Perhaps the biggest misconception about viral marketing is that it's a style of pushing your message. Companies convince themselves it's like launching a blog or running a paid search's simply something you decide to do. With that in mind, companies set out to create a viral campaign, set it loose and then sit back and ask themselves why nothing seems to be happening.

In this three part series I'll dig beyond the hype of Viral Marketing and look at three key lessons companies need to learn before diving into this style of outreach.

Today's post serves as a reminder that any viral campaign not rooted firmly in the commandment to "know thy customer" is intrinsically flawed. After all, viral relies on passion points to spark action on the part of your target audience. You can't trigger passion points if you don't know your audience...and sadly, most companies don't.

Viral Marketing is About Communication

While it's true that viral marketing is a form of marketing, companies that want the best chance of having their viral efforts take off really need to view it more as a style of communicating. They need to think about the best way to deliver a message in a language someone else will understand.

This can be more complicated than you might think. After all, how many times have you seen an ad or a TV commercial and found yourself wondering what in the world the company was trying to tell you. What seems crystal clear to us sometimes comes across completely differently to our customers.

madgab.jpgAnyone who has ever played the game Mad Gab has experienced this challenge first hand. In fact, playing Mad Gab should probably be a requirement at all viral marketing brainstorming meetings, just to get across how common it is for messages to be heard in different ways.

Imagine a player reading the following phrase out loud over and over again:

"These If Hill Wore"

In a matter of minutes, most of the people listening will figure out he's actually saying "The Civil War" but it may take awhile for the reader to get it.

Same message, viewed in two completely different ways.

Which is what tends to happen to companies who get so caught up in their message, they lose the ability to see it from an outside perspective.

You Can't Communicate if You Don't Know What They Want

Of course the second challenge is in figuring out what the message should even be in the first place. After all, if the message doesn't resonate with your audience, it's far less likely to be understood, let alone embraced and shared. One of the biggest mistakes companies make is putting a focus on the message they want to push instead of considering the message their customers want to hear.

Viral campaigns work best when they're developed to address or solve a problem being faced by customers.

Take a look at the recent shift in automotive advertisements. American car maker General Moters has long relied on the stereotypical car commercial touting new design features, crash test ratings and emotional reactions to American landscape and families. In the past year, GM has made a focused shift in their advertising to reflect the desires of their customer base.

What are those desires? Better fuel mileage and lower prices at the pump.

General Motors knows they don't have cars that get the best mileage in their class; after all GM isn't exactly known for the fuel efficiency. That said, they knew what their customers were looking to hear and they build their "Gas Pumps Hate Us" viral enabled campaign based on their needs.

Of course it's easy enough for a car manufacturer to recognize the new (and intense) focus on fuel economy. It's not always so easy for you to spot those changes in interest from your business. This is why it's so essential to identify the places where your customer base gathers to talk and to find out what their interests and frustrations are.

You Can't Know What They Want if You Don't Listen

A few years back, the popular toy and wagon maker Step2 had a limited run of a product called the "Choo Choo Wagon." Because the product didn't sell well, they pulled it from the market when the first batch of wagons ran out.

choochoo.jpgThen a small segment of their audience went nuts. You see, the Choo Choo Wagon was made up of two to three separate "cars" all strung together like a series of trailers. That made it incredibly popular with parents of multiples. In fact if you read review sites like Buzzillions and Epinions, you'll sense the overwhelming love affair parents of triplets have with the Choo Choo Wagon.

Step2 listened. In fact, they issued a press release two years ago announcing the return of the Choo Choo Wagon to the Step2 line up. The response was overwhelming and each time Step2 does a "limited release" of their next batch of Choo Choo Wagons, they generate plenty of word of mouth buzz among the blogs and forums of triplet parents.

Had Step2 simply focused on sales, the Choo Choo Wagon would have been an easy cut to make. Thankfully, the team at Step2 looked beyond the bottom line and listened to the word on the streets. By keeping tabs on the buzz around Step2, they were able to see a niche they could fill. Sure it's a small product line, but the goodwill generated by the return of the Choo Choo Wagon has likely paid off nicely in terms of add on orders and brand building.

Coming up...

Figuring out what message your audience wants to hear is simply a step in the right direction. An essential step...but one that requires you to finish the journey. In part two of this series, I'll look at the need for your company, your products and even your campaign to be remarkable.

August 25, 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.


hi i have a query, it would be great if you could help me with it. while it is the unwritten rule to know the customer hoiw does one identify them. see web is a boundless medium, where it is next to impossible to identify who to talk to and more importantly how does one find and identify the target audience. I mean what steps should one ideally follow to help find a group / audience to talk to. Thanks

As always, Jennifer, utterly informative and without fail, you had my eyes glued to the screen. I read a number of blogs and articles related to various aspects of Marketing. But, with yours I am never bored or find the need to skim the piece. :)

And I always come out a winner because I learn more and more from you. Thank you.

Wow, thanks Lisa! You made my morning.:)

This is an extension of what I learned at the 1st Small Business Marketing Unleashed hosted by these guys. The reason I went was to gain some understanding about Viral Marketing. I was so far left of center it wasn't even funny. I got a completely new correct view of how this works. You can NOT connect and sell at the same time. Viral marketing is more of an emotion than a pitch or anything I have seen yet. If you engage your community, and they find you engaging, then if you have something of value or interest, they will engage on their terms not yours. This target is moving so fast right now I am headed back to the next Small Business Marketing Unleashed next month to get the next best information. Thanks Matt - Wendy - Sage and of course Jennifer for the much needed course change..I coming back for more

Jennifer, thank you for using the Choo Choo Wagon example in your post. It's a great product. This is one of those instances where the niche is small, but the online social network created an audience large enough to allow us to produce it at an affordable price. This could not have happened offline -- the Internet brought people together with similar needs and created a market. It doesn't always work out this way, but it's a fantastic win-win when it does.

Sam, thanks! (and looking forward to seeing you again next month!)

Rob, you're welcome. I remember speaking with Matt Bailey a year or two ago and him telling me this story. I absolutely love the example of how A) a niche market mobilized on line to demand a product they needed and B) how a major company took the time to listen and respond to them.

Kudos to Step2 for the way you handled the situation.

"They need to think about the best way to deliver a message in a language someone else will understand"

Yah, NEVER speak or communicate to your target audiences using jargon guys. Keep it simple and direct to the point, appealing and that even a toddler can understand. A lot of hard work I know, but just do what it takes people. :-) Well, you can use jargon for those selected target audience of course, but not in a general way.. Good Article!

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > The First Commandment of Viral Marketing - Thou Shalt Know Thy Customer