From the November 2001 issue of Startups

There are alligators living in the New York City sewer system--slimy green snapping ones--ever since the actor who played Eddie Haskell died in Vietnam. I heard it all from the disappearing hitchhiker--the one who always starts talking about God.

Wait a minute. How do we all "know" stories like that? No full-page ads, no marketing blitz. In fact, not a single one of those advertising dollars that you and I cry we don't have was ever spent to hawk those yarns. And yet we can all recognize these wacked-out tales--and every person we meet seems to know about them, too.

So here's my question: What if it were your product that everyone knew so well? Hmmm?

I'm talking buzz. The grapevine, the rumors, the whisper in your ear. Those very off-the-record tidbits that you and I share over a slice of deep dish in the student lounge. It's the outrageous occurrence that someone just saw and can't wait to describe, and the friend-of-a-friend who just bought something incredibly cool. It's yada, yada, yada.

And that's the most powerful marketing machine in the world. Because in today's cyber-joined reality, every "have you heard?" can get clicked to a zillion other hackers faster than you can download the latest pictures of Anna Kournakova. Traditional advertising is dead--even Titanic-sized billboards don't fetch a glance anymore. But we all still read the scribblings on the bathroom wall.

You've heard of a computer virus. (Poof--it's everywhere!) Now meet the virus of marketing. Basically, its a business message that attaches to its host and then spreads to other customers in an epidemic called incredible sales. Do it properly, and "viral marketing" can be a very good thing.

So whether it's that "e-mail to a friend" button just tempting you to click it, or a pair of real (and very satisfied) lips whispering persuasive endorsements into receptive ears, viral marketing can transmit your business message at biological speed. Faster than a rumor in a college dorm, at no cost to you. Cool.

So are you prepared to turn your new business into the next urban legend? That juicy piece of gossip that people can't live without? Then begin by reading the viral-marketing chain letter we've written below. Because these eight tips will turn your business into a very contagious thing.

1. Pursue the cool. Madonna put nice girls in bustiers, and James Dean made rebels of us all. How did it happen? Tastemakers endorse something by doing it, and the rest of us follow. They start the commotion (like Rosie's Tickle-Me-Elmo), and we go into buying motion.

To spread the viral message about your firm, you just need to get the right person to "sneeze" what you do. Sell the president of the Realtors Association on your house-painting service. Convince the "Outdoors" columnist to review your rafting vacations. Or get the gadget hounds and urban kids to make your streetwise electronics cool.

However you do it, get your message to the influential people who can start the buzz. Then look who's talking now.

2. Let's give them something to talk about. "I know where you can get a terrific deal on software," someone tells you at a party. "My carpet guy can get those stains out for you," your sister informs you. Guess what. Recommending a great product makes people feel smart. Like they're important. They know the answer. Give a customer a great product, and you become their brag.

To do it, fill a burning need. People don't find baby-sitters or landscapers through advertising--they hear about them at weddings and bar mitzvahs. We all share the unusual ("Vinny's Cameras gives free film"), the scandalous ("You have to see the bikini car wash!") and the radical (Remember the first time you saw a Walkman? "What's that--and where can I get one?"). Now you've got them talking.

3. A tight little package. This is all you desire in your viral blurb: easy to explain ("They sell the most beautiful earrings") and instantly understandable ("Your kids will love these toys!"). Always stand out (the best service, the biggest selection) in a way the customer will want to share. And be so easy to remember ("It's called 1-800-Flowers") that your message never gets lost on the tip of a tongue.

Pop quiz. Describe your firm, right now, until you say it virally right. If you can't do it, your customers won't.

4. It's like the measles in kindergarten. Your viral message will spread best if you "sneeze" it in the right direction--in Starbucks, at Gymboree or wherever your target customers are likely to be found.

Once you do that, find your "Typhoid Marys"--the people who'll spread your business even as they pursue their own. The bridal shop who recommends your limos just found another way to please their customers--and you reap the reward. Ditto when that Elvis Web site links to your vintage poster page. And when that boutique owner dishes about your shampoos, you soak up the sales.

Let's Get Viral

5. "To register your own e-mail account, click here." You just received one--now buy one yourself. From bouquets to "gifts for the golfer," "share-me" products give you the opportunity to spread your message inside what you sell. It's product as pitchman.

Case in point: Marketing maven Raj Khera of e-mail list management service Mailermailer LLCcan create a customized e-newsletter package that will spread your business message to target users, all through the Internet grapevine. Keep those customers loving your product, because they'll tell--and sell--others.

6. So pay it forward. Generate more sales. "Thanks so much for your business. Share this coupon with a friend, and she'll receive a complete facial at 20 percent off. To receive your free gift, please sign below." That's business author Jan Norman's magic; she just helped you land a customer you've never met, and reward another one to boot.

It's the business card in the bottom of the bag, and the "remember to tell your friends" when you close the sale--absurdly easy ways to boost sales. Offer something free for new names on your mailing list, and watch everyone join your sales force.

7. Because she'll tell two friends. And they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on. But forget the fancy marketing theories; it works because I heard it from a friend who liked it, not from some pitchman who sells anything for a buck. That's validation--nontraditional advertising that retains the truth.

Here's an idea. Instead of that silent store display you once dreamed about--and where most products die a very lonely death--why not "Tupperware party" whatever you sell. Customers will tell each other, and your products will sell themselves.

8. So overcome their resistance. Your viral message will take time to take hold. Problem-solving guru Jordan Ayan points to persistence as the key ingredient to championing your business idea. Like that winter flu that some people don't contract until May, some customers will need many exposures before they'll "catch the bug" about what you sell--no matter how great your product may be. "Are you willing to ask for referrals again and again?" Jan Norman asks. "Because that's the way to build word-of-mouth."

And that's the gossip on viral marketing. Prepare for your outbreak. Of course, don't sizzle and then serve no steak; even the fanciest paint job blows when there's nothing under the hood. Remember that disappointing products, poor customer service or other business blunders create the opposite buzz--one that can kill your business. And anyone who spams (i.e., annoying/unsolicited product plugs/blanket e-mails) kills their business even faster.

But by now, I don't even need to remind you about that. Why? Because you already know it. How? I guess you heard it from someone. Yeah. And they knew their stuff. In fact, that advice was so good, you went out and told everyone. Must have told a hundred people...


Nick D'Alto is director of IEG Corp., where he helps startups create that epidemic of sales.