Viral Marketing – Impacting Established Brands

In a rapidly changing technological landscape, some high profile brands are facing the challenging decision of whether to embrace ‘viral’ marketing campaigns. As there can be no assurances with each viral project, executives do not have the ‘usual’ facts and figures to make a well-informed and substantiated decision.

By its very nature a viral project must be unlike anything that has been done before.

This means there is no formula, no statistics, nor guarantees. Results can only be proven retrospectively, by which time it can be too late for those results to have any more meaning than the knowledge that viral marketing works in principle. Even the most successful new media viral campaigns would likely not be able to generate anything like the same results if replicated by another company simply wanting to emulate that same success.

Viral marketing is in this way a high risk, high gain means of marketing. It is changing all the time and there are not really any experts that can accurately predict how the marketplace will respond. Fortunately the cost is not measured in financial terms, but only in the way the public perceives the brand. Get it right and a brand can become suddenly very prominent in secondary media articles and traditional media. Get it wrong and the brand’s reputation can be affected negatively. Sometimes this secondary (and free) publicity ends up impacting the campaign more than the viral content itself.

Large, slower moving corporations are being startled into responding to these changes as best they can. Smaller and more progressive companies are challenging the old stalwarts of business by using whatever viral means they can to establish greater market share.

Often the biggest and most well respected brands are not accustomed to this radical and non-traditional approach to marketing, having spent many years establishing an expensive, rigorously consistent and highly polished corporate identity. Their company identity may well have evolved over several decades. For such a company to consider the idea of diluting the brand into something generic, cheap, gossipy, comic, populist, or otherwise remarkable to the masses raises red flags and executive concerns. These executives naturally fear losing the consistency of their on-brand message, or the particular ‘look and feel’ of the brand as predetermined in their own internal corporate style guides.

Yet those corporations that are taking risks in the way they present their brand by embracing this viral trend are already observing great benefits, with lower costs and higher response rates from their target market. They are perceived by their target demographic as ‘cool’, ‘hip’, ‘cutting edge’, and ‘in touch’ with a changing world.

Consider Nike(tm), Adidas(tm), and Pepsi(tm). All three brands have used viral marketing as a mainstay of their digital FIFA World Cup 06 football campaigns.

The power of viral marketing is that people willingly pass it on for free, which means there are no manufacturing, packaging, licensing, or distribution costs. The total cost of ownership includes only the cost involved in creating the initial idea and the actual content.

How viral marketing works
In all instances an initial ‘viral’ concept must be developed and published either to a website, in an email, as a mobile phone message, or through some new or emerging distribution channel.

Some of the most effective viral content is quite poor in production quality and often quite controversial if not offensive to some, but if successful will be high in public appeal. This can also be an obstacle for some executives whose brand has been built on maintaining the highest production and moral standards in all printed and televised materials. Sometimes the more professional or polished something looks, the less likely the end-user will be to consider the source credibly worth passing on. In some cases, the corporation funding or initiating the viral content will actually distance themselves from the content and claim to have no knowledge of how it came to be, nor that they had anything to do with its creation. This is all a public relations angle to improve the chances of the mass market accepting the content as non-intrusive. People know only too well how annoying it is to receive materials that are not directly known beforehand to be of value to the recipient.

If on the other hand, the recipient or user is actually stimulated to respond emotionally to a piece of viral marketing i.e. anger, disgust, joy, sadness, laughter etc. they will likely also want their circle of friends to experience the very same thing. It is the very targeted nature of a ‘circle of friends’ that makes viral marketing so effective. The old anonymous saying has some merit in this context …

‘Birds of a feather flock together.’

If a company or brand can make a solid impression on any single individual within a selected group, that person will likely share about it with their ‘flock’ knowing that it will also be of interest to them.

A viral campaign could end up affecting several million highly targeted consumers, which to achieve using traditional media would potentially cost as many dollars, Pounds, or Euros as the amount of consumers reached. Generating a return on investment using traditional media has a greatly reduced profit margin in comparison to the minuscule investment involved in initially creating a piece of viral marketing.

The importance of embracing viral marketing
Increasing bandwidth is now making possible for the first time such things as video on demand, live video, IPTV, and other formats of rich media interactivity. Those companies that are harnessing these trends in a creative and viral way are finding themselves to be moving ahead of competitors who perhaps previously held the greatest market share by spending large sums of money in the traditional media.

The success of a viral marketing campaign can only really be measured in terms of how many people visit or view a viral site, or how many times an email has been read and so on. In some cases it may also be possible to measure click-through conversion via a call to action, although this level of transparency can often also become an obstacle to the tool becoming viral in an epidemic way.

There are currently very little hard statistics demonstrating conclusively that viral marketing makes a difference to the bottom line, yet there is no doubt that this type of content is being seen by millions of people. Much like television advertising, it is not always clear whether people are buying product because of the advert or in response to a variety of brand promotions across multiple platforms.

Those large corporations who are struggling to reconcile whether to embrace the idea of viral marketing now have the advantage that they can learn from some of the world’s largest and best-known brands. As these brands have been forced to change their understanding of marketing on a day-by-day basis, so too will all companies wanting to compete in tomorrow’s world. In the coming years many more companies with their traditionally established branding will need to concede that the concepts of marketing are changing right now, and very quickly at that.

By seemingly diluting their brand in order to create generic viral content, these companies can in fact capture the interest of the next generation of media users, thereby building a massive community of loyal customers that not only buy but also recommend their products and services.

Viral Marketing – Get Your Customers to Do the Marketing for You

Viral marketing involves the process of spreading a message from person to person. The same way the seasonal flu is passed around, hence how it got its name, but with the obvious difference is that it’s your marketing message that is being circulated.

When you have a new product or service that you want to promote, the fastest way to do so is by creating some buzz about the new product. Viral marketing has a long history of being used to promote products such as movies as well as books. Relying mainly on the buzz generated before the release, a successful campaign will have its audience ready and waiting to buy right up to the release date.

In order for viral marketing to work effectively there are some simple elements that you must consider. Such elements are vital for the proper working of the strategy. Many people begin implementing a viral marketing campaign without understanding the basic fundamentals.

To begin with, nothing sells better than providing a free sample of your product or service. A free offer ensures the message that you are sending is likely to move much faster and travel further. The idea that one can enjoy free products and especially if they have to make little or no effort is something people are more likely to share with friends and family than an advertised low price.

Whatever method you use to send your message, especially when working with emails and social media, you must ensure that it is easy to spread and develop to a wider audience. Remember that viral marketing only works if more and more people get your message. The method to pass along the message should be as simple as possible, like clicking forward on an email. On the other hand if you have a complicated long process to forward the message, then few people will make the effort and hinder your attempt at the message going viral.

The success of viral marketing also relies heavily on understanding your target audience. Who exactly are you targeting with your message? What do these people have in common in terms of habits and interests? Armed with this information, you can generate a message that calls to such interests and hobbies. Such a message is not only relatable but also gives a common base upon which one can generate the viral marketing campaign.

Before embarking on your viral marketing campaign, take the time to understand your target audience, and how you can easily reach them. Design a message that is attractive and draws immediate attention to your audience. The message should also be simple, so that it does not take much time and effort to understand.

Armed with these techniques it’s time to embark on your viral marketing journey and find new markets for your products and/or service.

What if you just can’t make sense of it all?

I know how confusing it may appear, with all the information available on back links, SEO, Social Media, but if you really want to succeed with Internet Marketing you will need to learn the single method that governs them all.

This method is simple to pick up and it doesn’t take much once you see the bigger picture.

Viral Marketing for Small Businesses

In my experience and research, I’ve found that viral marketing can be a positive or negative advertising method. Some companies use it correctly while others let campaigns turn negative and spiral out of control. And some people believe that viral marketing campaigns are so expensive that only big companies can implement them on larger scales. This, however, is entirely untrue as viral marketing can work for any size business. This article will define viral marketing, describe how it works, and discuss examples and strategies for small businesses.

The specific definition of viral marketing differs from person to person. However, everyone generally agrees that viral marketing is an advertising method that gets customers to market your products and services for you. More specifically, I would say that it’s an advertising method that capitalizes on humanity’s predisposition to share ideas, make new connections, and, of course, get free stuff.

When Does Viral Marketing Work Best?

Viral marketing is a touchy advertising method. Use it at the right times with the right products and your name can spread like wildfire. However, employ it incorrectly and you could see some very negative results. Viral marketing works best when a product or service is easy to use, easy to explain, has a low level of commitment, and is generally seen as “cool” in your customers’ eyes. Let’s look at these characteristics in order:

Easy to use – Because you are having your own customers do the marketing for you, it is preferable that their experience with the product is positive. If it’s difficult to use and they dislike the product, why would they refer it to a friend?

Easy to explain – Your product needs to be simple – that is, people can quickly share it without being bogged down by details. Ever wonder why those videos on file sharing websites get passed around the Internet so quickly? All you have to do is tell a friend about a great video on the Internet and give them the link. It’s simple with no explanation.

Low Level of Commitment – Finally, your product must have a low level of commitment. A friend once wanted me to sign up for one of those Internet pyramid schemes that offer a free IPOD or flat panel TV if you get 10 people to join a program. If you actually follow through with one of these things, it takes about 30 minutes to sign up because you have to give endless amounts of information, uncheck every free email box, and finally sell your soul. No one in their right mind would do this more than once.

General Coolness Factor – It’s obvious that people only want to talk about the most exciting products they use. No one walks up to a friend and describes the latest underwear they’ve bought. Instead, they describe their new cell phone, poster, CD, or book. If your product is cool, people will talk about it. And in most cases, the “coolness factor” can be changed based on how you position the product in your customers’ minds. In other words, it’s all based on the advertising that goes along with it.

Viral Marketing – The Distant Cousin of Buzz Marketing

So we’ve established that a product itself can bring about a viral result if it has the four characteristics. But viral marketing can still work for products that do not meet these criteria if you can generate an adequate buzz for them. Buzz marketing is generated from catchy advertising and works when your customers talk about your product in day-to-day conversation.

In recent years, buzz marketing has worked for companies like Volkswagen and Burger King. However, I’m saying that buzz marketing has worked for these companies – not viral marketing. Buzz marketing all too often generates hype about the ad campaigns that feature the product and not the product itself. Sometimes this can be negative and divert attention away from your product. Although some would argue that Crispin Porter’s attempt at targeting VW enthusiasts’ hearts was genuine when they came out with the “MyFast” and the “Unpimp” commercials, they do not make me want to buy a VW – an item that definitely falls outside of the four criteria.

Sure you can have catchy advertising, but make sure it’s advertising that focuses on product. Buzz marketing is more of an awareness campaign. And in my experience, small businesses need to see a return on their advertising investments – they can’t afford to just promote awareness of their products. You can’t just produce a buzz-worthy campaign that people will forget the second the advertisements come down. The goal is to get the product in peoples’ hands for the viral effect to occur.

Can Viral Marketing Work Offline? And for a Small Business?

Sure it can. I’m sure you’ve read viral marketing success stories involving Hotmail, NetZero, Skype, and even the comedian Dane Cook who used MySpace.com for his viral marketing campaign. This might get a lot of people thinking that they need large scale campaigns that utilize websites, emails, and constant updates to online material. But there’s one great example I’d like to share with you where a business employed a viral marketing campaign without much use of the internet and on a very small scale.

A local gym that I once went to had a great idea to hand out free t-shirts if members signed up for their “Guests First” program. They stopped everyone at the door, handed them a t-shirt, and told them that they could get a free guest pass every time they wore the shirt to the gym (the shirt had the gym’s logo and location on it). To sign up, the members only had to verify the information they gave when they first became a gym member. It was a win-win for customers. Everyone started wearing the t-shirts and the guest passes started flying. Whenever a guest came in, they had to give their name and email address to the front desk. Later, an email would be sent to the guest to gauge their satisfaction with the gym. It also acted as a follow-up contact to the guest. This was, by far, the most intelligent and well thought out marketing scheme I had ever seen. The gym built a database of new potential customers, generated hype about the guest passes in town, put walking advertisements out on the street, and, in the end, got more people in the gym. And it was all done on a small scale.

Would Viral Marketing Work for Your Business?

As I said before, there are times when viral marketing works and times when it doesn’t. You really need to take a close look at your products and the behavior of your customers to see if it’s right for your business.

Products – Take one of your cheap, low cost, low involvement products and start handing it out for free. If you are a service-based business, start offering free trials of your low cost services. Start advertisements about the giveaways to get more people in your place of business. Be humorous and ironic – it tends to work better with viral marketing campaigns. If the products and services get high visibility, you will see a more viral effect. Even if you only carry expensive products that get low visibility, research on the internet or spy on competitors to see what types of giveaway items have worked for other businesses. Remember, choose something that people will always see or have a use for and associate it with your brand and business.

Customer Behavior – A successful viral marketing campaign also relies on the behavior of your customers. You need customers who are outgoing, friendly, and lead an active lifestyle. The more people that surround your customer, the more impressions your viral marketing tool will have. Remember, viral marketing, or any advertising, works best when you can achieve multiple impressions with the least amount of effort. The last person you want to test viral marketing on is some recluse that sits inside eighteen hours a day and emerges only to restock the fridge and drive to work. It’s about getting your customers to do the work for you and advertising is all about visibility. It only makes sense that you need a highly visible customer base to do this type of advertising.

Go Out and Do It!

Viral marketing can work for almost any business. You know your business and customers the best. Set aside some time in the next few weeks to try and think of some great viral marketing tactics that you can employ. If you think the risk is too great, start small to test the water.

Every business has customers. Few businesses have fans. The trick is turning your customers into loyal fans. Then you will be surprised at just how easy viral marketing really is.