For several years now I've been harping on the idea that the best way to build links in a search marketing campaign is to stop requesting them and to start earning them. While many within the search marketing industry have been pushing this philosophy for quite some time, it's only been the last year or so that folks have started giving that concept a name: viral marketing.

Search Engine Guide readers that followed my 30 day marketing experiment will remember that viral marketing not only played a huge role in quickly building incoming links to the Lactivist site, but also in driving traffic and sales. By putting together a buzz-worthy product that naturally attracted attention, I was able to spend time working on my business instead of trying to build links to it.

A new article published today in the New York Times covers this topic on a broader level by talking about the shift in focus from traditional forms of advertising toward building "brand evangelists." Think of a brand evangelist as the offline version of someone blogging about your product, or posting a link to it in a forum. Brand evangelists talk up your product lines at cocktail parties or recommend your services to a friend while watching their kids' soccer game.

The article, though it focuses on offline viral and buzz marketing, is still interesting to the search marketing realm for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that much of what we are working on when we talk about earning natural incoming links can be translated into the offline world. Sure, it's important to use online viral marketing to build links to your web site, but it's just as important for those same individuals to tell their friends about you when they're away from the blogging or forums environment. Secondly, it gives some added credibility to the idea that creating a buzz-worthy product and getting the right people to talk about it can be one of the most cost-effective forms of advertising for small business owners on a tight budget.

The article also features a great quote that really cuts to the quick of why viral marketing is such an important tactic:

"People engage in word of mouth because they want to look good," said George Silverman, the author of "The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing." "Word of mouth is the most honest advertising medium there is. People don't want to hurt their friends and family and colleagues with bad information."

Think about the last time that a friend told you about a great movie that they saw over the weekend, or how much they loved a new restaurant that just opened up. On the other hand, think about the time that your brother or sister told you about the nightmare of a vacation that they had while staying at a certain hotel or motel and how you pledged to avoid it like the plague. Online viral marketing works the same way, though the results are much easier to track. The publisher of a book can easily track that incoming link from a popular blog to find that a single blog post resulted in a dozen book sales.

Viral marketing campaigns both online and off are especially important to small businesses and start-ups because they usually cost almost nothing. The real investment in getting a viral marketing campaign going is the time and effort that it takes to build a product worth talking about. That means that the small businesses that have more creativity than marketing dollars can still find themselves turning a nice profit thanks to a healthy influx of referred customers.

What this all really boils down to is a staunch reminder that if you spend your time and effort creating a really good product, both the search engines and your customers will like you. Yes you need to spend time making sure that your site is indexable by the search engines and some keyword research and copy editing also tends to pay off, but the reality continues to be that search engines are simply trying to deliver the best quality site to a searcher. Make sure that you are building that site and that you are offering those products and both search engines and shoppers will find their way to your door.

It's funny when you think about it... Ralph Waldo Emerson died more than one hundred years ago, but he still understood viral marketing. That's why he left us with this famous quote:

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

January 23, 2006

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.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Why Viral Marketing Is Essential To Low-Cost Search Marketing