Viral marketing is one of the most difficult, yet cost effective methods of marketing available to the modern small business owner. That makes it a pretty tempting area to start digging into but many small businesses still find themselves wondering just how to start a viral campaign. As with many forms of online marketing, it's sometimes necessary to take a step back and realize that common sense is one of the most powerful weapons in your creative arsenal.

That's what has led to this three part series that focuses on taking the common sense tenets found in Dale Carnegie's best-seller "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and applying them to various forms of online marketing. In part one of this series I talked about how to apply Carnegie's tenets to link baiting and link building. Today, in part two, we'll be looking at how some of his tenets can be applied to viral marketing.

Viral Marketing

Almost any marketing site you visit these days is filled with inspiring stories of the creative little idea that sparked enormous increases in traffic and sales by spreading like wildfire across the Internet. With blogging, podcasting and social networking continuing to grow at staggering rates, viral marketing stands poised to continue to be one of the most explosive ways of driving traffic and sales to your web site without spending your way back out of the black.

With that in mind, it's important to realize that viral marketing is about more than coming up with a hysterical video file that can be passed from friend to friend via email. It's about understanding what it is that incites people to share their findings with others and using that knowledge to launch your own viral campaign. That's where some of Carnegie's common sense statements come into play.

Tenet #1: Talk in Terms of Other People's Interests

One of the key points to remember when you're coming up with and launching a viral campaign is that you have to be willing and able to find out what interests other people and that you must then play off of those interests. No blogger or forum poster out there wants to talk about you or your product just to help you make more money, they'll want to talk about you or your product because they find it to be interesting.

That's part of why the best viral marketing campaigns tend to be based around unique, innovative, or humorous offerings. People are interested in what's new and different and if you can find a way to spark those passions with your offering, chances will be much higher than your viral campaign will take off.

Tenet #2: Make the Other Person Feel Important

This tenet plays a huge role in the spread of any viral marketing campaign. Everyone loves to be the person showing up at the party with the best story or the most funniest joke that hasn't yet been heard. People also love to be the one to introduce their friends and acquaintances to things that those friends will love. Why? Because it makes the spreader of the idea look "cool."

Think back to the days when Gmail launched. Invitations to Gmail were so sought after that they were selling for up to $100 each on eBay. Why? Not because Gmail itself was so special, but because those in the tech industry wanted the prestige of having early access to a Gmail account. Those that got Gmail accounts then got to feel special by offering up the chance to be "cool, but a little less cool" to the next person in line.

Tenet #3: Appeal to Nobler Motives

Not every viral marketing campaign is based off the "cool" factor or the "funny" factor. Some ideas and campaigns spread because people feel passionate about the cause. Think of the emails that show up in your inbox every now and then asking you to send a card to little Billy Smith to help him get into the Guinness Book of World records before he dies of cancer. Sure, we all know that the email is likely a hoax, yet people keep passing it on because they want to feel like they are helping someone.

Viral campaigns sometimes spread well because they appeal to people's passions and ideas. Don't be afraid to launch a viral campaign that focuses around support for your favorite charity or for a special cause. There's certainly nothing wrong with being associated with helping others. Even if it doesn't directly impact sales, it can impact your public image.

Tenet #4: Frame Requests in Terms of What Other's Might Find Motivating

I'm pretty sure that Dale Carnegie never envisioned a world with the Internet and blogs, but this tenet delivers some pretty powerful advice when it comes to dealing with bloggers and viral marketing campaigns. Unlike traditional advertising, viral campaigns are not bought and paid for in order to gain placement. That means that you have to build a relationship with a blogger and plant the viral seeds in a way that gets them motivated.

Basically, you need to ask yourself "Why would this person do what I'm asking them to do?" If you don't have a good answer, chances are that your campaign needs a bit more tweaking.

Which leads to my own personal philosophy of viral marketing. Once again, we'll call it...Jen's Tenet.

Jen's Tenet: Ideas Spread Because They Are Important to the Spreader, NOT the Originator

This one really sums up all of the points made above and is probably the best single sentence of advice that I can come up with in terms of viral marketing success. Most people are not in the habit of going out and promoting companies just to be nice. That said, people as a whole DO tend to have the innate desire to pass on thoughts and ideas that are important to them.

That means that the most important part of creating any viral marketing campaign is taking a step back to look objectively at your campaign. If you can't come up with at least a few reasons that someone who has never met you before might want to spread the word, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

In the final article of this three-part series, I'll take a look at how some of Carnegie's bits of advice can be applied to the concept of online reputation management.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

July 14, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > How to Win Links and Influence People - Part 2