Viral Marketing

Presented by Jennifer Laycock

How to create ideas that spread. Viral marketing is content designed to build buzz. People distrust ads, they trust friends. Interestingly, as Jennifer explained in yesterday's presentation, they also trust strangers. And the web connects us.

In traditional advertising, the more successful you become, the more money you have to spend. The nice thing about viral is that it allows you to "ride the wave" with less out of pocket money. Viral isn't necessarily cheap, though -- the basic idea is anything that spreads beyond the channel you pay for (so you get more bang for whatever buck you spend). The idea is not so much to spend no money as it is to spend less "per eyeball" than you would spend through traditional advertising.

That's not to say you do this and drop your traditional marketing/advertising, but consider this a supplement.

Benefit of viral marketing: customer reaction: increased credibility because it's people's friends passing the word along; people feel important because they're the one spreading the word; gives people a reason to talk about your product.

Four Rules of Viral Marketing

  1. Thou shalt know your customer. If you don't know your customers, how can you create something they'll find interesting?
  2. Thou shalt be remarkable. Viral isn't this magic switch you click and things spread. What you create has to be attention-worthy.
  3. Thou shalt try, try again. Just because one campaign doesn't take off the way you want, this doesn't mean you should give up on viral. Only around one in fifteen viral campaigns will be successful. In any case, you get data you can learn from and use to refine your approach next time.
  4. Thou shalt tie in your message. Sometimes you see something go viral when it really doesn't have anything to do with what the company is about. Example: Subservient Chicken (for Burger King) -- did it really sell more sandwiches? Versus "Will it Blend?" for Blendtec.

Questions to ask:

  • What sparks passion? People aren't going to pass along ho-hum stuff.
  • What hasn't been done before? If it's been done before, it doesn't need to be done again.
  • Will they risk their reputation? Will your customers be willing to pass this along?

Keep your eyes peeled. It's not necessarily about coming up with something yourself, but about being aware of ideas that fall into your lap. Subway didn't go looking for Jared... a local store manager saw an article in a campus newspaper and took it to corporate.

Communication is key. Make sure what you're saying is clear to your audience. Essential to have someone outside your company test your ideas to ensure they can understand it.

Key things to maximize chances of success

  • Embrace simplicity. Viral is not about a million selling points, it's about getting one simple idea across. For instance, Office Max launched a video campaign with a guy who tried to pay for everything with pennies to promote the idea of their one-cent items for back to school. "Go back to school for pennies." They picked one thing and focused on that. Simple and easy to remember. Great campaign because it didn't try to push too many things at once.
  • Deliver the unexpected. Example: VW's "Safe Happens" campaign. Unexpected can be dangerous, because if what you deliver is too shocking, you can leave a bad taste in people's mouths. VW got flack for their campaign because it frightened some people, but it led to a huge increase in dealership walk-ins and a 17% sales increase -- it demonstrated (in a way that was fairly shocking) how safe their cars are. Unexpected because usually auto manufacturers only show car wrecks in labs with crash test dummies, not real people driving down the street. Viral isn't necessarily funny. You have to go with something that fits you and your business.
  • Be concrete in your message. Boil your message down to a specific image or action that most people can identify with. Saying you give good customer service, or you're &lduo;speedy" is too vague. Need to offer specific examples of good service or speedy response.
  • Carry credibility within your message. Difficult, because you're the marketer (so of course you're going to say your product is great). Trick is to establish credibility outside of yourself. Example: Duracell ad campaign showing all the people who use Duracell batteries (defibrillators, IMAX camera in space, etc.) to show how other people trust their batteries. Think how you can adapt this to your business.
  • Tap into emotions. A study of the "save the children" campaigns showed that when they sent out a letter talking about the overall situation, they'd get an average donation of $1.14 per letter sent versus $2.38 when they focused on an individual child who needs help. They tapped into emotions. Interestingly, when they sent the facts-and-stats letter to people first and then sent the emotional response, donations were 50% less. Once brain goes into analytical mode, it's hard to get them back. Go straight for emotional response.
  • Tell a story. Example: Nationwide's "life comes at you fast" campaign. Hard because they don't want people thinking about negative emotions, so instead they've come up with over-the-top situations (that have a humorous element). By telling stories, they get people involved.

A word of warning: consider scalability. People want viral to take off, but they don't always think through the consequences if it does. For instance, what if you make the front page of Digg and your server crashes, or if everybody's crazy for your product but they can't get it because your inventory has been wiped out? By the time you recover, people will likely have moved on.

If you can't provide a nearly unlimited amount of whatever it is you're giving away or promoting, don't do it. For instance, Starbucks coupons that got canceled because they'd been spread "too much" -- so Caribou stepped in and said they'd honor them. What should have been a campaign for Starbucks ended up benefitting Caribou because Starbucks wasn't prepared for success.

Identifying influencers: how many RSS subscribers, how many Twitter followers, how many social media friends, how many comments do they get on posts, do they have an email list? You want to identify influencers because they can help you spread viral campaigns.

In our everyday world, we influence on average about eight to 12 people, with dozens or hundreds of secondary people (i.e. the people your eight to 12 talk to). It works in a similar way online. You need to know where your customers hang out so you can judge who influences in that particular community. Who the real influencers are might not be who you think. Sometimes it's better to go after people who are friends with the "big fish." Everybody goes after the big fish, but if you approach one of their lesser-known friends (who doesn't get approached that often), this could be a "back door" road to credibility with the big influencer.

Pitching checklist

  • Read at least five posts on their site to determine if your pitch is on-topic for them.
  • Comment on one or two of their posts, preferably ahead of time. Good way to "introduce" yourself to them.
  • Write at least two sentences in your pitch email that are unique to the person you're writing. Much more effective than canned cut-and-paste.
  • Have someone else read your email before you send it to make sure you've struck the right tone and covered all the important points.
  • Contact the blogger to share feedback on their site -- before you pitch.
  • Keep track of which sites you plan to pitch.
  • Make sure your pitch addresses the person by name.
  • Use the right email address (not generic "webmaster@").
  • Send individual emails. No mass mailing.
  • Be transparent. Don't pretend you're a customer if you really work for the company.
  • Spell check.
  • Familiarize yourself with their readers.
  • Make sure pitch is relevant to their readers. Be honest with yourself about this.
  • Check their policy about accepting pitches, and follow it. Typically, if they post policies, you need to follow their policies to the letter.
  • Let them know if you're pitching multiple authors at the same site.

Brainstorming the idea

Examples of the kinds of questions to ask yourself:

  • What do customers like about you?
  • What do customers not like about you?
  • What is your biggest challenge?
  • What sparks online conversations?
  • What type of site sends the best visitors?
  • What motivates your customer base?
  • What do you wish people said about you?
  • Can you create or embrace controversy?
  • Do you have an interesting story?
  • Can you do something outrageous or hilarious?
  • Can you create a news or holiday tie-in?

Jenn went through an example of how they used this process for marketing the Small Business Marketing Unleashed conferences.

Answer these questions. But don't just answer them yourself... get your staff, family members, best friends, etc. to answer them on their own, then combine the answers to get the overall picture.

Then decide which of these things you're going to use as part of your campaign. Which of them applies to what you're trying to promote?

Take stock of your skills and available resources. So for instance, do you have the stuff you need to create and edit videos, Flash games, widgets, etc.? Do you have a humorist or skilled researcher on staff? Do you have an email list? Can you tie in to the community or partner with a non-profit? This gives you a starting point for getting the word out there.

You need to understand your ROI and where your break-even point is. You need a budget before you plan your idea. No point in coming up with insanely great ideas you can't afford.

When it comes to launching the campaign, you need to do the same sort of analysis. Determine what contacts, influencers and resources you have at your disposal. Ahead of time, make new contacts.

Then, when you have all this information at hand, it's a matter of figuring out the details. Make sure the campaign matches the message. Example: budget for the first SBMU conference video was less than $150, which was appropriate for marketing a conference aimed at small businesses wanting to learn how to market on a budget.

Jenn then pitched it to bloggers using the guidelines mentioned above.

The result? Thirty percent of attendees were influenced by the video. The campaign didn't go viral to the extent it made Letterman or anything like that, but it did go viral for them. In other words, degree of success is measured by your own goals. You don't need to get zillions of page views to have a successful campaign.

Questions and Discussion

Suggestion from audience member: check Craigslist or elsewhere for video artists, actors, etc. who might be trying to build their portfolio. They might be willing to work free or at very low cost for the exposure.

Question: Is there any data on how many influencers you need for a sustainable campaign, or what the spread rate will be?

Answer: Will vary for different businesses and campaigns. Need to track for yourself. Goes back to the idea of "try, try again". Might not work the first time around, but keep at it and you'll figure out what you need for your specific business.


September 23, 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 www.NineYards.com.






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