Viral Marketing 1, 2, 3

Everyone talks about building an online community that drives “viral” marketing — but how exactly do you accomplish that?

Viral marketing is not about setting up a forum and hoping people will come. It’s not about launching the 3,009th Facebook application that will sink quickly into obscurity. It’s about driving a value chain and meeting a need. Users need to get something in return for what they put in. Discovering and filling a latent need through Twitter, YouTube or Facebook can work fabulously well — but typically only for those who are among the first to figure it out and grab that piece of “experience share.” Once consumers adopt a behavior, it’s hard and expensive to get them to change. A viral campaign, by definition, is supposed to be cheap, because consumers promote the brand on their own accord.

So, what can retailers give to users in exchange for their attention and participation? What is the value chain in a successful viral marketing dynamic? At its core, a successful digital viral marketing platform that drives product sales has to do three things: (1) Deliver useful and inherently valuable online content and activities that (2) lead to engaging product experiences that (3) encourage participants to engage with new people and bring them into the platform.

Total Transparency

Consider this hypothetical example:

The most flattering jeans ever!!!

Help us spread the word about Genius Jeans. Send three of your friends a discount code for 15 percent off their first pair. Tell them about our super-flattering custom fits, mention our helpful jean fitter and let them see what a difference it makes to buy a pair of jeans designed by them, for them. If two of your friends come to the Web site and make a purchase, we’ll send you our signature “jeans belt” — the perfect accessory — as a thank-you! And we’ll give you three more discount codes to send.

In this example, participants don’t literally send the discounts — they provide the names, addresses, and emails of the recipients. After verifying that the sample recipients are not existing customers, they’re sent emails that look something like this:

Subject: Carol Donovan found the best jeans for you

Dear Kim,

Carol Donovan is sending you a 15 percent discount postcard for Genius Jeans, the revolutionary new denim brand. To learn more about Genius and read about what others are saying about how our custom jeans have solved their trickiest fit problems, visit our Web site at geniusjeans.com. Or feel free to reply to this email with any questions. Your postcard should arrive in a day or two — we look forward to hearing what you think!

Note that the emails would be sent by the retailer but copied to the sender (i.e., Carol), so everything would be visible and above board. In fact, Carol would be able to customize the email, so she would be fully aware of what was happening. It’s likely that senders will add some personal testimonials — e.g., “designing your own jeans with the jean fitter is totally awesome — you have to try it” — of the sort that retailers could never say themselves.

The hope is that Kim, with Carol’s explicit or implicit involvement, will visit the Genius Jeans Web site, play around with creating her own pair, become an active Web site participant and customer, and go on to spread the word to three or more of her friends!

The Engagement Piece

Going back to the viral value chain, the Web site satisfies (1) in that it’s inherently useful and valuable because it provides good information on Genius Jeans, the story behind the brand, details on how to create the perfect pair of jeans, and blogs and reviews. Even though consumers can buy the product through retail distributors, they can’t get the depth of information that the Web site can provide. Delivery of (2) is virtual here — an online experience through stories, videos, blogs and testimonials. This is why it’s so important to get recipients to come to the Web site, hopefully even before the discount postcard arrives.

Finally, (3) is satisfied in that the campaign fundamentally reaches out to non-Web site customers with a powerful incentive to engage and promote. The engagement piece is particularly important here. The email that’s sent before the postcard arrives provides the opportunity for Kim and Carol to communicate about what this thing is, why Carol loves it, how to use it, etc. It really increases the chance that Kim will actually try the jean fitter and communicate with Carol about it. Fostering personal engagement dramatically increases the likelihood that Kim will make a direct purchase — and then, of course, Kim will be invited to send discounts too!

Compare a program like this to the old-media method of sticking a coupon in 2.4 million Glamour magazines …

The More the Merrier

The same principles apply to other types of products, like SLR cameras — but even more has to be invested in the online virtual product experience, especially for pricier items. Ratings, reviews, expert opinions, videos, forums and blogs all play a part in enabling visitors to virtually experience the product and drive toward a purchase decision. The key is to think about how to let someone come as close as possible to actual product experience. It’s not about trying to tell customers what the seller thinks — it’s about letting them visualize what the product would do for them.

By the same token, the inherent value of online participation (1) does not have to be only about products and product information. Providing useful or entertaining content on related topics can work as long as there are ways to gracefully lead visitors to product experiences (2). The critical element here is “context.” It’s essential to offer a virtual product experience compatible with the style and atmosphere of the brand.

There’s an enormous number of permutations on how to spread the word to new participants (3). At some level, it’s “the more the merrier,” and only a question of effectiveness. If creating Facebook pages and “friending” everyone in sight works, that’s great. If email blasts are effective, send them. The real issue is creating the motivation for existing participants to promote to new participants.

Facilitate the communication, but don’t confuse the means of communication with the desire to communicate. In the denim example above, the campaign might work even if in the absence of any facilitation at all (i.e., without the emails). It’s possible to increase the chances of success by making certain paths really easy to use, but attempts to control the messages themselves are neither effective nor desirable. Viral promotion works because people are willing to be influenced by the authentic voices of people they trust.

Joe Chung is cofounder and CEO of Allurent, an e-commerce software provider.

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