I can't tell you how many times I've heard an old school marketer say viral marketing is just the fancy new name for word of mouth marketing. In their mind, the two work exactly the same way. The only difference is that word of mouth marketing takes place offline and viral marketing takes place online. They're wrong. I think they're wrong and Seth Godin thinks they're wrong.
When I teach viral marketing courses, I try to explain that viral marketing is similar to word of mouth marketing, but not the same. The phrase I often use is "Viral marketing is like word of mouth marketing on crack." What I mean by that is word of mouth has a limited scope based on how it's spread. Anyone who has ever played a game of telephone knows a message can change dramatically by the third of fourth time it's passed along verbally. This causes word of mouth to fizzle out fairly quickly.
There are exceptions of course...pop culture generally spreads via word of mouth. People convincing office mates to watch a great new TV show or to buy a new CD from a popular musical group is a great example of word of mouth. The reason this type of word of mouth can spread so far is because there are so many starting points. If 9 million people tune into a TV premier and just half of them convince three friends to tune in, more than 20 million people will end up watching the show.
Take word of mouth down to it's most basic levels and things simply don't spread as far.
Word of mouth is a decaying function. A marketer does something and a consumer tells five or ten friends. And that's it. It amplifies the marketing action and then fades, usually quickly. A lousy flight on United Airlines is word of mouth. A great meal at Momofuku is word of mouth.
His use of the phrase "decaying function" is a good one. If you think about it, a word of mouth campaign tends to get smaller with each iteration. One friend might tell five friends. Three of those friends might tell a friend. One of those might pass the word even further. Eventually (and quickly), the message dies out.
Viral is setup to work in a different way. Because viral is designed to spread through passion rather than simple conversation, it usually grows with each iteration.
Viral marketing is a compounding function. A marketer does something and then a consumer tells five or ten people. Then they tell five or ten people. And it repeats. And grows and grows. Like a virus spreading through a population.
Why am I telling you this?
Because small businesses often tend to mix these two ideas up. They're used to word of mouth marketing, because it's a key component in the growth of most small businesses. Referrals and networking are often the catalyst that keeps small businesses running in the early days of operations when marketing budgets are next to non-existent.
When these businesses start investing in marketing, they often fail to understand the key difference between word of mouth and viral. They build a Flash video, send it to a few friends and colleagues and then ask themselves why it hasn't "gone viral." They film a video of their son or daughter telling folks to buy from the company, upload it to YouTube and watch as the view counter goes...no where.
Seth's explanation of viral verses word of mouth is essential because it underscores the most important requirements of a viral campaign.
1.) The viral idea is designed for your customers, not for your marketing department
This is probably the biggest mistake I see companies of all sizes making when it comes to viral marketing. Companies put together a standard advertising or marketing campaign and then call up a viral consultant with the request to "make" the campaign go viral.
What these companies fail to understand is the nature of the viral message. While it's possible to orchestrate a viral campaign, there's never a guarantee of success. (As opposed to something like email marketing where marketers can generally say "we generally have an x% response rate to this offer.") Viral marketing campaign development is more about taking the time to understand and research the passion points of a target audience than it is about crafting a careful message designed to get point x, y and z across.
2.) Your customers are willing to stake their own reputation on the message
When it comes to word of mouth marketing, consumers are generally just sharing their experience or opinion with some friends and family. A man tells his work buddies about the great florist who delivered a last minute bouquet to his wife on her birthday. A college student tells their classmates about the bar with the best kegs and eggs after the game. Word of mouth tends to happen through casual conversation and the message is often quickly forgotten.
With viral the goal is to make things a little more personal. There's a big difference between that man telling a few office mates about a florist and him making a dedicated blog post about a new web site. Since viral often happens on a larger scale through more varied levels of relationships, there's a stronger need for the spreader to feel confident in the message. A blogger who points their readers toward bad content or services won't retain a strong readership for long and the woman who forwards every email she's ever received quickly gets placed on "ignore" by friends and family.
The best viral campaigns tap into the passions and interests of consumers so that when they spread the message, they are viewed as trustworthy. Help consumers build up their reputation with friends, family and online acquaintances and they will reward you by spreading your message far and wide.
3.) The viral idea is easy to spread via email, blogs and discussion forums
Word of mouth fizzles quickly because it takes effort to spread the messages verbally. You have to have an actual conversation with someone for word of mouth to work. This is why the life span of a word of mouth campaign is short.
When it comes to viral ideas, there are tons of ways for the message to spread. Messages can spread by email, blog, discussion forum, social news service, podcast (the list goes on and on). Since each of these forms of communication is virtually unlimited in terms of reach, a viral campaign can easily expand with each iteration rather than shrinking.
4.) Your customers stand to benefit from passing the message along
Perhaps the easiest way to ensure the success of your viral campaign is to give people a stake in it's success. When people feel invested in things, they put far more time and energy into promoting them. Whether you appeal to people's ego by allowing them a "sneak peek" of a new service or you find a way to let them add their voice to the viral message, making sure people feel good about spreading your message is key.
Keep those four tips in mind as you contemplate your viral campaign and you'll be far more likely to create a solid idea. Viral marketing may have it's roots in word of mouth marketing, but the Internet has allowed it to grow into a powerful tool that can bring out the best in customer conversation. Take advantage of it by putting your focus on the customer.
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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.
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