What is Viral Marketing?
The term viral marketing is a fairly new addition to the collective vocabulary but that’s not to say it’s a new concept. In fact, its been around pretty much as long as marketing itself; regardless of whether we termed the practice as “viral” or not. However, in recent years, clever marketing companies spotted the opportunity to disseminate their message quickly and cheaply by utilising the power of the internet. Specifically, they saw huge opportunities in social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube, and the growth of email forwards amongst friends. The result of their combined efforts is the sort of “viral” marketing that most people understand by the term. Viral marketing, however, is more than just amusing MasterCard forwards; it’s a complex tool which can perform a highly important function for marketing agencies savvy enough to effectively harness it. As such, it’s now recognised as a form of marketing in its own right and some agencies are even specialist viral marketers.
In all types of marketing, the normally assumed process (very simplistically) is that marketers do the talking and consumers do the listening. The way that the marketers talk to us and the media they employ to carry that message varies drastically; but at its heart, that’s what’s happening. We see adverts carried on TV, radio or in newsprint, we see sponsorship logos at events and, rarely, we get given some free merchandise as part of a promotion. Mostly traditional marketing works very well, the only problem with it is the phenomenal cost. Viral marketing bucks this trend in one very important way, rather than paying to disseminate a corporate message in one of the many traditional means, viral marketing relies on the recipient of that message to replicate and further disseminate it for the advertiser, whether they realise they are doing it or not. Thus the message, just like a virus, replicates of its own accord and spreads amongst those willing to talk and listen.
There are various types of viral campaigns which are suited for different purposes, depending on the product or service being promoted or target market which the companies involved are hoping to reach. Some of the main types of campaigns include:
A message which encourages the reader to forward the information on to others. The most common form of this is email chain letters which have a message at the bottom of the letter prompting the reader to forward the email on to other contacts. It has been found that short, funny video clips, which tend to be sent spontaneously, are generally more effective. The number of people reached in this way is generally much greater than the original number to which the original message was sent.
- Incentivised viral:
This method is based on offering a reward for every message passed along or email address provided. This can drastically increase referrals, however it is found to be most effective when another person is required to take action. Most online contests offer more chances of winning for each referral given, but when the referral must also participate in order for the first person to obtain that extra chance of winning, the chance that the referral participates is much greater.
- Undercover marketing:
This usually comes in the from of a unusual web page, with cool activities or snippets of news, without any direct incitements to link or pass the message along. The aim of undercover marketing is to not make the product immediately apparent, but to rather let the user discover it through a seemingly spontaneous and informal chain of events.
- ‘Edgy Gossip/Buzz Marketing’:
Ads or messages that create controversy by challenging the borders of taste or appropriateness. Discussion of the resulting controversy can be considered to generate buzz and word of mouth advertising.
- User-managed database:
Users create their own lists of contacts using a database provided by an online service provider. By inviting other members to participate in their community, users can a self-propagating chain of contacts that naturally grows and encourages others to sign up as well.
Aside from the types of viral marketing, there are also various methods through which the advertisements can be relayed. Some of the most commonly found methods of transmission are as follows:
- Word of web:
Online articles often have links which encourage readers to forward the message to friends. The links bring them to a web based-form into which messages are entered and converted into email to be sent to recipients.
- Word of email:
Most likely the most common method, entailing the forwarding of emails containing jokes, quizzes and ‘compromising’ pictures.
- Word of IM:
One of today’s fastest growing trends, the transmission of hyperlinks through instant messaging services has become very popular amongst young people. It has been found that IM users are more likely to trust a link sent by a friend via instant message than by the same friend via email.
- Reward for referrals:
Many companies offer rewards for the referral of futher prospective customers, encouraging them to use any of the afore mentioned methods.
The widespread use of mobile phones which support free Bluetooth has enabled promotional videos to be distributed virally between handsets.
So fundamentally, viral marketing is the art of creating a buzz, be it amusing videos forwarded amongst friends at work or getting people to shout your slogan at each other (remember 118 118’s “got your number!”). However it’s done then, getting a message to “go viral” is usually the marketing consultants’ Holy Grail and the following should explain why.
The Benefits of Viral
Absolutely nothing flies in the world of marketing unless it makes commercial sense. Viral marketing, therefore, must have some significant benefits over traditional marketing strategies to have gained as much attention as it has. Here are some of them:
The first and most obvious benefit of viral marketing, is that it costs comparatively very little to spread your message. This means that larger companies can use a viral marketing platform very cheaply in conjunction with traditional marketing and that smaller companies can use it as a standalone platform to market products without many of the associated costs. Anything that saves money is justifiable in its own right; however, this is just the tip of the iceberg with viral marketing.
Reaching the Right People
All marketers are seeking a specific target audience; those that make-up the small percentage of the population who might be interested in their product. This fundamental necessity of successful marketing drives most of the decisions that are made; from where and how adverts are shown, right down to the typeface and soundtracks used. Most of the time however, the brush is necessarily very broad. Consider, for instance, the broad range of people who watch prime-time TV. Of course, there are certain assumptions that can be made about the audience depending on the time, day of the week and particular show. Indeed the jobs of many market researchers are dependent on making a science out of those assumptions. However, most companies already have customers who’ve bought into their product or service. The key to viral marketing then, is getting them to talk to their friends and spread the message. After all, the peer groups of existing customers are likely to share interests and therefore be just the sort of people that the marketing consultants want to reach.
Reaching More People
Generally speaking, the cost of product marketing varies depending on how many people are likely to see your message. A couple thousand pounds may buy you a page in your local newspaper, likely to be seen by a few thousand people. Sponsoring the World Cup on the other hand (and paying for all the free merchandise you intend to give away there) will cost you vastly more. Viral marketing however, which is capable of reaching many millions of potential customers, is often free. Prime examples of viral marketing success are household names like Hotmail or Facebook. Information about Hotmail’s free email service was spread by its users’ word of mouth and (cleverly) by a message tacked to the bottom of every email they sent, offering a free email account to the recipient. Facebook, on the other hand, is the very epitome of viral success. At the height of its growth, Facebook was getting well over 100,000 sign-ups a day without spending a penny on marketing, simply because of the viral nature of the product.
The Key to Successful Viral Marketing
Frankly, there is no simple formula to successful viral marketing. However, there are some similarities between effective campaigns and thus, some generalisations that can be made. Here are the three key factors:
- Keep It Simple - At the core of most successful viral marketing campaigns, is a simple, easily transferable idea. If people are expected to jump through hoops in order to get the joke or pass the message on, it will fail.
- Make It Poignant - The best viral campaigns tend to pick up on a point that the public is already discussing. The game, video or whatever vehicle is used as the substance of the campaign can then become a natural extension of a subject which people are interested in.
- Keep It Free - The vast majority of viral success stories relate to free things. Be it a video, online quiz or a whole service, like Facebook; the fact that the product is free is crucial to success. The real commercial value of viral marketing is not in the thing being passed round but the advertising space and buzz it generates.