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Viral Marketing

January 24, 2008

Viral Marketing, the rather unfortunate term coined by the venture capitalist behind Hotmail to describe the way service grew by word of mouth, has become the Holy Grail for every marketer. Viral Marketing uses the single most powerful aspect of the Internet – which we now communicate with many more people on a more frequent basis through email – to carry marketing messages in a far more effective way than traditional advertising and direct marketing techniques allow. In this article we look more closely at viral marketing, what it is, why it is so effective and the three steps involved in implementing a viral campaign.

What is Viral Marketing?

Although Viral Marketing sounds a slightly scary concept it’s really nothing more than good old fashioned word of mouth, but powered by email. Most people who use email communicate with many more people than they did before. Most of us have a much wider network of contacts through email than we realise (just look at how many people are in your email address book). Viral marketing is an email campaign technique that engages recipients in such a way that they want to pass on the message to this network of friends and colleagues. Just as viruses can be far reaching, so too viral marketers are able to disperse marketing messages beyond a target audience by exploiting the ease of email forwarding. Successful viral marketing means that a customer’s network of friends and colleagues passes on the message to its network of contacts, creating a self perpetuating cycle that can result in thousands, even millions of people receiving your message and passing it on.

Why does it work?

Viral marketing campaigns are not just successful in that they can reach a large number of people but when we receive messages from our friends we trust them more. These days, most people are impervious to advertising and marketing techniques; as consumers, most of us try to avoid being “marketed at”. If the product is endorsed by a friend however, rather than a company, we are much more likely to listen.

Creating a virus worthy message

The first step is to create an idea that is ‘virus-friendly’. Usually this means giving something away. If your customers are going to be motivated enough to pass something on it will be because they, and their friends, stand to get something out of it. According to a Direct Marketing Association Survey, if offered an incentive, 56 per cent of people would forward an e-mail, but only if they thought their friends or colleagues would be interested in the offer. What that interesting offer is will depend on your target market. It might be a free gift, a discount, an invitation to an event or some valuable and timely information. Incentives usually fall into one of three categories: Something cool – sometimes entertainment factor can be enough to get your message passed on, people love to pass on jokes and cool stuff to their friends via email. This is probably most effective amongst a younger target market sector. Important information - the Internet has created the capacity for a wealth of information to be made available at the click of a mouse. People do reach saturation point however and will discriminate; information needs to be of genuine value if it will work as a good enough incentive to pass along.

Financial gain

Free offers and discounts can be an excellent incentive in certain circumstances. Whatever incentive you choose this is the starting point for any effective viral campaign: give away something of value.

How to turn the incentive into a recommendation

The next step is to target the group of people most likely to have a network of like-minded people to spread the word to. These people might be a segment of your current customers – but they must be the sort of people that will be likely to have other contacts that will benefit from your offer. There’s no point for example sending a message to a Managing Director if you know that he gets his PA to print out emails and land them in his in tray - your virus won’t get past the first round. Having identified your offer and the people you want to share it with, the next issue to consider is how to make the incentive easy to pass on. Unless it can be forwarded with little effort then don’t expect that anyone will bother, no matter how great the giveaway is. This means that passing the message along should involve nothing more than typing in the email addresses of the desired recipients. The emails subsequently forwarded should also look personalised e.g. ‘John Smith thought that you would like to receive a copy of this White paper’. The reason that viral marketing is so successful is that we are much more likely to act on a recommendation from a trusted friend than a company. If you want your message to be perpetuated past your initial recipients it needs to be clear that it has come from them when they forward it on.

Think big

One of the dangers of Viral Marketing is forgetting that, if successful, the message could reach thousands of people. Don’t forget to check that your idea is scalable - it’s absolutely essential that you are able to deliver on the offer you make. Although your message may only get sent to a small number of people in the first instance, make sure that it is something that can be made available to a large number, without breaking your budget. Viral marketing campaigns can be very cheap to run but if ill-thought out could cost a lot to fulfill – and we don’t need to point out the dangers of failing to deliver on a promise. Finally campaigns must appeal to common motivations amongst your target market. It’s no good offering a discount if within your marketplace that would be perceived as devaluing a product, or a White Paper to a sector that does not seek out or value the information. Think about your market and build an offer that will get them excited.


There’s no denying that true viral marketing campaigns are tricky to create and make a success of. When they do work however they turn your customers and their networks of contacts into a sales channel with a phenomenal success rate. If you would like further information please email [email protected] or call 0161 817 2929

Posted by Jenni Malley

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