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Viral Marketing: What it is, What it Takes

Updated on September 1, 2013
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Dr. Middlebrook is a fiction-writing coach, author (pen name Beax Rivers), online course developer, and former university professor.

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Viral marketing is a tool that anyone can use. It is a way of getting other people to help you get your message out (to make it spread, like a virus) to even more other people—to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others, so that ultimately, you can achieve a marketing objective. As a former college professor of advertising and direct marketing, and and as a marketing communications professional, I enjoy keeping a close watch on how individuals and businesses are using viral marketing, many with great success. With 25+ years of marketing experience, I knew no one and nothing can guarantee the success of any marketing strategy or tactic. Still, the potential rewards of a viral campaign make many of the risks of trying to create one, worth taking.

By using the Internet to deliver interesting and/or creatively packaged messages, this form of marketing is more than cost-efficient—it can be nearly cost-free. Consider that the same number of impressions (views) that can be generated by a successful viral marketing campaign, if you were purchasing paid media space or time to print or broadcast the same messages, would represent thousands and possibly millions of dollars’ worth of exposure—money that viral marketers do not have to spend.

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Remember the old Faberge Organics Shampoo commercial from the 1980’s? One of them featured Heather Locklear talking about how she told two friends about the product, and then they told two friends, and so on, and so on. Well, that’s exactly how a viral marketing campaign has to work, in order for it to work as a marketing tool. You must create a marketing campaign (with lighter emphasis on “marketing” and heavier emphasis on “campaign”) that people will love so much that they won’t just want to share it; they’ll feel they must share it.

Your message and how it is delivered will have to "connect" with those who receive it. It will have to get your viewers so excited and so passionate that they’ll become your marketing agents, happily and willingly sharing your message with their contacts, and then their contacts will contagiously share it with their contacts, and so on, and so on, and so on.

What "Not" to Do

Marketers have to be careful when developing the message (or messages) that they hope will become part of a viral marketing campaign. Why? First, because there are millions of marketers crafting millions of messages that are being designed to go viral, so that means there’s a lot of competition these days for people’s attention. Your message will have to do more than stand out; it’ll have to be more than unique. It will have to be something with the potential to become contagious.

The other reason you need to create your message with a lot of tender loving care is that if you’re selling something, or trying to lay a foundation for selling something, even if it’s for an idea (as in philanthropy) rather than for a product or a service, you still have to be sure to steer clear of advertising and marketing “sales-sounding” talk. Everyone is exposed to so many sales messages today that we are literally bombarded, all day long, with advertising and/or marketing in one form or another. The last thing you need to do to your friends is to add to their feeling of “bombardment” with the message you are sending; a message you’re hoping they will send to their friends and family. Think about it. I don't think you would want to send them something that sounds like just another advertisement, that is, unless you think it’s the greatest, most unusual and most spectacular ad ever created.

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A Tough Creative Challenge

The toughest challenge you will face in trying to craft a viral marketing campaign is coming up with a unique way to seize the phenomenal power of word-of-mouth. Viral marketing is a form of word-of-mouth, and it requires a kind of creativity that will speak to your audience in a way nothing else has or can. The creativity used to create the message is essential to the success of a viral marketing campaign. Not too much pressure, huh?

The good news is, to stand out; your message doesn’t have to have “Madison Avenue” type creativity (that’s where a lot of big ad agencies are located in New York). It can be something that is shockingly simple, but it must be presented in a way that is:

  • Show-stopping when it comes to getting attention, or,
  • Lovingly heart-warming, or,
  • Amazingly ridiculous or funny, or,
  • All of the above.

Your message must contains provocative content using text, a video, photos, graphics, an excerpt from a blog entry, or some type of interactive mechanism, with an interesting and compelling message people will get excited about. Remember, your message must “connect,” in a meaningful way, with those you send it to. It must get them so excited they’ll to want to share it with others— friends, family, and work colleagues, people plugged in to their social networks who will share your message, in a short period of time, with those they’re already in communication with on a regular basis.

Boo, "The World's Cutest Dog!" at Home, Sleepy Too

There's no denying the awesome power of social network marketing. Thanks to social networks, a little dog named Boo (often called "The World's Cutest Dog!") now has close to two million fans on Facebook, and his owner has penned two book deals.

Boo has proven that the content of a viral campaign can be simple. As simple as a cute little dog, being cute. That's really about all Boo brings to the table, and your campaign can be simple too. As simple as text in an email message, an email containing video clips, interesting photo(s), graphics, games, an e-book, or something else that is linked directly to your store, your product/service, or your organization. You will then deliver your content to recipients through word-of-mouth, email, social networks (Facebook, MySpace, You Tube, etc.), blogs, newsletters, mobile devices, and so on.

And just as there's no denying the power of viral social network marketing, there is also no denying that it can be difficult to find the type of success that Boo and his owner have found. If you’re creating a video for You Tube, for example, posting it on You Tube would be free, and figuring out how to get the word out about your video being on You Tube would be the trick you'd need to master. If it is a great video, it will soon take on a life of its own, and you won't have to do much "pushing" of it at all. Sometimes, the simpler ideas are better. for example, if you have a business, you could ask some of your customers to make videos of them, featuring in the video either your product or service, or the need they have for your product or service. Using genuine people with real problems, in real, homemade videos, often, is very effective.

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Get "Outside" Opinions

Did you know that Jesus Christ was rejected in Nazareth, his hometown? That is why it is written in the Bible, in Luke 4:24, "Truly, I say unto you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown." It is true that it can be next to impossible for those who know and love you to be impartial about your creative ventures (and/or adventures). For this reason, it is a good idea to get the opinion of people you're not so close to; people for whom there is a perceptible distinction between you and what you have created. Ask people outside of your circle of family, friends, and close acquaintances to view what you hope will become a viral marketing campaign.

Don’t be afraid to get opinions, suggestions, and even advice from people outside your business or organization; people more likely to give you their honest opinion. Young adults and teens can be highly “in tune” with the latest trends, especially when it comes to the Internet and viral marketing ideas. If you can, try your idea out with several teens and young adults. They might have input or ideas to help you improve your message, or at least they might let you know what they think about the one(s) you’ve come up.

While There Are No Guarantees . . .

You must understand that just because you want your campaign to go viral doesn’t mean it will. You can do all the work on what you are calling your “viral marketing campaign,” but only time will tell if it will actually go viral. Although there are many in the marketing industry who will tell you they can create for you a campaign that will go viral, the truth is, even those making this promise can really make no promises (at least they can't always keep them!).

There simply are no guarantees, even if you pay someone to try to create a viral campaign for you. You (or they) could plan and plan and plan for as long as necessary, and then you (or they) could create what you or they might truly believe is the funniest, the strongest, and/or the most provocative message you’ve ever seen, heard, or read about, ever, in the history of viral marketing campaigns, and then you could send it out into the marketplace—and it could fall flat on its belly.

And, while good luck and great timing can help tremendously, nothing and no one can guarantee the success of a viral marketing campaign. Still, the potential rewards of a successful campaign are so great; attempting a viral campaign is still worth a try. And who knows, a campaign that failed last month, next month, could meet with shocking success. You never know. Like I said before, sometimes it’s about luck and timing, and since it doesn’t cost a whole lot to do it, why not give it a try?

If your first efforts don’t work the way you planned; don’t be afraid to try again. There’s no such thing as failure, because even if you didn’t get the results you wanted the first time around, you will have learned valuable lessons in the process that can help you in your next attempt. And if you try again, you'll be able to use what you’ve learned to create a stronger, funnier, more provocative, more attention-getting, or even more heart-warming message, and who knows? You just might be successful in creating a contagious message that will produce for you the kind of viral marketing success you're looking for.

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