8 Ways to Make Your Startup Message Contagious

Implement these viral-marketing tactics, and the diagnosis will be strictly incurable success.

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.

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This article was originally published in the November 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: 8 Ways to Make Your Startup Message Contagious.

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