Viral Marketing: A Plague or a Cure?

Viral marketing may be relatively new on the Internet, having emerged roughly a decade ago in its high-tech form. However, it’s by no means a novel promotional technique, and it certainly doesn’t depend on technology.

“Viral marketing is about generating buzz,” Orvel Ray Wilson, coauthor of the legendary Guerrilla Marketing series of books, told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s not just about the Internet — the same things can happen without technology.”

To wit: “Go to Home Depot, and you’ll find a box of ‘Home Depot’-emblazoned pencils for sale near the cash register,” he said. “Let’s say they cost 89 cents.”

Free Love

Go to a viral marketing competitor, on the other hand, “and you’ll find a similar box of branded pencils,” Wilson explained. “But instead of charging for them, the clerk gives you one for free.”

The result: Customers feel they got something extra; they tell their friends; and eventually, the pencils find their way into the hands of other potential customers.

“That’s the essence of viral marketing,” Wilson explained. “It’s about putting something into the hands of consumers that they’ll value and see and remember and tell their friends about.”

‘Word of Mouse’

With the arrival of the Internet, of course, technology has picked up this basic concept and given it a new spin. “Instead of word of mouth, now it’s word of mouse,” Wilson said. “But it’s still essentially the same thing.”

Viral techniques on the Web today include encouraging users to forward not just e-mails, but also links to blogs, YouTube videos or MySpace posts.

As with most Internet communications, the costs are low and the speed and ease factor are high. Unfortunately, those very advantages can lull marketers into thinking that viral marketing success will come just as easily.

“I think there’s a lot of misconception about what makes a good viral marketing program,” Stefan Pollard, director of consulting services at EmailLabs, told the E-Commerce Times.

“People think they can slap a ‘Forward to a Friend’ button on every promotional thing they put out there and it will generate tremendous results with no effort,” he said. “But it’s not that easy. We see some very disappointed marketers trying to understand why their promotion didn’t work.”

Three Types

There are three key types of viral marketing, Pollard explained. First are efforts aimed at branding rather than selling particular products or services. Currently, one of the most successful ways to achieve this goal is through interactive mini-sites that encourage user-generated content, he said, such as the one Doritos set up last year that led to a user-created commercial getting aired during the Super Bowl.

The second type of viral marketing efforts involve giveaways, such as free samples or entry into a sweepstakes. “This type is challenging, because consumers want the free thing, but not necessarily to sign up for anything else,” Pollard explained. “Often they will bail off your list. There are a lot of downsides to giveaways — you have to work to find one that makes sense.”

Finally, there is the type in which content publishers have information of value that they hope will be passed along to others who might be interested. Ease of forwarding is critical to this technique, and it tends to be less far-reaching; nevertheless, “done well, it can be powerful,” Pollard said.

Invitation Only

A newer twist on the viral marketing concept is one in which companies such as Coca-Cola and MySpace set up Web environments for a select group of customers who have a particular affinity for their company or brand. Participation is by invitation only, and members must maintain set minimum levels of involvement to stay in the group, Justin Cooper, chief innovation and marketing officer at Passenger, told the E-Commerce Times.

The environments offer social networking, community building and collaboration tools, allowing users to generate content or otherwise participate in the brand, while the company gains a deeper understanding of its most influential customers and, through their influence, a way to acquire new customers, Cooper said.

Keys to Success

What leads to viral marketing success? “You have to understand your brand and whether or not people want to be involved with you,” Pollard said. “Let’s be honest: If you’re a mortgage lender, even if you offer a coupon for US$250 off, you’re probably not going to generate a lot of buzz.”

A successful viral program, on the other hand, means that “people are talking about you, they like what they’re getting, and they want to share it,” he added. Humor and entertainment value are often key ingredients, whether delivered through e-mail or another medium, Pollard noted.

A good illustration is the famous “Mentos and Diet Coke” recipe for creating a small (and sticky) eruption, which has likely secured a spot in the viral marketing hall of fame for its popularity on the Web. “The marketing people in Atlanta must be having a field day with that,” Wilson exclaimed. “It was totally out of their control, and yet it’s probably led to their selling more bottles of Diet Coke than they ever planned.”

Risky Business

Indeed, it’s in that unpredictability that one of the principal frustrations of viral marketing resides.

“Viral marketing is like movie production: You never know if you’ll have a blockbuster or a flop, and spending more doesn’t guarantee success,” Kevin Lee, executive chairman and cofounder of Did-it.com, told the E-Commerce Times.

After launching an attempt to get users to come up with new slogans for Chevrolet, the company was flooded with negative ones, and had to dismantle the effort, Pollard noted.

“It’s kind of like the weather — everybody talks about it, but it’s not something over which we really have control,” Wilson agreed.

Greasing the Wheels

The best marketers can do is try to facilitate the viral spread of their marketing messages. “Viral marketing should be part of an overall marketing strategy,” Wilson said. “You can hope and pray it happens, and you can do everything you can to facilitate and encourage it, but you shouldn’t depend on it.”

Quicken did a good job of encouraging a viral success, and it worked. In its efforts to sell its QuickBooks software product online, it offered a “you’ve got to be kidding” guarantee whereby customers who weren’t satisfied could get their money back without even returning the product, Wilson explained.

“Word spread, and suddenly the product was selling off the Internet like hotcakes,” he said. “In one year, it totally swamped the accounting software category.”

Ethical Concerns

Yet however alluring the potential for success might be, marketers must also realize that there can be ethical concerns when encouraging users to market to one another.

First, in some eyes, “it’s a marketing model that’s essentially built on deception,” Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, told the E-Commerce Times. Viral marketing depends on convincing people to do something by leading them to believe in the authenticity of something that is not, in fact, authentic, he contends.

For example, there has been a “proliferation” of videos on YouTube portraying young women smoking cigarettes, Weissman notes — suspiciously, their sponsorship is frequently not disclosed.

Those most easily convinced are often children, and Commercial Alert filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in 2005, citing the deceptiveness of the practice.

Second, viral marketing “is a commercial interference in authentic relationships between everyday people, so that they no longer relate to each other as one friend to another, or one classmate to another, but as marketer to consumer,” he said.

Inflated Expectations

Viral marketers can also pay dearly if their efforts lead to falsely inflated customer expectations. “Viral marketing can make your product take off, but it can also shut down your business,” Wilson said. “Vendors have to become much more disciplined.”

Looking forward, the technique seems unlikely to fade away, and new technologies will just continue to refine the way it’s done.

In the end, the Internet will likely remain a central repository that everyone accesses for one purpose or another, so “in a way, it’s like 17th century London,” Wilson concluded. “The sewers and water supplies run together, so everybody catches everything.”

That, marketers can only hope, will continue to include viruses of the promotional kind.

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