In my experience and research, I’ve found that viral marketing can be a positive or negative advertising method. Some companies use it correctly while others let campaigns turn negative and spiral out of control. And some people believe that viral marketing campaigns are so expensive that only big companies can implement them on larger scales. This, however, is entirely untrue as viral marketing can work for any size business. This article will define viral marketing, describe how it works, and discuss examples and strategies for small businesses.
The specific definition of viral marketing differs from person to person. However, everyone generally agrees that viral marketing is an advertising method that gets customers to market your products and services for you. More specifically, I would say that it’s an advertising method that capitalizes on humanity’s predisposition to share ideas, make new connections, and, of course, get free stuff.
When Does Viral Marketing Work Best?
Viral marketing is a touchy advertising method. Use it at the right times with the right products and your name can spread like wildfire. However, employ it incorrectly and you could see some very negative results. Viral marketing works best when a product or service is easy to use, easy to explain, has a low level of commitment, and is generally seen as “cool” in your customers’ eyes. Let’s look at these characteristics in order:
Easy to use – Because you are having your own customers do the marketing for you, it is preferable that their experience with the product is positive. If it’s difficult to use and they dislike the product, why would they refer it to a friend?
Easy to explain – Your product needs to be simple – that is, people can quickly share it without being bogged down by details. Ever wonder why those videos on file sharing websites get passed around the Internet so quickly? All you have to do is tell a friend about a great video on the Internet and give them the link. It’s simple with no explanation.
Low Level of Commitment – Finally, your product must have a low level of commitment. A friend once wanted me to sign up for one of those Internet pyramid schemes that offer a free IPOD or flat panel TV if you get 10 people to join a program. If you actually follow through with one of these things, it takes about 30 minutes to sign up because you have to give endless amounts of information, uncheck every free email box, and finally sell your soul. No one in their right mind would do this more than once.
General Coolness Factor – It’s obvious that people only want to talk about the most exciting products they use. No one walks up to a friend and describes the latest underwear they’ve bought. Instead, they describe their new cell phone, poster, CD, or book. If your product is cool, people will talk about it. And in most cases, the “coolness factor” can be changed based on how you position the product in your customers’ minds. In other words, it’s all based on the advertising that goes along with it.
Viral Marketing – The Distant Cousin of Buzz Marketing
So we’ve established that a product itself can bring about a viral result if it has the four characteristics. But viral marketing can still work for products that do not meet these criteria if you can generate an adequate buzz for them. Buzz marketing is generated from catchy advertising and works when your customers talk about your product in day-to-day conversation.
In recent years, buzz marketing has worked for companies like Volkswagen and Burger King. However, I’m saying that buzz marketing has worked for these companies – not viral marketing. Buzz marketing all too often generates hype about the ad campaigns that feature the product and not the product itself. Sometimes this can be negative and divert attention away from your product. Although some would argue that Crispin Porter’s attempt at targeting VW enthusiasts’ hearts was genuine when they came out with the “MyFast” and the “Unpimp” commercials, they do not make me want to buy a VW – an item that definitely falls outside of the four criteria.
Sure you can have catchy advertising, but make sure it’s advertising that focuses on product. Buzz marketing is more of an awareness campaign. And in my experience, small businesses need to see a return on their advertising investments – they can’t afford to just promote awareness of their products. You can’t just produce a buzz-worthy campaign that people will forget the second the advertisements come down. The goal is to get the product in peoples’ hands for the viral effect to occur.
Can Viral Marketing Work Offline? And for a Small Business?
Sure it can. I’m sure you’ve read viral marketing success stories involving Hotmail, NetZero, Skype, and even the comedian Dane Cook who used MySpace.com for his viral marketing campaign. This might get a lot of people thinking that they need large scale campaigns that utilize websites, emails, and constant updates to online material. But there’s one great example I’d like to share with you where a business employed a viral marketing campaign without much use of the internet and on a very small scale.
A local gym that I once went to had a great idea to hand out free t-shirts if members signed up for their “Guests First” program. They stopped everyone at the door, handed them a t-shirt, and told them that they could get a free guest pass every time they wore the shirt to the gym (the shirt had the gym’s logo and location on it). To sign up, the members only had to verify the information they gave when they first became a gym member. It was a win-win for customers. Everyone started wearing the t-shirts and the guest passes started flying. Whenever a guest came in, they had to give their name and email address to the front desk. Later, an email would be sent to the guest to gauge their satisfaction with the gym. It also acted as a follow-up contact to the guest. This was, by far, the most intelligent and well thought out marketing scheme I had ever seen. The gym built a database of new potential customers, generated hype about the guest passes in town, put walking advertisements out on the street, and, in the end, got more people in the gym. And it was all done on a small scale.
Would Viral Marketing Work for Your Business?
As I said before, there are times when viral marketing works and times when it doesn’t. You really need to take a close look at your products and the behavior of your customers to see if it’s right for your business.
Products – Take one of your cheap, low cost, low involvement products and start handing it out for free. If you are a service-based business, start offering free trials of your low cost services. Start advertisements about the giveaways to get more people in your place of business. Be humorous and ironic – it tends to work better with viral marketing campaigns. If the products and services get high visibility, you will see a more viral effect. Even if you only carry expensive products that get low visibility, research on the internet or spy on competitors to see what types of giveaway items have worked for other businesses. Remember, choose something that people will always see or have a use for and associate it with your brand and business.
Customer Behavior – A successful viral marketing campaign also relies on the behavior of your customers. You need customers who are outgoing, friendly, and lead an active lifestyle. The more people that surround your customer, the more impressions your viral marketing tool will have. Remember, viral marketing, or any advertising, works best when you can achieve multiple impressions with the least amount of effort. The last person you want to test viral marketing on is some recluse that sits inside eighteen hours a day and emerges only to restock the fridge and drive to work. It’s about getting your customers to do the work for you and advertising is all about visibility. It only makes sense that you need a highly visible customer base to do this type of advertising.
Go Out and Do It!
Viral marketing can work for almost any business. You know your business and customers the best. Set aside some time in the next few weeks to try and think of some great viral marketing tactics that you can employ. If you think the risk is too great, start small to test the water.
Every business has customers. Few businesses have fans. The trick is turning your customers into loyal fans. Then you will be surprised at just how easy viral marketing really is.