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Consider Viral Marketing

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Say the word “viral” to people in the marketing business these days, and they’re probably more likely to think of SARS than an effective digital marketing tactic. But that’s only because much of the hype surrounding viral marketing has died down.


You might remember the viral marketing craze of the late 1990s. It started with free e-mail services like Hotmail using their own products to self-promote, in the hopes that consumers would see their promotional text messages in forwarded e-mails. It ended with a lot of head scratching on the part of online strategy folks at interactive shops, who couldn’t understand why the presence of a “Send to a Friend” link on their e-mail message hadn’t succeeded at setting the world aflame.


Viral Appeal – It’s About the Value Proposition


Truth be told, very few people understood that viral marketing is something more than adding the obligatory “Send to a Friend” link to a commercial e-mail and blasting it out to a seed list. It involves an exchange of value. A marketer extends a special offer, informational resource, or something with entertainment value in exchange for consumer advocacy -- the free publicity generated by consumers forwarding the message to friends, family and acquaintances.


The value exchange part is the thing that marketers seem to have a problem with. No one gets terribly excited about information on the latest calling plan from a mobile phone company or the debut of a new dishwashing detergent – at least not excited enough to want to tell their friends about it. But if you nail the value proposition, the sky is the limit.


“In 2000, we launched a viral coupon-greeting campaign for a major convenience chain and beverage company,” says Yahoo’s Chief Solutions Officer Tim Sanders. “This program allowed you to forward or send a branded ‘buy one drink get one free’ coupon to a friend. This program produced five coupon impressions through viral means for every coupon that was downloaded as a result of media advertising and links.”


Adds Earthquake Media CEO Robert Davidman: “It harkens back to the messaging. If the message makes sense then the target group will hopefully propagate the message for us. There also needs to be a way to create some value exchange -- give them something for their efforts.”


The Cool Factor


One of the toughest aspects of implementing a viral campaign is gauging whether or not a given message is “cool” enough to prompt Internet users to pass it along. Most consumers can smell an ad a mile away, and they’re less apt to pass something along if it’s flagrantly commercial. It’s no surprise that many of the Internet phenomena that have been passed from peer to peer are decidedly non-commercial in nature, from All Your Base to Mahir to that little squirrel that goes “wheeeee!”


“The idea is fundamental: Create a message that strikes the right chord and people will react,” says Davidman.


The best laid plans for viral marketing campaigns balance value and “cool factor” for the maximum viral impact.


Familiarity = Credibility


In most viral marketing programs that are deployed on the Internet, the marketers hope that the ease of information-sharing that is germane to digital media will help their advertising campaigns take on a life of their own. Driven by a combination of brand advocacy and ‘cool factor,’ Internet users pass along commercial messages, typically via e-mail. Not only does this generate free publicity for the marketer, but it also enhances the message by leveraging the credibility inherent in receiving e-mail from a friend or family member.


“We used the viral components to leverage the mass media messaging in a more one-to-one fashion,” says Davidman, “but making it viral in a peer-to-peer environment versus ‘mass’ gives the message a bit more credibility. Success has been noteworthy to date.”


“I’ve Created a Monster!”


Sounds great, right? It almost makes you want to add a viral component to every digital message your company deploys. But it’s important to note that not every communications effort is well-suited to viral marketing. Remember, once a viral marketing campaign takes on a life of its own, it may be incredibly difficult to control or stop.


One marketer learning this the hard way is Puma. In March, a couple racy images began circulating around the Internet. These images depicted two people wearing Puma sneakers in a sexual situation. As the images were passed virally around the Internet, the owners of several Weblogs posted the images, speculating as to whether or not they were genuine ads from Puma. (Have a look at this Slate article for an overview of how this unfolded.)


Puma denied the ads were genuine, and even issued cease and desist letters to several of the bloggers who had posted the images. The tactic backfired, with one Website owner posting the cease and desist letter and roasting the company for mobilizing its lawyers. (As an aside, there has even been some speculation that Puma masterminded the whole debacle, using the legal threats as a way to perpetuate buzz.)


Point: A successful viral marketing campaign can be hard to control. Once something is passed from person to person digitally, the control over messaging and dissemination is effectively out of the marketer’s hands. So if you’re considering a viral marketing effort, you must first gauge how important that control is to your company.


“Viral marketing, like any other successful execution, is planned and anticipated,” says Sanders. “Enabling peer-to-peer marketing requires giving customers and users tools, incentives and rewards to ‘spread the virus’ of the marketer. When it happens by accident, it is hard to duplicate and difficult to measure.”


Viral Marketing – It’s Not Just for the Internet Anymore


Other digital media can offer the ease of message propagation necessary to implement a successful viral marketing campaign. Brian Hill and Rouben Haroutoonian of Mobliss, a wireless information and entertainment company, shed some light for us on executing viral campaigns using SMS messaging on mobile phones. According to Mobliss, there are 140 million handsets in North America that are capable of receiving short text messages (SMS), and 70 million capable of sending them. Think of the possibilities – marketers could use SMS to reach young people who are light consumers of other media, and have them pass messages to one another, increasing the credibility of the message. Haroutoonian mentioned a campaign for American Idol II in which AT&T Wireless offered subscribers with SMS-enabled phones the ability to engage in a number of text-based activities that tied in with the show, including games, gossip, polls and real-time chat.


“The program created and stimulated a viral effect among the community that watches the show,” he said.


As new messaging platforms emerge, marketers can apply the principles and best practices they’ve learned executing viral campaigns on the Internet to achieve success with alternative platforms.


The New Need for Viral Marketing


In today’s cost-conscious economy, the idea of consumers bearing part of the cost of propagating a marketing message is an attractive one. If a brand has tolerance for the notion of keeping the brand top of mind, even when its parent company cannot necessarily control the avalanche of publicity, then viral marketing can be a consideration. Almost any brand can leverage this marketing strategy.


“This has worked from low involvement (think soda) to high involvement (think cars or houses),” says Sanders. “It is a question of customer evangelism and strength of brand. If there is either one, the message has a reason to spread.”

So how much does Flash weigh?
Mention the words "SEO" and "change" and you're bound to get the attention of a lot people working in interactive. Little wonder. Being found is the name of the game for anyone working on the web. But the decision to begin indexing Flash has raised the web's constant question: what does this mean for my business?


According to Google and Adobe, developers using Flash won't need to make any retroactive changes, and they won't need to do any special work to make their files accessible to the search engine spiders. But finding the Flash content is only the beginning, according to Ivan Todorov, CEO of BLITZ, an interactive agency that has worked with clients ranging from FX Networks to Lincoln.


"In the long-term, we think this will have a huge impact for the future of interactive," Todorov says. "But right now, the primary concern is how Flash will be weighed by the search engines."


Unfortunately for Todorov, that question isn't one Google or Yahoo is likely to answer because it would mean sharing proprietary information related to their algorithms. While Todorov and others say they would like to be part of that conversation -- presumably to argue for giving Flash maximum value -- agencies are likely to be kept in the dark where SEO is concerned.


But according to Tom Barclay, senior manager, Flash Player at Adobe, all parties fully expect the Flash developer community as well as SEO experts to develop best practices for optimizing rich media content under the umbrella of an Adobe/Google/Yahoo collaboration.


"Existing Shockwave Flash (SWF) content is now searchable using Google search and, in the future, Yahoo search, dramatically improving the relevance of rich internet applications and rich media experiences that run in Adobe Flash Player," Barclay explains. "As with HTML content, best practices will emerge over time for creating SWF content that is more optimized for search engine rankings."


But in the meantime, Andrew Lovasz, director of search marketing at Moxie Interactive, says the change is likely to reorder natural search results where smaller operations were benefiting because their competitors were relying almost exclusively on Flash.


"This is definitely going to raise the barrier to entry," Lovasz says, pointing out that big brands that are more likely to have Flash-heavy sites can expect to see a rise in their natural search results.

The devil in the details
While searchable Flash raises the immediate and obvious question of "weighting" rich media as a content category, the truth of the matter is that the search engine ranking debate will always rage, whether the topic relates to text, Flash, video, audio or any other format. But behind the question of how all this newly ranked content will be integrated into natural search results, agencies will still have to grapple with the mechanics of developing for Flash.


"The headline was really nice to hear," says Cheryl Haas, VP Fleishman-Hillard. "Hearing that Google, Yahoo and Adobe are all working together is a great start, but I think we're still a long way off."


What looks like the proverbial flip of the switch -- Adobe's decision to partner with the two leading search engines -- in reality raises a slew of technical questions.


According to Lovasz, and many others, Yahoo, Google and Adobe have been long on excitement, but short on actionable details.


As a simple administrative matter, Google has said that it will take several weeks to index the vast amounts of Flash strewn across the web. Yahoo will begin indexing the web for Flash at an undetermined point in the near future. But while the indexing process is underway, Haas says her team has concerns that neither Google nor Yahoo will be able to crawl JavaScript, which is used to execute Flash content. That's true, according to Google, but the search giant says it's working on remedying that, and officials at Adobe say they're attacking that problem as well.


But Haas' concerns may highlight a larger problem for Adobe and its search engine partners. While agencies have uniformly praised the news, many have expressed concern that the Flash developer community remains largely in the dark regarding the establishment of best practices for building the Flash sites of tomorrow.


For its part, Google admits that there is no established best practices guide that is endorsed by all three companies. However, Google has its own online resource for developers, as does Adobe.


But a lack of communication -- perceived or real -- could slow the development of a Flash-friendly web, Romano says, and points out that it will be up to the armies of disconnected developers to figure out the mechanics of this latest tool.


"Our technical people have punched a lot of holes in this, and that's not surprising given the fact that matching Google's technology with Adobe isn't easy," Romano explains. "This is only the beginning of the solution, and it is likely going to take years to solve because it will require developers to ultimately build Flash sites differently."


But that doesn't mean that Adobe is operating independently of all developers. Stephen Jackson, CEO of Smashing Ideas, the largest independent developer of Flash in the U.S., says Adobe works hard to communicate changes with a core group of companies that use its products.


"I think a lot of the disconnect here is that there are millions of Flash users out there," Jackson says. "So working with all of them makes it rather hard to conduct business."


What will this mean for interactive?
Across the board, agencies do seem to agree that the decision by Yahoo, Google and Adobe to work together will be a good thing for the interactive advertising business. But just how good is hard to say.


What seems unlikely to some is the idea that improved search optimization for Flash will lead to more Flash development. As Haas put it: "You won't see people building in Flash just for the sake of having Flash; there has to be a reason."


But improvements in Flash should have an indirectly positive effect on the overall industry, according to Jackson, who says that getting cutting edge content in front of more users -- especially from a Google or Yahoo query -- should help drive impressions and clickthroughs.


"It all depends on impressions and clickthroughs," Jackson says. "If this makes that happen, then you'll see more advertisers increasing their online budgets."



Michael Estrin is deputy editor at iMediaConnection.

Tip 2: Recruiting is a lot like fishing


You need the best bait and good research on where to fish. The best fishermen know where to go -- where the majority of fishermen are not looking.


Target folks that at first look would not consider joining your team, but on second look, they see the opportunity to bring their talent and experience to the table. For example, consider talent that has limited experience in your category, but ample experience for the assignments.


Recently, I worked with a colleague that looked beyond candidates with extensive online experience and found a great prospect with years of experience selling and managing sales teams for the last seven years in a comparable field -- radio.


Tip 3: Beware of self-appointed recruiters… including you


Why are you recruiting? Could someone else do a better job? If you feel you can communicate the passion, that's a good first step. But if you think recruiting is synonymous with an albatross around your neck, it's time to consider someone else on your team for this assignment.

Tip 4: If you're a Starsky, then carefully pick your Hutch


Who you choose as your recruiting partner from the HR team is a decision you need to make carefully. Just because an HR team member is assigned to your team does not automatically qualify them as your best spokesperson. Beware if they have your assignment because:



  • they have a slot open on work priorities

  • they always recruit for your team

If your gut tells you that the HR person doesn't have the instincts to find your target candidate, then carefully ask for a better fit from the HR team, or consider finding the funding for an outside recruiter.


Tip 5: Treat the resume as a tool, not the answer


Did you see something on a candidate's resume that looks interesting, but the resume just wasn't that creative? Did you pass on this candidate only to discover they got hired by your competition? Have you been blown away by an awesome resume only to discover later that much of the document was a classic example of overselling and under-delivering?


With a robust industry of resume ghost writers, it is important to use the resume for what it is: the first set of clues that communicate if this candidate is a good fit for your team, but not the final word on their suitability.


I'd like to suggest an exercise. Take someone who has done an outstanding job at your organization and compare their application and resume with those of someone in your group that was overhyped and fell short of expectations. In hindsight, did their resumes offer any clues to what may have happened? Can you learn from this data to improve your internal process for recruiting?

Tip 6: Recruiting is fresh fruit


If you are bragging about how you've been looking for someone for more than six months and there is no one out there that qualifies for your amazing team, then you could be next with a pink slip.


Your job is not to whine about the lack of qualified talent; it's to lead and find that diamond in the rough. Job requisitions that have been open for six months or more communicate more about the failure of leadership and creative thought than they do about any proposed dearth of talent.


Tip 7: Grow your own


A final question you need to ponder is: Why did we find ourselves in recruitment mode this time, and why isn't someone coming up from the ranks? While you are deep in the recruiting process, think about what you could have done to prevent looking outside your company for creative talent in the first place.


On a previous assignment a few years ago, I found a solution for our constant recruiting challenge: interns. I lobbied for more desk space and computers and a weekly free lunch for all the college interns. We picked our first rising star to be considered as a contracting consultant. This person also assumed the responsibility of training and recruiting for our future intern teams. As we grew the division, this contractor earned the first job opening. As more of the buzz got around that our internship program could lead to a real job opportunity, we had candidates knocking on our door to get their shot at the team in any available capacity.


I'll leave you with this final quote from "A Manifesto for Mavericks. Why The Most Original Minds in Business Win" by William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre:


"Talent matters. Any company or leader that aspires to unleash a disruptive presence in the marketplace needs to devise a distinctive approach to the workplace."


Ty Braswell founded Creative Digital Strategies, where he consults digital clients on mobile marketing, third-screen ideas and overall business development.

Because of this, a bounce was defined as a 1-page visit, rather than a visit of a short duration. It simply wasn't possible to reliably measure time spent on a page. And it was because of this that it was decided a bounce was not a visit. We could only calculate visit duration when we had more than 1 page, and since a bounce was defined as being only 1 page, a bounce could not be a type of visit.


In other cases, we cannot measure important phenomena because they are not represented directly by the things we can measure -- movements of the mouse and clicks. To get around this, we have inferred these phenomena from others that we can measure. 


Engagement is a good example. Engagement is a psychological state, not an empirical behavior, so we can't record it directly. While we could infer it from other metrics, systems rarely do because there is no agreed upon definition for what constitutes engagement. This is because the user behavior that would constitute engagement legitimately differs from site to site. It is therefore up to each site to decide what constitutes engagement and then determine how to measure it. 


Even engagement surveys, such as those from cScape, which cover engagement in more than 1,000 sites, have to allow each participant to define engagement their own way. A key part of cScape's survey is examining just how companies define engagement. If you're not sure yourself, it's a good starting place for ideas.


Engagement is critical. Before someone can be exposed to a site's sales pitch, they must engage with that site. Before they engage, they assess a site to decide if they're going to stay. I call this the "scanning stage," and retaining visitors during scanning is the first priority in every visit. During this stage, they are not really reading, they are just skimming over things quickly. What works in selling products or services does not work in retaining during scanning. 

I recently wrote about additional calculations you could do around "Average Duration" in Google Analytics to separate out bounces from visits in an attempt to get a clearer differentiation between scanning and engaged visitors. Some people responded by stating I was factually incorrect and that Google Analytics uses the unLoad() function to measure the time people do spend on each page. While Google Analytics could do this, it does not.


Elisabeth Diana, from Google's Global Communications & Public Affairs, explained to me why Google chose to merge bounces with visits:


"We really tried to listen to what the majority of our users were saying, because they are the ones who live and breathe the tool. The GA team had heard different opinions about average time-on-site and visit calculations from our users, and while there were some different schools of thought on the issue, most GA users who provided feedback wanted bounces included in the visits and time-on-site metrics."


In my article, I explained how to do work around this manually, but Elisabeth pointed out a better way:


"If users prefer the calculations you outline in your article, we now have a way to address their preferences -- Advanced Segmentation. Creating a segment that includes page depth greater than 1 will yield site-wide averages and visit numbers that are in alignment with your ideas."


If you haven't played with segmentation and custom reports in Google Analytics yet, I suggest you have a try. You can get some great insights with it. I have taken the power offered by segmentation to further refine my examination of the visit.


The process of getting someone to engage has typically been regarded as being about landing pages. The view has been that someone assesses the landing page in order to decide whether to engage with the site or not. If they like the landing page, they engage, if not, they bounce.


The problem I have always had with this is that it is too one-dimensional. If someone views 10 pages on my site but does it inside of 30 seconds, I can't think of them has having engaged with the content. But neither have they bounced. The landing page did its job, but they still never engaged.


Segmentation provides the ability to handle the person who skims a bunch of pages quickly and then leaves. We can create a segment for scanning visitors. It depends on the site what constitutes moving through it too quickly to really engage, so I suggest you experiment. Use segmentation to create a test for visitors who read more than one page in less than X-many seconds and try experimenting with different times to see what happens. How quick is too quick is up to you.

My own research on my clients' sites revealed a surprising factor. The percentage of scanning visits was roughly the same as the percentage who bounced. For example, if a site had a 25 percent bounce rate, another 25 percent would have skimmed and then left. I suspect this may be true for many sites. What it suggests is that many people do not decide whether to engage with a site by simply looking at the landing page -- they go into the site and skim a few pages quickly.



 
Examining the correlation between these visits and their referring search phrases suggests the ones who are bouncing from the landing page are the people who were misdirected. These people can instantly see this is not the type of site they were looking for.


People who have come to the site from a relevant search phrase tend to be the ones who skim a few pages before leaving. In other words, these people are saying "OK, this site is obviously relevant to my search, but is it the right site for me? Do I want to hang around and give it some of my time?"


I guess this is similar to picking up a magazine on the news stand and skimming a few pages before you decide to buy. The cover tells you it is potentially of interest, but only looking inside will tell you if there's anything you actually want to spend time with.


You could argue about whether skimming a few pages quickly constitutes engagement or not, and I think it depends on why you are looking. My purpose is usually to determine how the site is converting visitors into customers (or leads). For that purpose, I need metrics that measure each of the processes a visitor goes through. First they look at their landing page and decide whether to leave or stay. It is therefore the task of landing pages to convince them to stay, and I can use the existing bounce rate metric to measure landing page effectiveness.


In some cases it is obvious to the visitor from the landing page whether they should stay or leave. But it looks like a significant portion can't decide from simply looking at the landing page. These people then skim a few pages quickly in order to get a better feel for the site. We have been treating these people as if they were engaging to the same degree as committed visitors. This means we have not been building components into our content pages to hook them and get them to engage. Remember -- for these people, the decision to stay or leave is not being made on the landing pages, it is being made on the pages you also use to sell your products.


This adds a new phase to the conversion funnel. Between bounce and engagement, there is an intermediate zone. It may be that there are as many people in that zone as a bounce, so this is a significant audience. Getting these people to engage is as important as holding onto new arrivals on the landing page. Ask yourself how effective your main content pages would be if someone was going to assess them in only a few seconds. Do they sell your site at a glance, or do they work only when you actually stop to read the content?


The starting point is to play with segmentation and determine if scanning visitors are a significant portion of your visitors. Your landing pages may be so effective it's not an issue. Either way, it is clear that the world is more complicated than a simple distinction between bounces and visits.



Brandt Dainow is an independent web analytics and marketing consultant working in the U.K. and Ireland.

A 20-year+ veteran of the advertising and media business, Tim is best known for his proactive leadership role in integrated media. A self-described “Media Activist” as Underscore’s CEO, he is responsible for all aspects of business development and...

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