Viral marketing campaigns are internet word-of-mouth initiatives that use social networks to increase lead generation and brand engagement. They work across any online platform and easily scale from small to large, exponentially increasing their reach with little effort on the part of the marketer. Too often smaller organizations shy away from viral campaigns, assuming they are time-intensive and require big creative budgets. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, once you have made the initial investment your fans do much of the work for you.
Viral campaigns are most effective when you have a clear goal in mind. The three most common are increasing customer acquisition, brand awareness, or customer loyalty. Regardless of your goal, it is important to clarify it from the beginning because you will use different tactics depending on your desired outcomes.
There are many types of campaigns, but what they all have in common is that they evoke a reaction--laughter, shock, surprise, or another emotional response--that triggers people to take action and share the content The most common (and effective) viral campaign tools are video, interactive flash games and images. And among the myriad distribution channels, there is something for every budget.
When creating your campaign you want it to be easy and actionable; the simpler, the better. It shouldn't take more than a minute or two for someone to digest and react to your offer. To support that quick and instant reaction, you want to build your campaign on established platforms. Video, images, e-mail, Twitter, and so on, are readily accessible and understood. This is not a time to experiment with little known technologies. And be forewarned: You need to be clear about who you are and what you are attempting to do. There are countless examples of companies that tried stealthy seed campaigns without taking ownership of them and were criticized when the truth came out. Take the lesson learned from Walmart's misstep with the fictional cross country road trip .
How Can You Participate?
For customer acquisition campaigns, consider methods to introduce yourself and attract prospects who would otherwise not consider your brand. Twitter and Facebook are great viral tools for sharing content, video, images and more. Contests and giveaways are always popular viral strategies. If you are going to try this (and be warned: There are lots of contests and skepticism about contests), the items or services you choose should be of sufficient value to get attention, but also appropriately represent your brand. And most importantly, for whatever campaign you do, don't forget to use your "champions" (your most ardent fans or customers) to kick start the program and spread the word.
Brand engagement, on the other hand, is all about increasing the power of your current customer relationships. This strategy is permission-based, as these individuals have given you permission to reach out to them through various channels. They already see value in what you provide and are interested in engaging with you further. Twitter, Facebook, e-mail marketing, and promotions are all ways to enhance engagement with your current customer base. You can even use text messages.
Here are a few good examples: Look at the way the Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck has attracted a cult following of nearly 56,000 through Twitter. Here also, by Wadsworth Athenaeum, is a do-it-yourself art campaign . Dan Hollings, creator of Twittin' Secrets, deployed a browser app to seed his "Twitter Twenius" viral campaign a few months after launch. The app, which can be installed on all the major browsers includes more Twitter tips, tools and a Twitter plug-in. By providing valuable information and engaging in a two-way dialogue with your customers you can nurture your customers to be advocates and champions for your brand.
What both of these examples have in common is focus on the content and deployment method. A scattershot approach doesn't pay, especially for smaller organizations that have limited budget and resources. Ideally, you want to hone in on one or two tactics and do them very well. For instance, a small organization might not have the budget to create a slick video piece, but they do have the intellectual capital to create an effective rough cut video like this example from GuitarMasterPro.net.
Is It Working?
Here is where viral marketing can break down for many businesses. They come up with an idea, push it out once, but when they don't see an immediate return on investment, they give up. Instead, ask yourself two questions: Is the offer right? Are you properly measuring success?
The Offer: Remember, the goal is to get people to pass the offer along. To do that, you need to know your audience (age, gender, lifestyle, etc.), and your creative should reflect that knowledge. You want people to react strongly to your campaign--eliciting a powerful, visceral response. Secure a strong emotion and you will have them. Forget pleasing everyone with a neutral campaign; you want to create something very striking.
Measurement: Measurement has to be a critical component of your campaign so you can track what is working and tweak what isn't. With specific goals in place, such as views, sales, mobile views, pick up on blogs, or other social media elements, you can determine if your campaign is gathering traction. It's recommended that you develop a landing page or microsite so you can more easily assess traffic and conversions. Effective measurement will also tell you when to "re-seed" the campaign throughout its course. You should expect each campaign to run six to nine months. To ensure you're on track and your campaign is working, put measurable milestones in along the way.
Adam Boyden is responsible for marketing, business development and U.S. operations for Conduit . Previously, Adam was the vice president of business development and marketing and then general manager of Xfire, a provider of communications and tools to more than 11.5 million gamers worldwide that was acquired by MTV Networks for $110 million in 2006.