sell more chicken (it didn't even mention the BK name, and for the first couple of weeks, nobody knew it was BK behind it). But it wasn't about selling chicken, but awareness. They wanted to get their name in front of college age people who weren't thinking of BK. As it happened, though, in the end their market share in that age range went up, 9% sales increase each week.

Creating the idea

  1. What are your customers passionate about?
  2. What hasn't been done?
  3. Will your audience risk their reputation to spread it?

The flow of conversation

When you look at daily blog posting volume on Technorati and compare it against major news events, you can see spikes and dips that correllate to what's going on in the world. You can see the things that make people say “I need to get out there and share my thoughts.”

What gets people talking is things that impact them, not just cheaper price or shiny new color.


  • Need an eye-catching title. You have to catch their attention quickly. The presentation will make a dramatic difference in whether people even click on it, much less forward it on.
  • Make it spreadable. The less work it is for them to spread it, the more likely they are to spread. Give them explicit link(s) to pass the information on. Offer them a reward. (Example: CafePress — tell five friends, they each get a $5 off coupon, and you get one too).
  • Exploit motivators. Example: “Invitation Only” to build exclusivity. By making GMail “invitation only” in the early days, the invites became more desirable. Google also asked people to donate their invites to “GMail for the troops.” Another idea: give select people a “sneak peak” — you can get their feedback, and it builds word of mouth before you even launch.
  • Leverage existing networks. Most people have 8-12 immediate influencers in Real Life. Dozens, hundreds of secondary influencers. So reach out to key influencers. Find out where they are (email lists, discussion forums, topical blogs, etc.).
  • Get ad space without buying an ad. Example: widgets. These are small programs that can sit on your blog or your website and offer neat functionality — things like “recent visitors” from MyBlogLog or display of “my most recent photos” from Flickr. People can click on these widgets to check out the community/site behind the widget. Another example: quizzes. People take your quiz, fill out some answers and get a badge they can put on their blog/website (“What percent evil genius are you?”)
  • Be prepared for rapid growth. It may not happen — you don't have to have immense traffic to have a successful viral campaign. But sometimes it does happen, and it's hard to predict when it will. You don't want your server crashing, you don't want to run out of free samples (or be stuck giving away so many free samples you can't stay in business). It's far worse to back out of a campaign (example: Starbucks discount coupons. Caribou Coffee stepped in and got a ton of great press when Starbucks discontinued campaign, all because Starbucks wasn't prepared for campaign to go viral.)

Types of campaigns

There's no set way of doing it. Different ideas will work for different companies/products/etc.

  • Humor: Probably the most common type. Pros: often can spread quickly and leaves a positive association with your brand. Cons: tough sell to the executive crowd; there is the potential to offend; doesn't always fit with your brand.
  • Breaking news: Pros: establishes credibility, doesn't require a ton of creativity. Cons: can take a lot of time (don't always have breaking news happening when you need it), may not fit with your brand.
  • Debate: Must offer a friendly challenge. Pros: done right, it can gain respect from people who disagree with you; gain links from those who find conversation intriguing whether they agree with you or not. Cons: you have issued a challenge and you don't know for sure what the response will be.
  • Attack: DO NOT DO THIS. Jenn has only seen one company that made this work (Apple with their “I'm a PC/I'm a Mac” campaign). Pro: can get alot of attention. Con: attention may not be good. The reason the Apple ads work is because it works with humor, walks the fine line by attacking but in a nice way. They also made different versions of the ad with different people/messages in each country/culture where they run the campaign. It's a very very tricky thing to pull off.
  • Be a resource: It works because you educate and inform. Pros: you become a recognized expert; high visitor return rate. Cons: you need excellent writing skills, and it's very time consuming. Example: Search Engine Guide. This is the kind of thing they do every day. Great deal of growth via word of mouth.
  • Fear: Have to be careful — not as dangerous as an attack campaign, but still carries risks. Fear is a motivator, though. Pros: solve the fear and you win; people will want to know more. Cons: if you don't deliver on the solution, you're in trouble.
  • Freebies: This is the one most people think of. Pros: everyone likes free stuff; gives people a chance to try your brand. Creates brand evangelists. Cons: impacts your bottom line — there is a cost associated with giving away free stuff. Idea: send freebies to “key influencers” instead of giving away to the world. Example of Stormhoek winery giving away 100 bottles of wine to key bloggers (as mentioned by Mack Collier in his Blogging for Business presentation yesterday).
  • Ego: To make it work, make it personal. Pros: if done right, scores big links. Cons: do too much and it loses effect; suck up too much and it sounds phony. Example: Dove “Real Women” campaign — their “Evolution” video on YouTube showing all the Photoshopping done on a model's photo before she appears on a billboard. Became one of the most watched videos on YouTube. Appeals to women who might have felt inadequate compared to models: basially says we think you're beautiful without all this Photoshopping. Appeals to ego. What's also great about it is that it sparks parodies, which reach audiences who would not have seen the original.

Planting the seeds

So, how do you get the word out?

  • Email: tap your existing resources, send out to a few and let them spread.
  • Search Engines: use them to find sites related to your topic. Search for a competitor and check their backlinks and get your content in front of those who are linking.
  • Blog search: Use blog engines to find topically appropriate blogs. Technorati is a good resource with a lot of good information about the blogs listed there. RSS subscribers, Facebook/Twitter friends, email list, etc.

Number one rule of pitching a blogger: read their blog (and the comments from their readers). You don't have to read the whole thing all the way back through their archives, but you do need to read enough to be familiar with their topic/style. If you don't pitch them well, they may well let the world know about it. No pestering, follow pitch guidelines they may have posted, use real language (not PR-jargon, buzzwords, etc.), develop a friendship before you pitch them (follow them on Twitter, comment on their blog, etc.), don't send out a mass e-mail with no personalization, don't try to pretend you're somebody you're not (be transparent if you make/sell the product — don't try to pretent you're just a happy user). It's a respect issue.

A Practical How-To

Jenn then covered the thought processes behind the video campaign they created for the Small Business Marketing Unleashed conference, showing the detailed steps they went through to brainstorm and develop the idea.

Main things to think about when planning a viral campaign:

  • What do customers like about you?
  • What do customers not like about you?
  • What is your biggest challenge?
  • What sparks online conversation?
  • What kind of site sends the best visitors?
  • What motivates your customers base?
  • What do you wish people said about you?
  • Can you create/embrace controversy?
  • Do you have an underlying story?
  • Are you connected to a news story?

Then take an assessment of your available resources, what you can do, what allies you have and what they might be able to do for you, what favors you can call in, etc.

Be sure you understand the costs of the different ideas you're considering.

This is where having those pre-existing relationships with key influencers comes into play. You need those in place before you launch campaign. SEG was able to get the word out much better/quicker because of their existing relationships.

April 22, 2008

Learn more about the ways Diane can help improve the performance and profitability of your business web site, or request a no-obligation personal consultation, by visiting


Terrific Article Diane

I couldn't have summarized Viral Marketing better! This is a briefing that I will site as recommended reading for all of our members.

Pat from

I like your post very much. You reflected complete Search Engine Marketing, in one Post. I like your way. You know I did the same in complete website, but still your blog is more powerful as it represents much more information. By the way I try to give the same info on.

This is the most concise and easy to understand viral marketing post I ever came across. It's a gem! Mucho kudos Diane :)

Very interesteing. We are learning all the time and have just stuck a toe in the water, so need to learn all I can.

Diane, Great template for what Viral Marketing is and should be. Great job.

Ken Varga

I am in love with this article....Gr8 article i ever seen.

I'll do this kind of marketing activity for my clients products.

Thanks to you all for your compliments -- the credit goes to Jennifer Laycock for putting on a terrific presentation at the conference!

Excellent recap on the workshop.

Great article.

My main problem is I'm building the Website for my husband's Wood Work and I don't have a clue!!!
Not much to say and too many photos!!!

I can't even find a simple HTML tell-a-friend script to put on the page.

I'm at my wit's end. If any one want to offer help, it would be greatly appreciated.


People do tend to distrust ads, but viral marketing can work against you too. People talk about your article, site, or whatever because they become passionate about it, you cant remain neutral in viral marketing, this means that while some may love you, others will hate you, you must be careful that this does not disfavor you because people will tell 3 others about you if they like you, and 11 others if they don't like you.

Look at this way, in viral marketing you are playing the role of shock jock, you will get tons of attention if done well, but don't be surprised when someone dedicates a hate group against you, case in point:

People do tend to distrust ads, but viral marketing can work against you too. People talk about your article, site, or whatever because they become passionate about it, you cant remain neutral in viral marketing, this means that while some may love you, others will hate you, you must be careful that this does not disfavor you because people will tell 3 others about you if they like you, and 11 others if they don't like you.

Look at this way, in viral marketing you are playing the role of shock jock, you will get tons of attention if done well, but don't be surprised when someone dedicates a hate group against you, case in point:

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Search Engine Guide > Diane Aull > Unleashed: Viral Marketing Workshop