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Start Your Own Viral Marketing Campaign


Viral marketing has become the Holy Grail for just about any business with a small budget and big dreams. Let Coca Cola cough up the millions for a 30-second slot during the Superbowl. Let L’Oreal pay through the nose to get the name of its moisturizers seen on the walls of reality TV shows. Savvy small companies can pick up a reach that’s just as broad and even more powerful by sidestepping the expensive conventional channels. Give the public a reason to talk about them and they’ll get to spread the name of their business for next to nothing, helped by an army of happy gossipers. All you need is a place to start.

And an understanding that it’s not that easy. A deliberately planned viral marketing campaign, one that has the aim of improving a company’s sales, needs three elements: content, distribution and response.

Content is the DNA of the virus, the element that encourages the people who receive it to react and pass it on to their friends. For many marketers, that means something cool and creative. Burger King’s Subservient Chicken was one of the most famous examples. Created in 2005 for the fast food chain by ad company The Barbarian Group, the site took a literal interpretation of the slogan “Get chicken just the way you like it.” It placed an actor (actually, a costume designer; the actor refused to do it) in a chicken outfit and filmed him performing about 300 different moves. Users who reached the website could enter commands into a text field and see the chicken apparently obey those commands.

The interactivity made the campaign a hit. A day after the site was launched, it had a million hits. A week later it had 20 million. While Burger King didn’t release actual sales figures, it did report that in the month after releasing its chicken sandwich, the company saw “double-digit” growth in awareness and a “significant” increase in sales.

Big Ideas or Free Ideas

But coming up with smart ideas like subservient chickens isn’t easy. Creative concepts only work when they’re original so they can’t be copied, but it is possible to copy the approach. The Subservient Chicken worked because it took Burger King’s chicken sandwich slogan to ridiculous lengths. Blendtec’s series of YouTube videos, in which company founder Tom Dickson shows off the strength of his blenders by blending bizarre items including cell phones, silly putty and a running video camera, worked in a similar way.

One place to begin then is by looking at what your product does and asking just what it could do if you pushed it to the limits. Put the results online and if it looks bizarre enough, you might have people lining up to see it.

Alternatively, you can give your product away.

Creativity might be fun but freebies are just as powerful, and they’re a lot easier. Let the world know that you’ll be handing out something for nothing and it won’t be long before people are rushing to tell their friends.

The simplest type of freebie is usually an ebook or downloadable report. Because these can be copied and distributed easily, they will be — provided that the information is high enough quality. It has to be usable, practical and valuable. An information product like that might not reach a massive audience but it should saturate your main market, putting your name in front of anyone who needs to know it.

It’s also possible though to give away something that you know everyone will want. Earlier this year, Moonfruit, a company that sells and hosts websites, decided to mark its tenth anniversary by giving away ten Macbook pros. That wasn’t a cheap campaign — and despite its image, viral marketing is rarely free — but traffic to Moonfruit’s site increased by a factor of eight.

Twitter Changes Viral Distribution

The Subservient Chicken was hosted on a website but it was promoted conventionally, mostly through TV spots that included the chicken. It was those ads that kick-started the campaign and generated the word-of-mouth advertising. By the time Moonfruit launched its campaign four years later, the environment had changed completely. The company did it all on Twitter. To be eligible for a free computer, Twitter users simply had to tweet the company name. They could do it as many times as they wanted — and everytime they did it, they spread the name further along Twitter’s network. It’s no wonder that “moonfruit” was the number one trending topic on the site for days.

For viral marketing, distribution has always been difficult. You could create the coolest concept ever but if no one sees it — or if only the wrong people see it — the virus won’t spread. Twitter has made everything a great deal easier by creating a network along which links and information can spread rapidly and effortlessly, but the old principle still applies: for your content to go viral, you still have to put it in front of the right people right at the beginning.

So if you’re planning to use Twitter to launch a viral campaign, you’ll need to make sure, before you launch, that your timeline is active, large and contains plenty of people who also have active timelines and lots of followers. Identify at least a dozen people who retweet regularly and post the tweet announcing your content at a time you know they’ll be active. That should increase the chance that your message will be passed on. Whether it will continue to be passed on along Twitter’s networks depends on the quality of what you’re offering and, on Twitter, the degree to which you can keep the campaign feeling personal.

It’s the last stage that’s the most important though. A viral marketing campaign will make your company known. It will bring people in and lead them to think that you’re cool and trendy. But it will be up to you to ensure that that interest converts into sales. That’s the bit that people often forget. Viral marketing can take off very quickly but it needs to be seen as part of a long term strategy rather than a short-term launch goal. The Subservient Chicken ads got that right by being ready to break the chicken off the Internet and place it in different formats. Moonfruit’s campaign might be forgotten fairly quickly but it did bring people to its website where they were able to play with the company’s site-building software and perhaps purchase a subscription.

When you’re putting together your viral marketing idea, make sure you know what you’re going to do with the interest you receive — and how you’re going to profit from your virus.

One Comment

  1. Jay Ehret Says:

    The term Viral Marketing is perceived mean the success of something like Will it Blend? and Subservient Chicken. But it's important to put things in perspective and think about scale. That's why your Moonfruit example is a good one. It might not have been on the scale of Blendtec and Burger King, but it was successful in substantially increasing Moonfruit's web traffic.

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