I've written quite a few articles about building and launching a viral marketing campaign over the past couple of years. In general, I write about the brainstorming process or how to put your pitches together. In this new series, I'll be looking at the six key components that make people remember a message and therefore, make it more likely they'll pass it on.

(I've pulled these six components from Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick and put my own spin on them.)

The Need for Simplicity

The first component you'll need to look at when building a memorable viral campaign is simplicity. We may sit around and shake our heads at videos of laughing babies or the eleventy billionth video of a guy getting hit in the head, but we pass these videos on for a reason. It's because they are simple.

If you think about the concepts that really stick in your head, it's the simple ones. We remember the catchy little jingles like "plop, plop, fizz, fizz oh what a relief it is" because they're simple. It's the entire reason tag lines and jingles were invented.

Finding the Core of Your Idea

A message can't spread if it can't be remembered. That means the absolute first step to creating a viral idea is to create an idea that's simple enough to be digested and recalled. To do this, you need to dig down to the very core of your idea or offering.

A great example of relying on simplicity to build your viral message is Office Max's latest back to school viral series. A company like Office Max has quite a few things they could focus on for back to school shopping...

  • Low prices
  • Online shopping
  • Pre-packaged school supplies by grade
  • Huge inventory
  • Free shipping
  • a million other things...

When it came time to create a viral message though, it was important for the Office Max team to focus in on one key selling point. In the realm of viral videos, funny seems to play well... With the economy the way it is, cheap also plays well. With that in mind, they put together an outstanding series of videos to promote a series of loss leaders they're selling for a penny a piece.

The series, called "Penny Pranks" follows a fellow around the streets of New York as he finds out what he can buy with only pennies. He attempts to buy everything from a street vendor hot dog to a diamond ring and a used car. The videos are entertaining, especially since some include the person accepting the pennies and some show them pitching a fit.

Here's my favorite:

Each Marketing Message Should Push Only One Selling Point

At one point in the book, the Chip and Dan bring up an excellent quote by Frenchman Antoine de Saint-Exupery that explains the "perfect" simplistic design.

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

When it comes to building your viral message, you need to think carefully about the one key point you want to get across. If you're looking over your ideas while brainstorming and realizing you're trying to fit too many selling points into the mix, back up, pick your favorite and try again.

In part two, I'll take a look at the concept of embracing the unexpected.

October 22, 2008

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.


The penny idea is funny and reminds me of an episode 20 years ago when I tried to pay for a domino's pizza with pennies and nickels shoved in a sock. Needless to say, the delivery man was not happy. Money's.. money right? Apparently not when it weighs 8 pounds. While these ideas are funny, I think it is tough for the average "joe the plumber" to penetrate the market like Office Max or the other giant companies with a team readily availble.

Jennifer - Where would you recommend to help get the word out? Digg? Twitter?


It really depends on what you're looking to accomplish, and where your audience is. You really need to be out there listening and watching to see where your target market is already spending time and then find a way to join the conversation. That may mean Digg, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook or some place you've never even heard of.

In other words, there is no single answer I can give you on that one.

Excellent article on viral marketing. Most owners just don't understand viral marketing or how to implement it.

Probably the biggest mistake I see business owners make when using viral marketing is where they place the Send To A Friend form.

I have seen some owners place this form on their landing page. That is a big mistake. Why would you ask someone to refer a friend to your product when they haven't even tried it yet?

Some owners place this form on their download page which is a mistake. All your new customer wants is to download your offer to fix their current problem. They don't want to spend any extra time doing anything else but consuming what they just bought.

The ideal placement of the viral Send To A Friend form is on the return URL that you put into Paypal, also known as the "success" or "thank you for ordering" web page. But you can't just slap it there, here's a marketing trick that will increase the use of your form 50% or more.

Put in a time delay on when you deliver the customer the product they just purchased if it is digital in nature. For example let's say you email your customers a link to download what they just purchased. On the "thank you for ordering" web page add something like, "You will receive an email that contains the URL to download xxxxx within 20 minutes." Immediately under this message, place your Send To A Friend form. It is amazing how well this works. The psychology of why it works is that you are forcing a time-out on your customer. Your customer can go take a smoke break, grab a bite to eat, or fill out your Send To A Friend form while she waits for her email to arrive.

Complexity is the enemy of viral marketing. Always strive to present only one option for your customer to take at every step in the sales and viral marketing process. In the case above, she has already purchased, there is nothing more for her to do but wait 20 minutes for her email to arrive. You present her with only one option while she waits, to fill out your viral Send To A Friend form.

you are correct. Big companies with big ad budgets do hit you over the head (over & over & over) in order to get their message across. Are you not sick of getting hit over the head? Most consumers are.
We are rebelling, we are taking back control of where we shop & why we shop there. Because of the internet, one guy in a small sleepy town can make a difference in thousands of peoples buying decisions. What kind of ad dollars can do that?

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Six Keys to a Viral Message that Sticks - Part One