How and Why Viral Marketing Kicks the Crappy Traffic Out of SEO

An important comment was posted on an internet forum in regards to SEO versus Viral Marketing. Here is a paraphrase:

“Social media might get loads of traffic but their conversion rates are very much dismal. I’ve had sites/stories which made the front page of Digg.com and surpassed our website’s usual monthly traffic in just 3 days. However, earnings only went up by 12% which actually is nothing great and a waste of time and resources.”

Having been in web development since 1998 and business development since 1993, I have noticed a problem faced by most small business owners. This problem is generally in regards to the ROI of marketing efforts and specifically in relation to making money via the internet.

There are two major issues that many website owners do not factor into account in the various types of web campaigns designed to generate traffic, and the commenter touched on them both by using the term “conversion”.

Website traffic alone is meaningless if it does not “convert”. In other words, visitors should take the desired action directed by the site owner. The desired action normally is for the visitor to make a purchase, but could be anything, like signing up for a newsletter or registering for a free membership.

The two issues many site owners’ face and often do not realize are:

1) “Targeting”, “Identity” and “Positioning” are important aspects of all areas of their marketing efforts.

And

2) “Instant conversion” is only a small portion of total conversions.

POINT #1PLANNING
I won’t go into detail on this, but all marketing should start with a PLAN. The plan should include the Target, Identity and Position of the brand among other things. The vast majority of internet campaigns fail from their start because they do not even have the simplest of marketing plans. (Saying your strategy is “getting more customers” or to “make money” is not a strategic “plan”!)

TARGETING
To say a web surfer is searching for “cheap jewelry” is one thing, but to say a website sells “cheap jewelry” is another thing altogether.

What exactly is your “cheap jewelry”?
Is it costume jewelry?
Is it Movado watches at wholesale pricing?
Is it knock-off name brand jewelry?
Is it Jewelry for men? For women? Sophisticates? Costume? Bling?
Exactly what KIND of jewelry is it and it’s “cheap” in relation to what?

The fact is, the phrase “cheap jewelry” will mean different things for different people.

Any site owner who has ever PAID a search engine for every click into their website (whether the visitor buys or not), knows these kinds of phrases bring a ton of untargeted people who never buy or should never have even been a visitor at the website in the first place.

Let’s talk a minute about the facts of web traffic and conversion. Especially in relation to search engines.

According to the Internet Retailer Survey published in May 2010:

72% of Internet Retail Merchants said LESS THAN 25% of their website visitor traffic comes from paid search and 48.5% said less than 25% came from natural search.

Only a mere 30% can say they attribute more than 40% of their sales to Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

61% of site owners say less than 30% of their sales come from search engine based marketing.

For 70% of online merchants, search engines can only produce a maximum of 40% of sales volume as a result of their marketing efforts. 37% generate less than 15% of their total sales through SEM.

Here is the worst part of what the survey shows:

94% of web retailers see a conversion rate of LESS THAN 15%! 59% see less than 2% and 39% see a 0.5% to 1% conversion rate.

39% of webmasters who market through PPC say LESS THAN 1 person out of every 100 visitors makes a purchase.

How do you like THAT stat for traffic that does not convert?

This is not a fluke either, in the last year, for 55.1% of retailers, conversion rates stayed the same or WENT DOWN by up to 25% or more.

So we are not only seeing a trend of less and less traffic coming from engines, but also seeing fewer people coming from search engines making a purchase. I bet your PPC sales person won’t tell you THAT!

I run across merchants all the time who spend 5, 9, 14 and even $20,000 or more on pay-per-visitor (PPC) search engine marketing. Only to ultimately find themselves extremely disappointed with the results. Words such as “failure”, “dismal” and even “crap” have been used in response to me asking how their PPC efforts went.

Granted, there could have been issues with their landing pages, using good keywords or even writing a proper ad could cause low conversion. However, this is the apparent trend, not the exception to the rule as the survey also pointed out the vast majority of respondents were making strong efforts to improve conversion rates.

If you think this does not apply to you, know that 44% of these businesses make less than $1 million in annual sales and 69% make less than $5 million. Also, 67.3% of these are web only-merchants, letting us know that the bulk of PPC is done by small business owners.

Considering the fact 37.7% of them spend 50% to 75% or more of their total online marketing budget on PPC, it is discomforting to know the vast majority of them will never break even, much less make back their advertising investment in the form of sales.

IDENTITY
Website owners end up with “non-converting” traffic because they get people who do not know enough about their brand before visiting the website. This is why you have to know the identity of your own brand and then make that position clear to consumers before they visit your website.

Consumers do not know enough about a brand’s identity because it has not been expressed to them properly by the brand managers (and often even the site owners themselves are not clear on this point.)

Because brand managers have not properly established their identity in the websphere to the masses, in the broader search patterns (whether viral or engine-based), the website receives unqualified, untargeted people visiting their site. These visitors end up as looky-lou’s who realize there is nothing of interest to them and leave.

This is an issue caused by the marketing strategy of the company (or lack thereof), not the vehicle or method used. Whether they use SEO, PPC or Viral methods, the end result will be the same: poorly converting traffic. The only variable will be how fast this phenomenon occurs.

The Digg.com commenter felt that viral marketing just brings a lot of useless traffic. The reality is it simply bought a higher volume of traffic in a much shorter period of time than other methods previously used.

If your website does not normally convert incoming traffic, it will simply continue to “not convert” faster and in greater numbers through viral marketing.

THE PROBLEM
Engine-based Search does not and CAN NOT alleviate the problem of an inability to express identity in short form advertising. All engine-based search marketing is designed to be a part of a media-mix. It requires other methods of consumer impression to augment the position and identity of a brand BEFORE a searcher sees them in the search results.

If a person encounters a brand for the first time through search results, outside of the scant description and information that can be provided with optimization, they know little of the identity of the brand. In order to find out if the site offers anything that appropriately matches their need, they must visit, if out of nothing more than curiosity. This increases the chance of the visitor being the wrong person on the wrong site and therefore not taking the site owner’s desired action once they visit.

The commenter mentioned they made it to the front page of Digg.com. That is a great place to be as it gives one plenty of exposure. And as they mentioned, it drove a ton of traffic. However, there should have been information within the Digg.com article that would have assured only the target market was attracted to and bothered to visit the website.

THE SOLUTION
In a properly managed viral campaign, an initial marketing plan would have been created, thereby assuring any creative pieces (like the DIGG article) would have reflected the identity of the brand. It also would have acted as a blueprint on what should have taken place on the part of the site owner to improve conversion on the backend.

“It is impossible to improve what you do not measure, and it is almost impossible to measure what you do not plan” – Maurice Evans, Business Coach

Viral marketing is not about simply having some eye candy for people to look at (like a game or a dancing baby) that drives a ton of traffic for the sake of traffic because it was “fun”. Even when attempting to drive massive traffic through “cuteness”, you should know how to tie the creative pieces to the identity of your brand (like Evian’s break-dancing babies http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PHnRIn74Ag ).

Most website owners have little education or training in marketing, so they do not even know what brand identity is, much less how to position their brand’s identity or how to express the identity of their brand to the marketplace.

Identity management is a key benefit of a viral marketing campaign. As word spreads, so does the identity of the business. As time goes on, the consumers spreading your message on your behalf for free are also spreading your brand’s identity. This causes an automatically increased market position. Your target audience gets educated (and even indoctrinated) each time your message is passed on.

Too many scam -uhm, er, excuse me – “gurus” – tell people that internet marketing is some kind of new and exciting business model. It is not. It is merely a means to market a product or service. The typical, time-tested and standard principles of business are still absolutely necessary for success 100% of the time.

Going back to the forum comment, if the Digg.com article had properly emphasized the brand’s identity and maintained the brands position, the earnings of 12% increase would have been much higher. Proper viral marketing campaigns “filter” out the bad, non-converting traffic when done properly.

Although, I must say a 12% increase is great when you consider it came in a 3-day period of time. What if that happened every 3 days? 120% increase? Sounds like viral marketing did in fact, INCREASE your site’s conversion…in a big way!

But that is not the bigger issue I am concerned with, the real question is, what is this websites “normal” conversion rate? In other words, in relation to the previous traffic that came in, what was the rate of conversion for this new viral traffic by comparison? What is the site’s conversion percentage before adding the 12% increase? Does this site even create a conversion of traffic typically higher than 12% as a baseline?

The fact is there was an increase, but unless I misunderstood, the poster implied their previous conversion rates would produce something higher. Were the previous conversion ratios truly higher? Or was this simply the same percentage of conversion when you factor in higher numbers of visitors? Or did it actually out perform typical conversions as I suspect they did?

The actual answers are not as important as how we come up with the questions.

As the reader of this article, I want you to be able to gauge the performance of your own website. In our sample, did it receive good or bad traffic?

In other words to truly say this was “bad” traffic, you have to look at the simple formula.

Number of desired actions (conversions)

{divided by}

Number of Visitors

{equals}

Conversion Percentage.

If on average out of every 100 visitors to your site, you normally see 12 desired actions taken, our formula would look like this:

12 / 100 =.12 which is 12%

So to clarify, if 12% of the people from a viral campaign “convert”, to know if it was better, equal, or worse than a previous campaign, you must compare 12% to what the previous percentage of conversion was.

Again, going back to the Digg.com article that made it to the front page, they were clearly disappointed with their conversion rates. In light of the above information of what is “average”, a 12% increase over the normal (1%) is gangbusters, that is, relatively speaking of course.

Seriously though, here is the truly bad part, since the word “conversion” was mentioned in such a final form, I can tell this site also does not fully understand point 2.

POINT #2CONVERSION
Conversion should not be considered a one time event or possibility. Many site owners are so focused on INSTANT conversion, they miss the big picture. Such instant-conversion focus only serves to make one solely concerned about the person who visits them ONE TIME, for the VERY FIRST TIME, and then makes a purchase after their first and only contact with the website. Instant gratification has no place in marketing ROI expectations. The big picture focus requires more of an understanding that every visitor is a potential convert, even over the course of time.

Whenever a business brings up the topic of sales or conversions or traffic, I often ask these specific questions in the following order:

1) How Much Traffic Did/Do You Get On An Average Month?

(The answer varies but is usually a decent amount.)

2) How Many (Percentage) Of Those Visitors Become Customers?

(The answer is normally very low.)

3) Why Didn’t The Other Visitors Become Customers?

(The answer is normally “I do not know.”)

4) Why Don’t You Ask Them The Reasons?

(The answer is “I don’t have a way to.”)

And there, in question 4 we see the real problem. People are coming to your site and leaving, yet you have no way of communicating with them. You are looking for instant conversion, and it causes you to ignore those who need more information, are on the fence or just not quite ready to buy from you…yet.

CONVERSION MISTAKE #1
Many site owners send people to confusing home pages, with 4-20 different menu choices. The vast majority of these people came to the site as a result of something other than just curiosity. They read an article, did a search, got a recommendation or responded to social influence and are expecting to see more information related to whatever caused them to visit the site.

Instead, of more information, once they arrive they are greeted with a generic home page with too many options and very little direction on where to go or what to do next. Have you ever experienced that? What did you do?

Statistics show, when presented with too many choices, people generally just chose to not make any decision at all. On the internet this means they leave the site without taking any action (converting) other than clicking that little [x] in the top right corner of the screen.

CONVERSION MISTAKE #2
Sometimes, people are sent straight to some sort of e-commerce page or shopping cart, asking for payment right up front. Imagine walking down the mall and deciding to stop in a jewelry store you are passing. Then the minute you walked through the door someone says “Hi! Come follow me to the checkout counter…this is $200, this is $1500 and this is on sale for $799…Now, which of these are you going to buy right this second? And will that be cash or credit?”

That scenario would be off-putting at best and considered overly rude and aggressive at worst. In either case, whether online or off, for the majority of the time the results are the same: no sale.

The bottom line is the visitor does not yet know if they trust you, or even if they want to buy from your site in particular, much less whether they want to buy anything at all right now or not.

CONVERSION TIP #1
Successful pay-per-click campaigns all have dynamic landing pages, and viral campaigns are no different. To create an informative landing page related to the lead-generating source is considered standard best-practice for any e-commerce venture.

CONVERSION TIP #2
In addition to the landing page there should be some sort of interaction that enables follow-up with the potential customer. An email list is the simplest way to do this online.

You want to hit them with your offer more than one time. In the advertising world, we use the term “frequency”. Without getting into it, the point of frequency is a person generally needs to be pitched or see an offer multiple times before responding with action. The more times they see it, the more likely they are to respond. Usually 5-7 impressions (or times viewed) is the sweet spot on the bell curve.

Think about this. How many times have you seen a website (or any piece of advertising) offer something for sale, and after seeing the offer only ONCE, you just stopped whatever you were doing and made a purchase that moment? Not very often, I bet. Unless, of course, you are a compulsive buyer, in which case there are help-groups and counselors for that. The truth is, the vast majority of people need to do research, be in a “purchasing” mood, and see the offer several times, etc. before making a purchase. On the net, this may mean they might wish to compare competitors or get recommendations from friends and family before taking action on an offer.

LOST CONVERSIONS
How many unnecessary “conversions” are lost by websites simply because a visitor comes just one time to the site, and then has no reminder to ever come back again? The site typically ends up getting lost in cyberspace like so many others in the ever growing interwebs. Only to have that same visitor later make the purchase at a competitors site who had better positioning or were in the right place at the right time.

Follow-up in some way, shape, form or fashion is a key to getting the first time visitor to turn into a later-time customer.

THE VIRAL CURE
Because viral marketing campaigns start with a plan, and focus on pitching a brands identity to a specific target audience it has become the most cost-effective form of marketing.

The amount you pay over time for a SEO or PPC campaign that only wanes in effectiveness over time, costs much more than any viral campaign in the long run. Not to mention, the minute you stop paying for such efforts, any competitor willing to foot the bill takes your position.

From first point of contact through to the point-of-sale, viral marketing is a total approach to growing a business, online or offline. The beauty of a viral campaign is that it sends traffic long after you stopped paying for it. Plus it is difficult for a competitor to “out optimize” you. Efforts are usually permanent in a viral campaign.

Viral campaigns are magnets pulling in the proper target consumers, and it happens by design. The bottom line is a well planned viral marketing campaign automatically prevents the arrival of and kicks out any crappy traffic that may come to a website. The result is targeted traffic that takes your desired action, “converting” into customers. Bottom lines prefer Viral Marketing because it keeps things in the black.

Viral Marketing Strategies Are More Popular Than Ever

Viral marketing strategies are becoming implemented more as we’ve come to know more about it’s power to propel a business faster. Viral marketing has really taken off in the last couple of years and with it, so have many of the viral marketing examples and strategies in which people are utilizing. In the course of just the last year we have seen some amazing software products and several programs in which to spread your viral marketing campaign farther.

In any viral marketing campaign, there are certain things that a person or company has to keep in mind. For one thing, behind every campaign there has to be some type of gain or incentive for the person to want to pass the message on. Campaigns that don’t really give back to the sending party, most likely won’t benefit from viral marketing advantages.

For example, if we are speaking of cases of viral marketing for list building, many viral marketers have taken to using tell-a-friend forms. But, regular tell-a-friend forms are not usually enough to give a person the needed incentive to push a campaign along. It’s for this reason we started seeing products such as Viral Friend Generator come into play. With Viral Friend Generator, we seen that by adding a third step to the process, we could add a bonus of some type to the sending party. Prior to this, regular tell-a-friend forms weren’t really hitting the mark.

In some cases of viral marketing it doesn’t always need an incentive such as material goods to be effective though. In fact, the most successful viral campaigns are the ones that are created with emotion being involved. People that have been touched either by compassion, laughter, or shock are usually the most effective. If a person can have some type of profound experience by receiving a message this can spark a huge viral campaign. We don’t have to look very far to find campaigns of this type online. With the advent of video being used so much in marketing these days, it has completely impacted the way in which viral campaigns are developing.

Blogs are becoming much more viral friendly as well. Some of the WordPress plug-ins that have been developed for boosting people’s posts in many of the Social Bookmarking sites, or RSS submission services are really getting amazing. It’s so great to see some of the technology that’s coming out with helping in viral marketing. But, remember to use some of these plug-ins you do need to have a WordPress blog hosted on your own hosting account. Otherwise, most aren’t created for use with such blogs created on Blogger.com or WordPress.com.

There are a few very good products and strategies that have come to very good use for marketing viral. Definitely one of my favorite outlets these days for re-branding and creating my own versions of viral marketing software came with a membership I got with the guys at IMBuzz software. Each month I get a brand new one, and each of these has always been of very good quality. It’s one of the best memberships I think I’ve ever been a part of. Since I’m in the viral marketing niche, this software suited my business like a glove with some key advantages for viral marketing! I’m also a huge fan of Viral Spiral. It’s helped a very good friend of mine and myself to create a good sized mailing list, and also provided a place to help people along with their online marketing careers. It’s great to be able to do this virally, plus help people at the same time.

If you have ever been interested in implementing what is now available to you with viral marketing, there really couldn’t be a better time than now. We are living in a perfect time with access to some very powerful platforms and programs to help with your viral marketing campaigns.

How to Use Viral Marketing to Spread the Word About Your Business

The concept behind Viral Marketing

word-of-mouth:

The concept of viral marketing is by no means new. Word-of-mouth marketing, viral’s forefather, has been around for ages. The principle behind word-of-mouth marketing is simple; use influencers to generate peer-to-peer product recommendations or buzz. Prior to the advent of the Internet, however, this form of marketing was too disjointed to effectively benefit most advertisers. The effect of word-of-mouth was largely contained to specific geographic areas simply due to the lack of widespread social networks. Word-of- mouth was generally limited by the ability of the influencer to physically speak to another prospective customer, hence the term “word-of-mouth”.

Enter the internet:
The Internet has radically changed the concept of word-of-mouth, so much so that the term “viral marketing” was coined by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson in 1997. The term was used to describe Hotmail’s email practice of appending advertising for themselves to outgoing mail from their users. The assumption is that if such an advertisement reaches a “susceptible” user, that user will become “infected” (i.e., sign up for an account) and can then go on to infect other susceptible users.

While email may have been the original catalyst; the advent of social networks, online communities and chat provide the ability to
distribute information exponentially faster than ever before. Where word-of-mouth marketing could take weeks or months to reach a thousand people, viral marketing can reach hundreds of thousands or millions in a matter of days or hours. The spread of an effective viral marketing campaign is akin to an epidemic outbreak of a virus, limited only by the potency and relevance of the marketing message.

Viral marketing defined:

The Wikipedia defines viral marketing as “marketing techniques that seek to exploit pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness, through viral processes similar to the spread of an epidemic. It is word-of-mouth delivered and enhanced online; it harnesses the network effect of the Internet and can be very useful in reaching a large number of people rapidly.”

Why viral marketing?!

The proliferation of marketing and advertising, coupled with the onslaught of millions of media channels in today’s world, has given cause for consumers to tune out and effectively avoid a great deal of traditional supplier driven messaging. The creation of technologies such as PVRs, satellite radio and Internet ad blocking software are driving a fundamental shift in the way the public consumes media and the advertising often tied to it. Television ads, radio spots, online ads and even emails are facing increasing competition for effectively capturing the viewer’s attention and provide positive ROI for the marketer.

This competition, coupled with the rising cost of media buys, has caused marketers to search for an alternative means to reach the customer. Viral marketing is an attractive solution because it utilizes the free endorsement of the individual rather than purchase of mass media to spread the word. Because the distribution model is free, viral can potentially be lower cost and more effective than traditional media.it’s the best solution for all start-ups and who want to become an entrepreneurs

the viral effect

More than 90% of consumers said they told at least one other person about a Web site when the original recommendation came from a friend, according to Jupiter Research.

viral marketing advantages

1. Cuts through the clutter of traditional advertising, allowing marketers to effectively reach the audience.
2. Doesn’t require a product with a wow factor in order to raise awareness, generate buzz, and kick-start peer-to-peer spread. Instead, the viral campaign’s communication agent is the element that needs a wow factor or element of interest.
2. Unlike traditional advertising viral is not an interruptive technique. Instead, viral campaigns work the Internet to deliver exposure via peer-to-peer endorsement. Viral campaigns, whether ultimately liked or disliked, are often welcomed by the receiver. The focus is on campaigns with material that consumers want to spend time interacting with and spreading proactively.

viral marketing disadvantages

Viral marketing, like all marketing is hit or miss. However, viral marketing by nature is often more risky or controversial than traditional marketing. If done improperly viral marketing can backfire and create negative buzz.

The Marketing Mix:

Viral marketing is by no means a substitute for a comprehensive and diversified marketing strategy and marketing objectives. In employing viral marketing to generate peer-to- peer endorsement, brands have also learned that the technique should not be considered as a standalone miracle worker.

James Kydd, Brand Director for Virgin Mobile who just launched the 11th release in their successful series of viral marketing campaigns, states, “viral marketing is best used not as a one-off tactical end in itself, but as an integrated strategic part of the overall marketing mix. It is a means to an end whereby it not only generates buzz, but also provides ongoing, quantifiable brand benefits, such as increased awareness, peer-to-peer endorsement and ultimately more sales.”

Common Viral Marketing Messaging:

While the messaging and strategy ranges radically from campaign to campaign, most successful campaigns contain some commonly used approaches. These approaches are often used in combination to maximize the viral effect of a campaign.

free products or services

Many viral marketing programs utilize free products or services to spark interest. Giving away low-cost items such as t-shirts can often lead to the sale of much higher cost items. Marketers often use low cost items as a method of collecting consumer data and building a database of potential customers that are already familiar with the brand.

compelling content

From hilarious to raunchy to controversial good content and concepts can often make or break a viral campaign. Creating quality content can often be more expensive than simply offering a free product, however the results are often better. The general rule of thumb is that the content must be compelling, it must evoke a response on an emotional level from the person viewing it. This fact alone has allowed many smaller brands to capitalize on content based viral campaigns. Traditionally larger brands are more reserved and risk adverse to the possibility of negative reaction.

exclusivity

This form of messaging is designed to appeal to our natural tendency to desire things we can’t normally have. This messaging includes invitations to join V.I.P clubs, access to products or services before they are released to the public and the ability to choose the fate of others within a peer group. While this tactic can be extremely successful, there is a built in cap to its success. If the offer spreads too wide it will loose its exclusive appeal.

get paid

Rewards and financial incentives often play a role in viral referral campaigns. Marketers can incent users to pass along a message in exchange for compensation ranging from points, special offers and in some cases cash.

Making it Viral
user considerations

Successful viral campaigns are easily spread. When creating a campaign marketers should evaluate how people will communicate the message or campaign to others. Marketers should ask themselves the following questions when developing a viral strategy:
• Does the content require special plug-ins?
• Will an attached file in email be too big?
• Does the Web site require broadband?
• Is the URL easy to remember?
• Is the referral mechanism easy to use?
• Is the barrier to entry too high?
The easier a campaign can spread the more successful it can ultimately be. A large majority of campaigns miss the mark because they fail to take this into consideration.

campaign seeding

“Seeding” the original message is a key component of a viral campaign. Seeding is the act of planting the campaign with the initial group who will then go on to spread the campaign to others. The Internet provides a wide array of options for seeding, including:
• Email
• Online Forums (Google groups)
• Social Networks (Google+, Facebook.com)
• IM (AIM, ICQ, MSN, Google)
• Blogs
• Podcasts
When determining where to seed it is important that marketers consider the audience you are seeding for. If a campaign is skewed towards a certain audience marketers should make sure they seed towards that audience. Failure to due so may kill a campaign before it ever gets off the ground.

leverage existing media buys

Marketers should leverage existing media buys by incorporating the promotion of the viral campaign. This can range from a simple reference at the end of a commercial or in print to a fully integrated approach using mass media to directly promote the viral activity.

ability to scale

The goal of a viral campaign is explosive reach and participation. Marketers should be adequately prepared to meet the needs of participants in the event that the campaign is successful. Server space, bandwidth, support staff, fulfillment and stocking should be taken into consideration well in advance of campaign launch. The marketer should have the ability to capitalize on the full success of the campaign.