ellipsis flag icon-blogicon-check icon-comments icon-email icon-error icon-facebook icon-follow-comment icon-googleicon-hamburger icon-imedia-blog icon-imediaicon-instagramicon-left-arrow icon-linked-in icon-linked icon-linkedin icon-multi-page-view icon-person icon-print icon-right-arrow icon-save icon-searchicon-share-arrow icon-single-page-view icon-tag icon-twitter icon-unfollow icon-upload icon-valid icon-video-play icon-views icon-website icon-youtubelogo-imedia-white logo-imedia logo-mediaWhite review-star thumbs_down thumbs_up

Social Networks and Viral Marketing

Social Networks and Viral Marketing Joseph Carrabis

I'm on a joke list-- surprise! I don't know anyone with an email account who isn't on a joke list. I get jokes from people in all walks of life. Some I've never met, yet I have excellent online relationships with them, some I've known in person for years. That distinction is important for what comes later in this column. If you're reading this online, you're probably on some kind of joke list too.

Recently, I received a joke with a link that lent itself perfectly to two areas of research. The first (just completed) deals with determining value in wikis and blogs; the second concerns viral marketing.

What is viral marketing?
iMedia Connection's Media Strategies Editor Jim Meskauskas wrote a two part column on viral marketing almost a year ago, and it remains a good source on the topic. Wikipedia has a good and relatively succinct definition as well. The Meskauskas piece is economically oriented and provides online examples; the Wikipedia piece mentions the term's biological origins.

Meskauskas wrote that viral campaigns are really online versions of word-of-mouth (WOM) advertising. If you remember the "Jesus Christ Superstar" lyric, "What's the buzz, Tell me what's a' happening," then you know what WOM and viral campaigns are all about. Meskauskas offered four items that good viral marketing campaigns share:

  • Entertainment: the marketing is entertaining.

  • Utility: what is being marketed is something the reader can use.

  • Palpable reward: the marketing provides instant gratification.

  • Uniqueness: the marketing is like nothing the reader has ever seen.

He also describes the difference between frictionless and active viral marketing campaigns. Frictionless occurs when the audience spreads the good word via usage, such as Hotmail. Active viral marketing occurs when the audience spreads the word via actively recruiting non-audience members into the audience.

Meskauskas doesn't quite phrase things that way, and this is where NextStage's research might extend the concept a bit.

Spam, joke lists and viral marketing
Joke lists, spam and viral marketing rely on social networks in order to function. I've written about different aspects of social networks in previous columns (Brand Loyalty and The X Funnel). Let's compare Meskauskas' four bullets as they apply to 1) spam (something nobody wants) and 2) jokes from known associates (something people willingly accept and often look forward to). We'll see how the rules of viral marketing make each one what it is.

Joke lists address all four of Meskauskas' bullets. They provide entertainment; there is instant gratification, hence a palpable reward, and they offer the individual something they've never seen before. I'll hold off on their utilitarian aspect for now.

Joke lists are also examples of active viral campaigns and the social networks that empower them. Someone read the joke or followed the link because it was sent to them; they laughed; they then sent it on to me; I laughed, and now I'm now sending it on to you in the hopes that you'll laugh.

Spam doesn't hit any of Meskauskas' four bullets... or does it? James McKim, chairman of SwANH: the Software Association of New Hampshire, says that, "spam is in the eye of the beholder. It all depends upon timing and circumstances of the recipient." His example is looking for airline tickets to take his family to visit his parents. "Most of the year, I would consider emails from Orbitz, Travelocity, Priceline, et cetera spam. However, the time of the year when I'm planning my trip, I would not consider them spam." Here is Meskauskas' Utility bullet writ whole and large, but not the other three. Spam often attempts to mimic social networking with subject lines like "You're going to love this" or "Fwd: Funny" or "Fred Derf said to send you this," and so on.

I know I'm a good guy, but are YOU?
There is an element Meskauskas' article doesn't mention, and it's mentioned only in passing in Wikipedia: Trust.

I trust the people who send me jokes to send me stuff that I'll enjoy. Senders of spam want to fool me into thinking the email is being sent by someone I know and trust. Trust, especially internet trust as it applies to a social network, is a critical element in all marketing. It's particularly critical in viral marketing because we haven't always met the person suggesting we click on the link embedded in the file.

Here's where the distinction between met and unmet correspondents comes in: we trust the person we've never met and have only interacted with electronically to recognize and practice a fair-exchange with us. Fair-exchanges are increasingly recognized as market drivers in neuroeconomics (you can find links to for-pay articles and books here), and they are why some campaigns work and others fail miserably. How can we develop trust when, historically, trust has been based on a series of face-to-face fair-exchanges?

Next: Why viral marketing is pyramidal in structure.


Image via Instagram.

You could argue that travel brands have it easier than most; they have a never-ending supply of beautiful, engaging content to share. Destinations, experiences, lodging, transportation -- so many options to create visual and verbal content for any number of social media channels. Given that, it takes a lot for a travel brand to stand out among the competition. A brand needs to go above and beyond the ordinary to become a truly great storyteller. Airbnb has done just that.

Instagram is where Airbnb really excels. Each photo it shares is from a different Airbnb property. Some show a spectacular view, some highlight an interesting feature or amenity, some include a guest or host, and every single one of them is beautiful. On its own, Airbnb's Instagram stream is a compelling travelogue that inspires potential travelers to dream about their next trip. But Airbnb has taken it a step further by linking to a page in its Instagram bio that includes a direct URL to each property featured in its Instagram stream. If you see a photo of a property you're interested in renting, you can click through to reserve it directly on Airbnb's website. In this way, Airbnb is moving from inspiration to action, turning travel dreams into bookings and reality.

Airbnb was one of the first brands to experiment with Instagram's carousel ad format -- using multiple photos in one ad, telling a more complex visual story and allowing viewers to scroll through the photos. Airbnb's Instagram ad featured homes in five locations, connected to a microsite and running alongside a web and TV spot with the message "never a stranger." It was a well-coordinated campaign, and resonated with the emotional and inspirational tone Airbnb has set with the rest of its Instagram presence.

On Twitter, Airbnb does an exceptional job all around, but one of its most fun initiatives is #TreehouseTuesday. Most Tuesdays, it shares a photo and link to a different treehouse property travelers can rent through Airbnb. This is a great way to showcase one of the things that sets Airbnb apart from other hotel or lodging websites -- where else can you rent a treehouse but from Airbnb?

Lowe's Home Improvement

Image via Instagram.

Lowe's has been able to successful capitalize on the recent increasing interest in home improvement and interior design by using its social media accounts to share inspiration and tips for home owners.  

On Instagram, all the images Lowe's posts feature a home improvement project, like an updated patio or redesigned bathroom. Each photo caption includes details on the products featured in it. That could include paint brands and colors, appliance makes and models, product names, and more. And if a follower posts a comment asking for more information about a particular element in a photo, Lowe's responds with specifics, including how the customer can find the product in the store or reproduce a look at home. It's interactive and useful for home-improvers.

Over on Vine, Lowe's has cultivated a more whimsical brand voice. Some of its short videos are shot in a sort of claymation style, and all include practical how-to tips for home improvers presented in a fun (and often funny) tone. Some are simple quick tips, while others are more complex, multi-step projects. For the more involved projects, each video's caption explains exactly how to walk through the video step-by-step to achieve the look demonstrated.

On Facebook, Lowe's shares lots of tips and ideas for new looks, as well as updates on sales in-store and online. Each post includes a link to the product on lowes.com. The team behind the Lowe's Facebook page is very responsive, engaging with its fans and responding to questions in the comments of each post. These responses sometimes include very detailed, personalized instructions on how to complete a particular home improvement project.

The brand also shares photosets of detailed projects and home makeovers on Tumblr, post tips and interact with customers on Twitter, and shares inspiration on Pinterest. Again and again, Lowe's demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the power of social media, and how each social channel requires its own treatment. To be successful across social media, brands must customize their voice on each channel and share content that fits on that channel, and Lowe's does a great job with this.


Image via Instagram.

RedBull encourages an active, even extreme lifestyle. It has consistently cultivated an adventure-focused brand across social media. Over the past few years, RedBull has transitioned from a simple beverage company to a lifestyle and media powerhouse. It has aligned itself closely with sports and music, and create tons of original content on RedBull TV. Across social media, it -- like the other brands discussed here -- has created an inspirational voice, this one with a little more attitude.

On Instagram, RedBull shares photos and videos of events it sponsors, athletes performing impressive feats, and its iconic cans in an array of settings. A number of its Instagram posts are videos, showing athletes in action. Its Instagram content features gorgeous visuals of skydiving, surfing, skateboarding, racing, crazy daredevil feats, and so much more. It's a beautifully curated profile and inspires the wild side in its followers.

From its YouTube channel, RedBull shares tons of video content, uploading multiple new videos every day. Categories on its YouTube channel have names like "not your average selfies" and "earth porn," evoking the same kind of extreme attitude RedBull does on Instagram. In all its social media, RedBull also emphasizes a connection to nature, as many of its images are of people doing adventurous things in scenic nature settings, like walking a tightrope over a deep canyon.

Over on Twitter, RedBull has taken advantage of the multiple media formats Twitter supports, embedding images, GIFs and videos into its tweets. Most of its tweets include at least one hashtag or handle, encouraging interaction and sharing. And like many brands, RedBull has promoted its Snapchat account to its 2+ million Twitter followers, contributing to a large increase on the newer platform.

In its Snapchat content, RedBull can be a little less polished and a little more real than it is on Instagram and YouTube. It takes advantage by posting raw video of athletes trying new tricks, conversations with athletes behind the scenes of sporting events, and plenty of casual everyday video. It's highly active on the popular Millennial network, posting lots of new content daily. It has embraced Snapchat in a way many brands have yet to do.

Why these three brands?

A recurring theme for all three of these brands is inspiration. Every brand on this list has realized the power of visuals in social media to spur creativity and inspire its followers to do more. For all three, Instagram is the perfect social media channel for this kind of interaction, as it not only allows but also explicitly encourages beautiful, dramatic imagery. For Lowe's, this comes in the form of showing its fans how to make their homes look and function better. For Airbnb, it's giving travelers ideas and motivation for their next trips. For RedBull, it's encouraging the wild side in each of us.

In addition, each brand has realized that it needs to be consistent but customized across social media channels. To be successful, the content it shares on Facebook can't be the same as what it shares on Instagram or Snapchat. But at the same time, brands need to maintain a consistent, recognizable brand voice, no matter where their customers find them. This is far more challenging than it sounds, and these three brands do it very well.

Social media gives brands a space to interact with their fans and customers by doing more than just selling to them. Airbnb, Lowe's, and RedBull have embraced social as a space to inspire, motivate and relate to their customers, creating deeper, more meaningful relationships and empowering them to do more and be more.

Jenn Deering Davis is cofounder and editor-in-chief at Union Metrics

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet

"Creative concept pages of book stunning landscape at sunset" image via Shutterstock.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

View full biography


to leave comments.