Viral marketing

A message from someone you know is likely to be more credible than a similar message from a company. That is the basis of viral marketing; it is a way of encouraging your contacts to do your marketing for you. Viral marketing usually refers to Internet-based marketing campaigns designed to create word of mouth for a new product or service.
So viral marketing is a way to increase awareness of your brand among particular groups of people by encouraging them to pass on something that you have given them. This is a self-replicating process similar to the way a computer virus spreads, which is the reason for the name; one person passes it to a few friends, each of them passes it to their contacts, and so on.
These days viral marketing is often associated with glossy, expensive productions typically in the form of spoof videos or funky cartoons created by advertising agencies for big-name clients.
But the principles apply to any size of business. Many small businesses use similar techniques to promote special offers or new products by e-mail. Often the person who receives the message will be rewarded for passing it on, frequently by additional entries into a prize draw. And viral marketing is a useful marketing tool because …

  • It is inexpensive (especially compared to direct mail or conventional advertising). Once you have developed the content and e-mailed it to the first few recipients, you have no more costs.
  • The cost per response is likely to be better, too. Viral marketing assumes a good targeted audience; get that right and you can expect a high response rate.
  • It can be very quick to produce results. A successful viral message will be spread around social or business contacts with extraordinary speed.

A good viral marketing exercise relies on …

  • Giving the right message to the right people. The content has to match the needs or interests of the audience – otherwise they will ignore or reject the message. Obviously you will avoid inappropriate matches of message and audience. Senior citizens are unlikely to be enthralled by a video clip of extreme sports. But you should also consider the context; someone receiving an e-mail at home may have a different mindset to someone receiving it at their business e-mail address, so a ‘special offer’ mailing might not be appreciated away from the office and a collection of jokes could be a poor fit for the working day.
  • Avoiding as many of the pitfalls as possible. The message should not look or feel like junk mail – it may be rejected even if it is being forwarded by someone the recipient knows. The mailing should also avoid using words and phrases that mean the message will be discarded by the spam filters and firewalls that so many people use (with good reason). And it needs to be handled carefully:
  • You need the right kind of content. What seems amusing or useful to one person might be dull or even offensive to someone else.
  • You need a simple way of encouraging the recipients to pass on the message.
Define the target audience
Before you get started on anything else, you need to identify the purpose (or purposes) of the marketing exercise. This in turn will help define the recipients for your viral message. There are three basic options:

  • Are you looking for a way to build firmer relationships with existing customers?
  • Are you addressing prospective purchasers to establish some brand associations for your business?
  • Are you trying to build a brand image and find new contacts among a totally different group of people?
Define content
What you actually say in your message – and how you say it – will depend on how much the recipient already knows about you and what kind of impression you want to create. They will define the ‘tone’ of the message as well as the content.
As a basic rule, aim for the type of content that will match the audience’s expectations and needs as well as your own goals and your budget. It could be useful (such as a booklet of tips, or a link to a web site with more tips and tricks), amusing (for instance, an extended joke or a spoof advertisement video) or engaging (a mind-exercising game perhaps, or a hunt-the-treasure competition with clues). It could also relate specifically to your business – a special discount offer, a product launch, events or workshops. We’ll itemise some ideas next month.

You can now look at the specifics of the campaign.

  • Produce the content. You can do this yourself using applications such as Microsoft Word or Microsoft Publisher for documents, Microsoft FrontPage or Microsoft Publisher for web sites, or even Windows Movie Maker for editing video clips into a mini-movie. If you are going to offer something like a video, or if the message invites readers to participate in a prize draw or visit a special web site, make sure that these are fully tested and ready for use well before the mailing.
  • Most viral messages include something more than the message itself – either an attachment or a link to a web site that can provide more information or more content. There are dangers in this: some anti-spam and anti-virus procedures on users’ PCs will prevent attachments being delivered and may prohibit web links. You should be prepared for this; you can accept that your messages will not reach all the possible readers, or you can provide some alternative way of accessing the content (plain-text messages will usually get through, though they cannot include clickable links).
  • Encourage distribution. Find ways to make it easy for people to pass on the message, for example by including a “Send to a friend” button. Encourage the recipients to use it by offering a reward such as a free gift or a prize draw entry if they forward the message to others.
  • Track response. Include a way of measuring response. If there is an incentive to visit a special web site or to request similar content from you, you will be able to measure the effectiveness of the campaign.
Your viral marketing might include the use of apparently amateur websites, blogs and forwarded emails – the kind of thing that is sometimes called ‘astroturfing’ (it’s fake grass, and by extension refers to formal PR campaigns which aim seek to create the impression of being a spontaneous, grassroots activity).

Not all e-mails are necessarily worth passing on. In fact, email forwarding works best when users don’t feel any pressure to share. Good viral emails offer a compelling reason to pass on the content – and they usually include a simple one-step way to do that, typically by including some way of entering a friend’s e-mail address. The forwarded message then features an introductory paragraph explaining why the friend is receiving it and inviting them to opt-in.

  • What will you be offering, and why should anyone want to pass it on?
  • How will you distribute the message to the first few recipients?
  • How do you encourage people to pass on your message?
  • Size: If the viral content is a video clip, it may be too large for the recipient to receive. This is becoming less of a problem as broadband becomes more widespread and mailboxes get more capacious
  • Attachments: A greater problem is the way many corporate email systems, firewalls and anti-spam mechanisms will reject any mail with attachments (or in some cases any mail that uses HTML formatting).
  • Awkward referrals: A viral marketing campaign needs an easy pass-on mechanism. But it should also be comfortable for the user. For example, if the promotion is a contest, asking for referrals should not be a precondition to playing – ask for the pass-ons immediately after the game.


1. Offer a manageable incentive. Viral marketing works best when a valuable and tangible incentive is offered, encouraging individuals to forward an email message to their friends. However, marketers should cap the incentive to a specific quantity to avoid spam-like distribution of the message – for example, offering 20% off the referrers’ next purchase if they forward the message to five friends. Open-ended incentives, such as a £5 credit for every five friends referred, can end up causing a marketer customer service, financial, and privacy-related problems.

2.Don’t consider the referral an opt-in. A name and email address volunteered by a person’s friend does not constitute an opt-in by the individual, so the data should be deleted immediately after the referral email is sent. The referral email should ask if the individual would like to receive future mailings.

3.Personalise the referral email. Response rates increase dramatically when users can see that a message is coming from a friend. The subject line is the key component in a viral marketing email, because it can immediately identify the email as friendly. A good subject line may read: “ADV: John Doe Thought You’d Like 20% Off at,” thereby identifying that it is an advertisement, there’s a special offer, and the message was sent from a friend.

4.Track and analyse the results. As with any marketing campaign, tracking the results and optimising performance over time is absolutely necessary. Thankfully, sophisticated email marketers can track insightful and actionable data that can be used to evaluate performance. Important metrics to analyse are pass-along, click-through, and conversion rates. Marketers should separate the click-through and conversion rates by original customers from referrals and evaluate their respective performances. These metrics will alert a marketer to which offers and customers drive the highest ROI.

5.Continually promote friendly referrals. Marketers who want to have their messages forwarded frequently should place a viral marketing offer in every relevant outgoing email message. Viral marketing makes for a great one-time campaign, but it can also be a very effective tool for continuing to broaden the reach of your marketing messages over time.

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