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  2. How Viral Marketing Works - and Doesn't
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How Viral Marketing Works - and Doesn't

Viral marketing was the third most popular way for U.S. surfers to find out about web sites in 2000, according to Forrester Research. But viral marketing is not easy. More an art than a science, viral marketing is more than merely asking a recipient to "Forward this to a friend." A viral message is one that contains a quality piece of information or offer or an incentive to pass along.

The key to a viral marketing campaign's success is to offer something worthy of sharing, such as a valuable discount, a piece of vital information, or an incentive for sharing the information. For a viral marketing campaign to be effective, it needs to demonstrate an intrinsic value to the target audience. For instance, the message may have some entertainment value or a palpable reward, or perhaps offer something the recipient can use.

Like these:

  • Pass this on, will ya? The granddaddy of Viral marketing has to be HotMail, which was soon copied by Yahoo! and anyone else who had a free email service. It was simple. Attach your URL to every email that your users send out. Before they knew it, HotMail had more email users than the largest ISP. You can do the same. Make sure that every email sent out from your company has your URL on it. Scope mouthwash provides another good example of "Pass this on, will ya?" marketing. They created an email message that allowed recipients to send a customized, animated, email "kiss" to their friends. The message reinforced the branding premise that Scope brought people "Kissably close." When people received a kiss, they had the option to send an email themselves. Soon people were sending Scope kisses all over the world!

  • Tell 'em Sam sent you. Reward your steady visitors for bringing new visitors to your site. Create a special "Referrer Program" that your steady visitors can sign up for. Have them invite their friends to visit, and if they do, have them mention the referrer's email address—the referrer earns something free from your site.

  • I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine. Your site sells cigars. Their site sells humidors. A relationship made in web heaven! Look for sites that sell products or services that are complementary to your own. Then contact them and offer a reciprocal linking arrangement. You can even go one step further and offer their visitors a discount if they join your Referrer Program.

  • Got any good jokes lately? I don't know how many times I've forwarded jokes or scam and virus alerts I received in my email to friends and associates. Create a funny newsletter or an email alert that someone would pass on to friends.

  • Take my site, please! This is similar to "Got any good jokes lately?" but in this case you give away your best assets. Don't just send out a notice about new content on your site—send out summaries by email and ask people to forward it on (with copyright and URL attached, of course). Relevant or timely information, research, or studies are all examples of content that may be viewed as potential pass-along material. A variation on this strategy is to let other sites reprint your content on their site, with appropriate credits and links to yours.

  • And the winner is... Create an award for the best sites in your category or subject area. Then send them an email informing them that they won the award and where to acquire the award icon to place on their site. I do this with my About.com Online Shopping site. I award a "Best of the Net" to certain worthy sites and ask them to place the best-of icon on their site—which is then linked back to my site.

  • Entertain me. Interactive content such as a quiz or test can inspire forwarding, especially if it's fun. Personality tests, fitness quizzes, or compatibility questionnaires are all things that could be passed from inbox to inbox. Why? Because they're entertaining.

But there are downsides. In fact, there's just one. When you use viral marketing, you're letting others do your marketing for you. Though this will save you money, your message and your brand are in the hands of someone else. Once you unleash a viral communiqué, it's going to move through the hive at the velocity it chooses, in the direction it chooses.

There's a fine line here between spreading the word and diluting your brand. The challenge is to exercise some control over how your message is delivered and how others perceive it. But when you master this technique, your message and your site can spread as quickly as the common cold.

Finally, don't expect a viral marketing program to pay off immediately. Real viruses don't become epidemics until they reach critical mass. Your virus must propagate through the host population until it reaches a certain threshold of visibility and scale. Think of it this way. Suppose a real-world virus doubles every year. In the first few years, it's scarcely detectable. But within a few years after that it suddenly becomes an epidemic. You should understand that you're playing the same game. Viral marketing takes time. So be patient, be fruitful—and go out and multiply!

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