I've written a lot about the thought process that goes into creating a viral marketing campaign. I've also written quite a bit about how to form your actual pitch when you get ready to seed the message. What I probably haven't focused on near enough is the need to understand the concept of interlocking gears and how it relates to viral marketing.

You Only Have to Turn One Gear

image of turning gearsIf you've ever played around with gears at a science museum or as part of a toy set, you're probably familiar with how they work. Gears are basically round cylinders with "teeth" around the edges. Interlock the teeth of the gears and when you start turning one, the other will turn as well.

The neat thing about gears is no matter how complex your layout of gears becomes, you only have to get one gear to turn to set the entire system into motion.

Viral marketing can often work the same way. Mainstream marketing relies on getting your message out in as many locations as possible in the hopes that a small percentage of the people who see that message will respond. This isn't really how it works with a good viral campaign.

It's true that the more launch points your campaign has, the more likely it is to succeed. (After all, the more gears you actively turn, the better the chance the system will keep working.) On the other hand, you don't HAVE to power every gear to make the system work.

You also don't have to turn every head to get your viral campaign to launch.

Understand the Power of a Gear

image of gearsOne of the things that has always struck me as interesting about viral marketing is the lack of balance when it comes to planning the "push." People tend to fall into one of two camps; they either try to seed it to everyone, or they think they don't have to mention it to anyone. Even the ones who do work on creating carefully selected pitch lists tend to focus on finding the ways to reach the "big" influencers.

After all, who doesn't want their viral campaign to take off thanks to an endorsement by a top tier blogger?

Of course it's short sighted to think this is the only way to succeed. Let's go back to the gear analogy again...ask yourself, which gear has to turn to make the rest of them turn.

The answer: any of them, so long as it's connected to at least one other gear.

And so it is in the world of viral marketing. Sure, turning the largest gear with the most connections may make everything start moving quickly and easily...but that's not the only way to get the job done. Even the smallest gear can set the entire system turning, it just might take more effort to turn it.

With that in mind, let's consider an alternate strategy.

It's Not the Size of the Gear, it's the Location

A few weeks back at SES San Jose, I was talking with a friend from a large company. He was talking about the need to build relationships with influential people in our industry and mentioned that his strategy is to focus on befriending the friends of the influencers.

I'd never thought of it in that way before, but it's brilliant. In fact, it goes back to the dating concept of "get their friends to like you and you're gold." It's also why tabloids never try to get information direct from the source, but instead pay off friends and employees to get the dirt.

image of a single gear class=The more "popular" someone is online in terms of reach, the more email they are likely to get. In fact, I've heard more and more people say they're getting absolutely brutal in their email screening. So what's a marketer to do when it comes time to pitch?

You could play off the plan of my friend.

How to Target One Gear by Focusing on Another

I've already pointed out that a gear of any size can cause the rest to turn. The key there was "as long as it's connected to at least one other gear."

When buzz over the "I Heart Zappos" took off across the web, it wasn't because Seth Godin launched it. It was because Seth Godin picked it up from a smaller, lesser known site.

That's a pattern that gets repeated over and over again online. There is no hierarchy of bloggers that says bloggers only read blogs that are more popular than their own. In fact, the best bloggers tend to read the broadest range of sites. If you've got a great idea and a small budget, you can use this to your advantage.

Spend some time reading the blog of the person you'd like to reach. Chances are, you'll notice a pattern in terms of smaller blogs they tend to link to or quote on a fairly regular basis. Then, focus on going after THAT blogger. Chances are, getting coverage from them will give you an even better shot at a pick-up than a direct pitch would have.


Because this type of indirect pitch uses the foundational principle of viral marketing to actually launch your viral marketing campaign. When a bigger blogger picks the story up from a trusted source, the story has credibility. When they pick it up from a smaller blogger, they still get the "ego" benefit of having been the first to share it with the masses. When they do the right thing and refer back to the original poster, they strengthen the relationship from both sides and make future interactions even more powerful.

September 10, 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.


Awesome post! It give me *allot* to think about.

I agree with Joe. Great post.

I recently did an interview on my site about how to build viral marketing. Let me know if you'd like to repost it here: http://blog.mixergy.com/viral-tools/

Great Article, I like how you used the visual aid of the interlocking gears. This is exactly what is necessary to promote a website, if you can take advantage of as many resources as possible, your chances of success are much higher.

Great post and concept. The gear thing works, but I don't think it's necessary. I love your ideas, keep posting.

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Turning the Gears in the Viral Machine