Online viral marketing hands the challenging responsibility of recruitment over to consumers, by understanding how and why their friends buy. Although it holds great new potential for modern campaigns, this particular behavioral marketing strategy is often considered outdated and overlooked.
Viral marketing email campaigns may seem like old news. The concept dates back to 1998 when Hotmail used word-of-mouth networks to grow a subscriber base more rapidly than any new online, Internet, or print publication ever. In its first 1.5 years, Hotmail signed up more than 12 million subscribers. Although the buzz around viral campaigns has now dwindled, it is not the strategy that is outdated; rather it’s the thinking and creativity of hesitant marketing managers that may need a jump start.
A Jupiter Media Metrix 2002 study found that 45% of online shoppers choose ecommerce sites based on word-of-mouth recommendations, yet only 7% of companies were implementing tools that allowed them to identify “viral influencers” through email pass-along rates.
What’s holding marketers back?
A Community of ‘Influencers’
New viral techniques offer a world of opportunity for branding in the “refer-a-friend” landscape. Recent campaigns prove the strategy is alive and well and has practical uses. Many trend forecasters predict consumers will become increasingly reliant on a community of influencers – cultural innovators, niche publications, super-hip GenY kids, for examples – to tell them what to buy.
Remember, virtually all advertising aspires to become viral because the most effective form of recommendation is word-of-mouth. The very nature of public relations, for instance, is built upon viral marketing's strategy: a company offers a press release for free to a publication in order to gain its viewership.
Larry Everling makes the assertion in a September iMedia article that “behavioral marketing is a bridge between direct response and brand.” Viral marketing via email combines both elements in a technique that increases traffic and requires less investment than traditional advertising.
Traditional, static and demographic-based criteria are being replaced with behavioral, dynamic, lifestyle and psychographic influences. It is direct by way of individuals passing along a message to only those people to whom it is relevant and valuable, and it is brand in the sense that it stimulates awareness for the company and builds a relationship.
Online viral marketing’s advantage is the potential for exponential growth in the message's exposure and influence. It also provides valuable email addresses, advertising revenue and ecommerce sales opportunities. Especially relevant are companies that have a simple concept that scales across the globe and offers Internet applications (such as software) or products that can be incorporated into the communication between two people (such as phone services or e-cards).
Effectiveness is not the only advantage – viral marketing costs nothing or at the most, very little to execute because consumers actually do the selling through implied endorsement. Though it was originally embraced by startup ventures with limited marketing dollars, it has been successfully integrated into behemoth companies’ efforts.
Back in March, Dr Pepper/7Up launched both a blog and a product Website to promote a new milk product called Raging Cow. The gimmick, still thriving today, is based on the entries being written by the drink’s cow mascot, which in reality is a group of six teenagers. With zero dollars spent on advertising, the company’s Websites experienced almost 400K hits in the first three months.
Create Strong Consumer Incentives
A robust viral marketing strategy must begin with a product or service unique and valuable enough that it creates strong incentive for customers to share with their contacts. Email has become the predominant medium because of its convenience and cost (it’s free!).
“Pass-it-on” tools like online forwarding options and even financial rewards for spreading the message are not new ideas, but they are taking more creative forms by understanding how their target market communicates and makes purchasing decisions.
Turq Jewelry is a prime example of an etailer who has applied viral marketing to its understanding of consumers’ online behavior. The luxury accessories designer built a mechanism for promoting its Website and sales: Browsers can select their favorite pieces and have those items forwarded to the email account of their significant other/loved one as a hint for a birthday or holiday gift.
“We noticed that men couldn’t commit to purchasing decisions on their own, and instead preferred to hear from their ladies exactly what they preferred,” says founder Katherine Mulford.
By personalizing the message, the email became a stronger sales tool than if the company had used a mass-marketing technique.
“Turq Jewelry has developed such an intimate relationship with consumers that direct product-driven email campaigns have led to a 53% open rate and a 29% click-through rate,” says Simms Jenkins, principal of BrightWave Marketing, which manages Turq Jewelry’s email campaigns. “Email will be the primary acquisition and retention channel as sales continue to grow.”
To be continued next week…
Rebecca Weeks currently directs business development and account management for The Brand Architect Group, a strategic marketing consultancy for consumer businesses. She is known for her exceptional research and trend-spotting skills for both the corporate and agency side.