Two of the most popular buzz words in the online marketing realm right now are link baiting and viral marketing. These two tactics are a great way to build links and to build branding when constrained by small marketing budgets, but there are several things you need to remember when planning these types of campaigns.

In this ten part series, I'll be covering many of the things that you need to take into consideration when planning a link baiting or viral marketing campaign. While there's no need to integrate all of them into every campaign, understanding what they are and how they work can go a long way toward helping you plan an effective launch strategy.

To recap:

Today we'll take a look at marketing the unexpected. The concept ties in closely to having the ability to act quickly but expands on it by making sure that businesses gain the ability to recognize the marketing ideas that fall into their laps. It might be a great piece of PR or a unique spin on your product use presented by a customer. It might even be a crisis that you find a way to creatively resolve. No matter what, it's based in building the knowledge to know what will "take" and how to spin it to your advantage.

With that in mind, let's look at two examples.

Healthy Choice

What if I told you that thanks to Healthy Choice, you could get 31 round trip tickets to Europe for just $70 each? Would you tell your friends? Do you think they'd tell their friends? Would you realize that you had a viral campaign in the making? The folks at Healthy Choice did and while they didn't necessary push it, they were smart enough not to crush it either.

First, let me back up a moment and explain the situation. Back in 1999, Healthy Choice announced a promotion that allowed consumers to trade UPC labels for frequent flier miles. A California professor named David Phillips did the math while shopping one day and realized that the monetary value of the miles being offered exceeded the cost of the Healthy Choice frozen entrees at his local supermarket. Shortly after he began buying the frozen meals, he noticed individual servings of Healthy Choice pudding for 25 cents each.

After visiting 10 grocery stores and convincing a few to order even more pudding for him, Phillips ended up with 12,150 servings of pudding. His total cost? $3,140. His total miles earned? More than 1.2 million. Those miles were enough to earn him lifetime platinum status (free upgrades) and enough miles for 31 round-trip tickets to Europe, 42 trips to Hawaii or 50 trips within the United States. Interestingly, he also donated most of the pudding to a local food bank and ended up being able to write $815 off of his taxes.

The surprising thing isn't just that someone figured out how to work the system to their advantage, it's that Healthy Choice didn't work to find some type of loop hole that would allow them to escape their obligation. Because Healthy Choice followed through, the story made international news, was passed around online so much that it's had to be listed as "true" on various urban legend reference sites and even became the basis for a story line in the movie Punch Drunk Love.

Now if Healthy Choice had been properly schooled in viral marketing, they likely would have gone even further in promoting this. Had this happened in 2007 rather than in 1999, we might have seen Healthy Choice partner with Phillips to launch the "Pudding Travel Blog" so that Phillips could blog about all of the trips he and his family have taken thanks to all those 25 cent packs of pudding.

The Lactivist

Regular Search Engine Guide readers won't be surprised to see this story offered up as an example of jumping on an opportunity. After all, it was only a few months ago that I found myself embroiled in a potential lawsuit from the National Pork Board over a t-shirt that I offered for sale on my hobby site that raises awareness for breast milk banking.

In fact, the story is a prime example of marketing something that falls into your lap. While the Lactivist had been up and running for more than a year and was steadily building both traffic and sales, it was slow going. After all, you can't get much more niche than a blog aimed at breastfeeding moms.

But when I received a cease and desist letter from the National Pork Board threatening a law suit over a shirt reading "The Other White Milk," I knew I'd struck viral gold. After all, the story was a match built in social media heaven. We had a classic David (work at home mommy blogger) and Goliath (quasi-government agency) match, a cease and desist letter that typified overzealous lawyers and a centralized topic of pork and breasts. You just can't set up a better viral blogging story than that.

So after making a few phone calls to some lawyers to see how strong my case was, I decided to play off the incident as a social media marketing experiment. I wrote up a blog post that explained what was happening, included a PDF download of the cease and desist letter and offered up the contact information for the NPB's board of directors. I then sent out a call for help via email, discussion forums and blogs.

Within three days, I'd had as much traffic as I'd normally see in three months and the pork board was issuing official apologies and the offer of a donation to the charity of my choice. The site went on to gain more than 1500 links in less than a week and to sell ten times more t-shirts than a normal month. The traffic spike did let off, but it was gradual and many of the sites that first began linking to me during the pork fiasco have gone on to send even more traffic as I broke future stories.

All in all, the quick reaction to an unexpected incident became a viral boom that is still showing trickle down effects in terms of the success of the blog.

Keep Your Eyes Peeled

While not every company has the chance to jump on a crazy lawsuit or an innovative customer to launch a viral campaign, nearly every business passes up marketing opportunities simply because they don't know how to spot (or spin) them. Whether it's making better use of customer testimonials or offering up a creative discount in response to seasonal shifts, every business is overlooking opportunities to better market themselves online.

In part ten, the last installment in this series I'll look at the idea of capitalizing off of your competitor's failures. After all, the only thing better than free marketing is free marketing that makes you look better than the competition.

May 21, 2007

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.


There is no question that link baiting and the use of "trackbacks" are two of the most popular ways to go viral!

John from antivirus 2009 removal

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Making Link Bait and Viral Marketing Work - Part Nine