Tell A Friend: Viral Marketing Packs Clout Online

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.

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 appealsto 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, 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 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, 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 usinggames 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.


  • offers a fantastic Tell-a-Friend add-on (for any Web site) that is great for Webmasters, Web site owners and marketing professionals who don’t have the time to fool around with scripts or programs. It takes a few minutes to add-on and does a great job at increasing targeted traffic!

    • Vicente,

      For the past two years I have worked for two email marketing companies and I currently have

      a customer who asked us to provide a similar functionality. We were intent on building a microsite interface for them after selling them on the idea as developed by our provider Cybuy.

      Cybuy went out of business in July and our customer is still waiting for my old company to develop an alternative.

      I AM now independently working as a value added reseller and I’m interested in a “buy it now” button that will connect to the ecommerce server and will automatically initiate cc authorization.

      Please provide me with more details about your software solution including 1. Stability of the cold fusion programming. 2. Security issues. 3. what is the major advantage to the customer(the etailer) over anything else out there already.


      Allan Samara

      [email protected]

  • Film industry is one of the oldest accustomed to living by the rule of word of mouth.

    Or Viral marketing as we can call it now.

    I AM not sure all of my fellow dot come and gone have understood totally what it takes to entertain the customer that wants to buy film entertainment.

    I would not claim to be sole bearer of a solid truth, at least as solid as the odd statements like “b2c is dead”, “don’t invest in content” etc…

    I only regret that a few of us have made too much noisy, costly experiences with wrong timing.

    In fact entertainment in the old economy, working for majors, taught me a few marketing rules that I wish I saw more around the web.

    Rules?: No rules: it is artisan craftmanship work.

    Move: go for instinct first, rationale second

    It is about desire, about impatience, about fulfilling (surpassing) what you have promised, about whisperings in one single ear.

    Put the right words in the right mouths! ouchhh

    And listen to the buzz spreading your viral positionning statement to niche audiences!

    Now, instinct and anticipation about the film buyer tastes is something you develop in the area of around 3000 marketing cases: what launch strategy had what box office results, short medium long term (i.e. various media…)

    I know it takes a few years I went there 🙂

    Adapt the message to the medium not the contrary.

  • A couple of additional comments about the *wonders* of Viral Marketing:

    1. If done correctly, it is the way of the future for companies in *getting their message* across without the cost of traditional advertising. So the more Companies become *enlightened*, the more important the *uniqueness* of the offer becomes.

    2. Seth Godin, author of *Unleashing the Idea Virus* has already proven the *strength* of viral marketing, now having the most downloadable e-book in history which now also sells in hardback & paperback—thus continuing the *wildfire* spread approach.

    I have no doubt that customer-to-customer, friend-to-friend, relative-to-relative through the daily ease of technology will *ignite* Networking to levels never thought possible years ago (See Wave 4 by Richard Poe).

    It is for that reason that after a long career in Corporate America, I AM now successfully *viralling* around the globe with a new, dynamic Company with a *First of a Kind* unique business model, all without the cost that would have been needed just a few short years ago. I Love it!

    Harvey Hess

    [email protected]

  • What if in every and each email message sellers insert a direct link/button “buy now /get it now” with no integration payment gateways at all?

    Say, a procedure for cc payments and m-payments directly, secure, and by using their own variable names. No software hassles at all, connecting to your payment processor. Would be a helper tool for email marketing?

    If the answer is YES, I have built it by using Macromedia ColdFusion Technology.

    The mechanism and procedures are patent pending since Aug/2001.

    There is a ‘BUT …’. I’m an independent developer living out of the USA, where this kind of innovation is the path to a sure crash.

    To spread the use of the system, partner companies are needed, and … very welcomed.

    Best regards. Vicente

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