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Tell A Friend: Viral Marketing Packs Clout Online

By Lou Hirsh
Oct 31, 2001 6:19 PM PT

It's one of the oldest forms of communication, but word-of-mouth remains a potent marketing force in the digital age. E-commerce experts say that pass-it-along marketing -- also known as viral marketing -- is a highly effective way to create online buzz for new products and services.

Tell A Friend: Viral Marketing Packs Clout Online

Analysts told the E-Commerce Times that businesses are using a number of viral methods, ranging from subtle community-building initiatives to interactive online advertising games, to generate positive communication about their wares -- talk they hope will translate into sales and revenues.

However, the experts agreed that to be successful, the tell-a-friend approach needs to be targeted, or it runs the risk of turning off potential customers. Yankee Group e-commerce analyst Michele Pelino said that when sending specialized e-mails, product samples or other pitches to Internet users, companies need to identify who the opinion leaders are among consumers and where they congregate online.

Intrigue Required

"Find out where your users are going on the Web -- specifically the opinion leaders who are going to spread the word," Pelino told the E-Commerce Times.

Once the audience has been identified, the message itself needs to be compelling, lest it be dismissed as puffery, she added.

"There has to be a really intriguing message that appeals to the targeted audience," Pelino said.

Follow the Leader

For the company using this approach, another key is following through on the promise made to the individual online shopper who is expected to pass the word. Pelino said that if that person is going to tell others about his experience with a company, the experience had better be a good one.

"Viral marketing can actually do damage if it isn't done right," she said.

Experts said that it is important to target the opinion leaders because of the trust issue. With so many marketing e-mails making the rounds -- many of them filled with hype and overblown promises -- people find it easier to trust a message that comes from a friend or someone else whose opinion is respected.

"The best way to get a person to use a product or site is for them to be told about it by a friend they thoroughly trust," said Steve Telleen, vice president of the Web Site ScoreCard service at Giga Information Group. "It's the best form of marketing out there."

Shared Passions

Aberdeen research director Kent Allen said targeted viral marketing can help companies build personalization and loyalty programs, and are especially effective for products that invoke a passion -- for example, Jaguar sports cars or Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The passionate customer is likely to pass the marketing message to other aficionados.

"I don't know how effective this type of approach would be for B2B marketing, but it's very effective for consumer marketing," Allen told the E-Commerce Times.

According to analysts, the good word-of-mouth campaign is one that slowly builds trust over a period of time, in contrast to the in-your-face banners and pop-up ads that are often used to grab attention on the Web.

Audience Is Listening

Telleen told the E-Commerce Times that positive buzz often comes from the way a Web site or company decides to conduct its business, or from the kinds of information it chooses to convey.

Telleen said a number of Web sites have gained stature by gradually building a large community of consumers with common needs. As an example, he cited Babycenter.com, a site that provides information and support for expectant and new mothers, via chatrooms, advice forums and bulletin boards.

This is the type of site that friends and relatives recommend to one another, Telleen said, and it becomes attractive to advertisers due to that built-in audience, even though the site itself does not push particular products.

Telleen said the Google.com search site is an example of a business that has built a loyal following in large part from positive word-of-mouth about its quality. He said that Google provides a value to users -- through the exactness of its search engine -- who in turn have recommended it to others. Thus, the no-frills site has managed to become popular and grow, albeit slowly.

The Fun Part

To be sure, spreading the word online isn't always about bonding and sharing information. Viral marketing also works when it comes with a sense of fun.

Telleen points to the popularity of online greeting card sites, such as BlueMountain.com, which has spawned a host of imitators. As users send out animated and music-filled "Happy Birthday" wishes, they are also spreading the word about the site where the greeting originated.

Telleen noted that people who receive e-greetings are in turn invited to send out their own, and the effect multiplies many times over. In this way, greeting card sites gain access to customers who may want to send other things to people on special occasions, like chocolates or flowers.

Always Unique

The experts agree that viral marketing that makes use of rich media has a high chance of succeeding, since it entertains recipients and encourages them to share the experience with others.

To make an impression, said Aberdeen's Allen, the marketing pitch must take advantage of the unique, interactive features of the Internet.

"Good creative work is a necessity," Allen said.

Want To Play ... an Ad?

One of the most interesting ways to get people to spread the message, he said, is by incorporating interactive games that get Web users to challenge their friends to play. In fact, a number of major companies -- including IBM, Ford, GM, Nike and Burger King -- have begun using games in their online advertising.

While the economic return on these ads hasn't been calculated, their viral effectiveness has apparently been demonstrated. Reporting on a recent campaign, Ford said 40 percent of customers who received an e-mail clicked through to play an online game, and customers forwarded the game to an average of three friends each.

For that reason and others, consultants have started to recommend that industries invest more time and resources into Net-based viral marketing.

Coming Soon

Forrester researchers say the viral marketing is a natural fit for entertainment industry products.

In an August 2001 report, the research firm recommended Internet word-of-mouth campaigns as a cost-effective way to turn movies, records, books and TV shows into hits. Of course, the entertainment industry has certainly been using viral-marketing techniques for sometime.


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It's great -- the tech has improved vastly in recent years.
It's the wave of the future, but quality is still hit or miss.
I like it for texting, especially when I'm driving.
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It's an unnecessary frill that I can easily live without.